Are Product Roadmaps a Waste of Time?

Have you ever found yourself having worked very long and very hard on a product roadmap presentation for your senior management only to find that it didn’t have the impact you’d hoped?

How could this be? We had every resource, milestone, deadline and feature detailed to the letter. Yet, that meeting didn’t go the way we wanted, and we sure as hell don’t feel any more confident in the direction our product is going.

A product roadmap was supposed to fix our strategic problems and get all the stakeholders aligned. After the meeting, we go and make new updates to the roadmap and get ready for the next meeting. Several months go by and we realize, we’ve spent nearly all our time updating the roadmap or plan, but haven’t actually made any progress. Worse yet, someone eventually asks “did we talk with customers about this?” and that’s when it hits you… we may have a flawless plan to go and solve the wrong problems.

Product roadmaps give you “what” but not the “why”

I’d bet good money that if you have spent any significant time building product roadmaps, you eventually came to a point where you realized “this isn’t working”. You’re trying your best to get people on board with the design and product recommendations you’re making, but the roadmap just isn’t doing the trick. You make edit after edit and still, the senior management and design/development teams feel no more confident that we’re doing the right things. That’s because a product roadmap is a plan not a strategy.


The difference between a product roadmap and product strategy

I’m not here to tell you we don’t need plans. We do. Here’s the rub, a great plan to execute a solution to the wrong problem is nothing but a first class ticket to nowhere, or worse out of a job or business.

Product roadmaps focus heavily on features, deadlines, milestones, timelines and sometimes even resources. They can detail the entire plan to execute over several months (or years if you’re a masochist). Here’s the one thing they DON’T do… make sure we’re focused on solving the right problems for our customers and our business.

A product strategy on the other hand, focuses entirely on what we should be doing, but more importantly WHY. That “why” is the answer to “why is it good for our business” and “why is it valuable/useful/desirable to our customers”.


Build a product STRATEGY not a roadmap

Alright, so if the roadmap alone isn't’ going to solve our problem, what will? A product strategy. Now, there’s a whole gaggle of definitions for what a product strategy is, but here’s mine:

“An informed, intentional approach for a product or service driven by both customer needs/behavior and the goals that will maximize your success as an organization.”

More simply, a great product strategy is:

“A collection of smart, informed decisions”

Here are the 4 elements of every product strategy I’ve ever put together:

  1. Goals (for the product, user experience and business)
  2. User Research Insights
  3. Decisions that support 1 & 2
  4. Measurement plan for those decisions

That’s it.

Now a bulleted list is pretty simple to say, but it’s deceptively more complex than that (which I’m sure you already knew). The following is a bit more detail for each of those steps that makes a great product strategy.

Goals

Creating well defined goals for your product and user experience begins with understanding what success looks like for the business. By outlining why the product or service in question helps the business overall, you can get a better sense for what you need to learn from customers to meet those goals. Solid strategic goals help us define what a good design or product decision is later.

User Research Insights

Conducting customer research will vary depending on your product, target audience and needs at that given time. Suffice it to say, though, user research is absolutely critical in creating a successful product and design strategy. No matter your research method, it is vital that you take everything you learned from that research, analyze your raw data into summarized findings, or insights and apply them to the decisions and recommendations you make. This process can be tricky, but the payoff is enormous.


Design & Product Decisions

Making design decisions or product recommendations supported by your research insights is your next step in creating an awesome product strategy. The key here, is to very clearly illustrate how your designs, feature recommendations or decisions are also helping you meet one or more of the goals you outlined earlier. This is why creating crystal clear, detailed goals for your product and user experience is so important. Sharing your product strategy and decisions you've made is so much easier when you draw the connection between them, research insights and supported strategic goals.


Measuring Design & Product Strategy

Measuring the success of product and design work can be an elusive task. Start by assigning specific metrics to each decision or recommendation you make as part of your strategy. That is to say, that there's no single metric that will likely measure your success. Examine each goal you outlined for your product and user experience, choose metrics that represent those goals well, then assign those metrics to each decision you made to help meet those goals. Again, this can be a case by case basis so spend the time in creating very detailed goals at the start of your product strategy.


Start Building a Product Strategy

The main idea behind this blog is to say two things:

  • A product roadmap ≠ product strategy
  • Focus on the WHY, not only the “what” and “how” of your product (you’ll be more successful)


If you focus on creating a clear connection between your goals, customer research insights, smart decisions that support both and how to measure them, you’ll be in great shape towards building a remarkable product strategy.

Again, those 4 steps to a great product strategy are:

  1. Create well defined goals for your product, user experience and business
  2. Collect user and customer research insights about how to meet those goals
  3. Make design decisions and product recommendations that support both 1 & 2
  4. Set a plan to measure the success of those decisions



That’s it! If you’re looking to learn more about how to do steps 1 through 4, we made a free product strategy mini-course that covers each of those topics in greater detail.

Sign up for free here.

Happy strategizing!

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