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Design process

How to Build a Product Roadmap That Delivers Results for Your SaaS Product

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22 Dec

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2020

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SaaS product development comes with its challenges and encompasses many factors that can lead either to success or failure. To stay focused on goals and tasks, companies create a product roadmap, a convenient tool that helps understand when and what to do and keep the team on the same page. 

Still, 66% of European businesses admit not having a defined roadmap in place. What’s more, some companies can incline to use other approaches like high-integrity commitment or just prototyping. So you might be asking: “Do I really need a product roadmap? Maybe I can just use a product backlog or a to-do list instead”. As a design agency, we've been working on different projects, and we know that the product roadmap is an important document for effective cooperation used in the majority of projects. But from our experience, there are still some cases when product roadmaps led to poor business results despite good intentions.

So, to help you out, in this article, we will talk about the reasons behind product roadmaps failing and alternative ways to create them. We will also share some steps to build a successful product roadmap, including a list of tools, so keep reading. 

Why do roadmaps fail?

Without well-defined roadmaps, it is hard for businesses to keep up with the changing landscape of product development. Yet, standard roadmaps often become the primary reasons for most waste and failed efforts in product companies. Why does it happen?

Marty Cagan in his book Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love names major causes of why roadmaps don’t work, namely failed product ideas, time to money, and weak teams. Let’s break them down.

When talking about why a product idea doesn’t work, it is usually because it lacks one or some of the following points:

  • Value: customers aren’t impressed with the idea behind the product and don’t use or buy it. 
  • Usability: the product is too complicated so customers don’t want to try or use it.
  • Feasibility: customers are interested in the product, but it requires much more time and cost to deliver than expected.
  • Business viability: there are a number of constraints that restrict products like legal regulations, financial or business concerns. 

The product development process involves several iterations to get the result that delivers the expected business value (time to money). The problem here lies in how the product teams deal with changes:

  • Weak teams just stick to the plan. When something goes wrong, they blame others, schedule another roadmap iteration, or request redesign and different features.
  • Strong teams understand risks and try to tackle them. This is why they conduct product discovery. They also prototype and test ideas with potential users and business stakeholders. 

Now, as we discussed why traditional roadmaps might not work, let’s focus on the alternative ways of building a product roadmap.

Alternative approaches to building product roadmaps

When developing a product, teams need to understand whether they are moving in the right direction and know the ways how they can contribute to the business purpose. And that’s what typical roadmaps lack. 

As of now, companies are shifting their focus from product ideas to prioritizing business results. Thus, managers should provide teams with the product vision and strategy so that everyone knows what they try to accomplish and see the plan to achieve it. 

The product vision should be aligned with the business objectives so that each product team knows what they need to do and how the outcomes will be measured.

Here are several alternative practices to building product roadmaps that can enhance outcomes:

  • High-integrity commitment refers to the practice when you analyze the problem, prototype, do feasibility testing, and estimate the time needed to create the product. Then, you share this information with internal stakeholders and include a timeline about when an iteration, solution, or feature will be done.
  • Outcome-focused approach is when you concentrate on solving underlying business problems instead of focusing solely on delivering features or projects. The approach implies answering these questions: “Why are we doing this?”, “What are we trying to achieve?”, and “How can our activities lead to that outcome?”
socialventures.com.au
  • Data-driven decision-making includes collecting and processing relevant data from various sources and then using them to prioritize items, validate assumptions, and make informed decisions. The data usually includes user behavior, market trends, and performance metrics.
  • Work breakdown structure is primarily used for complex products. The approach involves breaking down project deliverables into smaller components and creating a visual multi-step plan or diagram.
Work breakdown structure
online.visual-paradigm.com

Here at Eleken, we consider these approaches irreplaceable when developing a design roadmap. Based on our experience, traditional roadmaps rarely bring great results and require continuous evaluation, adjustment, and communication to get optimal results. So consider following one of the approaches mentioned above to achieve better outcomes.

Now, let’s look at some effective SaaS product roadmap best practices. 

Some useful roadmap examples

A product roadmap is not the kind of tool that we can strictly classify into certain types. It may differ depending on the industry, project, goals, and people that will view it. But here we want to highlight the six most popular kinds of roadmaps to show you the possibilities of each of them.  

Now-next-later

The now-next-later roadmap is known for its simplicity. It allows you to put priorities on tasks. The goal of this type of map is to convey the importance of some tasks/features/sprints in relation to others.

The now-next-later roadmap helps every team member understand how they are progressing at the moment. One more important advantage is that it is not only easy to comprehend this roadmap but also easy to build. Any tool that allows you to create three columns is suitable for the now-next-later roadmap.

Let’s have a closer look at the roadmap structure. The “Now” section shows what the team is going to do in the nearest sprints (2-4 weeks). It includes goals/issues the team should focus on first of all. You usually don’t change anything in this section. “Next” identifies the team’s medium-term features, something the team will focus on in a few weeks. Features from this section can be changed. “Later” shows long-term plans, usually something the team is going to work on in a few months. Goals in this section tend to change with time; that’s why you can plan those roughly.

Now, onto the use cases. Take a look at the first roadmap example. As you can tell, it’s very to perceive, while all the tasks are clearly prioritized.

Now-next-later roadmap

But you can add some details to the now-next-later template. For example, take a look at the template below. Except for the main tasks, it outlines goals with short descriptions and rough timelines.

Now-next-later template

Feature-based

A feature-based roadmap shows key features of a product and allows to monitor the progress of their development and releases. This way users see the value of the product and the team sees in which direction the product is evolving. Lastly, a feature-based roadmap allows you to prioritize feature releases and distribute company resources.

The disadvantage of this type of map, however, is that due to the technological advance and customers’ preferences you have to change it often, that’s why it is a bit difficult to maintain.

For instance, let’s look at Aha’s feature-based roadmap. As you can see from the template, all features are sorted according to quarters which makes it easy to understand how different product elements are going to evolve over time.

Feature-based roadmap

Another example to take inspiration from is Roadmunk. In their roadmap, they use different colors for different blocks of information to help users monitor the progress and deadlines at a glance.

Feature-based roadmap

Goal-based

A goal-based roadmap makes your strategy clear and easy to understand. Goals explain the “why” behind each feature and help to logically structure all the information.

This kind of map is good to show to executives, as they are usually not interested in some specific product features, but rather want to know what issue the team is solving. A goal-oriented map will show if the product manages to keep its promises.

For example, a goal can be to “improve retention rate” or “make an attractive UI” and it is the team’s task to decide how to reach these goals. Here’s how it may look like.

Goal-based roadmap

This image shows how you can build a comprehensive goal-based roadmap with columns and specific timelines.

Strategy

The strategy roadmap serves as a link between the organization’s strategy and its implementation. It presents the main results that should be achieved in a certain period of time and will eventually lead the company to desired strategic vision.

The strategy map does not focus on the product’s features, it communicates what the company needs to do, why they need it, and in what order to fulfill the product’s goals. This kind of product roadmap is good to present both to internal stakeholders and investors, as it clearly explains the “what” and “why” of the product strategy.

As an example, let’s look at Aha once again. As you can see from the image below, their strategy roadmap shows “what” (results that should be delivered) in the column on the left of a map and “why (the company’s strategic goals) next to each timeline.

Strategy roadmap

Technology

You may somewhat guess from the name itself that technology roadmaps are suitable for internal teams, especially for developers. When creating a product you use a technology roadmap to show what technical aids and tech requirements you need to use to achieve business goals.

As an example, the tecnology roadmap below provides clear tech details of the product development to the viewer and defines clear objectives for each sector (security, technology, and so on).

Technology roadmap

Now, take a look at another example below. This technology map allows viewers to understand which technology they need to use and what product features they need to add.

Technology roadmap

Release

A release roadmap shows the list of tasks (new functions, bug fixes, and such) to be accomplished before you launch a release on the market. It usually includes what is needed to be done and who is responsible for it and by what time the task has to be completed. Such a roadmap provides alignment of all departments around the release.

For example, take a look at the image below. As you can see, in the horizontal position it clearly shows which team is responsible for every specific task, and when we view it vertically we immediately understand what has to be launched in every release.

Release roadmap

But you can also add some goals and features that will be provided in particular releases, like in the example below.

Release roadmap

How to create a product roadmap

Creating a roadmap for a new product is always challenging. There are many aspects that you shouldn’t miss on your map that can make you feel uncertain about where to start. Use these four steps to build a product roadmap that promotes an effective product development process.

Define why your product exists

The first thing you should start with when creating a product roadmap is finding answers to the following questions:

  • Why do you want to develop this product?
  • Why do you want to develop it at this very time?
  • Why do you want to develop it with these exact features?
  • Why do you want to develop the product for this target audience?

Try to answer the above questions together with your team. It will help you to create the right strategy that will be useful during the whole development process. It is preferable to accompany each answer with relevant data to justify all the resources you’ll spend on the product.

Going through this first step may seem too theoretical and may cause a great temptation to skip it. But believe us, it’s better to write the strategy down on paper and not just keep it in mind.

Besides, the ability to clearly state the reason for the product’s existence will make you more confident during the first stakeholders' meeting. A clear understanding of “why” in your product’s strategy alongside the roadmap that coincides with the company’s long-term goals give higher chances that stakeholders will support your further steps.Identify who’s going to use your roadmap

After finding the reason for your product’s existence it’s time to think about who you are creating this roadmap for. The product manager creates a roadmap for different people that will somehow interact with this product. That’s why in case you build a single roadmap keep in mind that executives, sales team, marketers, developers, and even customers will see the same document.

All these people have different goals and want to see different information on the roadmap. It’s very important to make the map suitable for different audiences:

  • Executives are interested in core business goals. They want to see key elements from your product strategy, without too many details. The data that concerns the size of the market will interest them too.  

Executives often care about long-term vision and growth, key performance indicators, and the progress of internal teams. Below is a product roadmap example tailored for executives.

Product roadmap
  • ‍The sales team wants to know when the product will be released (don’t set specific dates, just present a general timeline) and what benefits it will give the customer.

Here how the roadmap for the sales team may look like:

Product roadmap
  • The marketing team is interested to know the product’s features that can compete with other propositions on the market.

Here is an example of a roadmap idea for marketers:

Marketing product roadmap
  • Developers need to know their tasks with specific requirements and deadlines. That’s why their roadmap may look like this:‍
Product roadmap

The key message of this section is not to forget to make the roadmap suitable for different audiences. You can create several maps for each team, or use online tools for roadmap building.

Determine the main themes and start creating the roadmap

As you know why you are developing the product and which audiences will use the roadmap, it’s time to actually start creating it.

  • First of all, you need to determine the main themes and organize them in order of importance. Themes are the highest-level strategic objectives for the product. They outline issues that the company will work on. For example, the theme can be “faster photo upload” or “improving the onboarding process”, and so on.
  • Then set timelines for each of these themes and group them into swimlanes according to set priorities or departments that will work on these tasks (check the example below).
Product roadmap

Swimlanes allow participants in the product development process to quickly understand their tasks and how those tasks influence the complete picture of the project.

  • Finally, place epics under each theme. Epic is a big chunk of work that is used to organize tasks during the development process. Epics in their turn are divided into smaller assignments that are called user stories. In case you need to be more specific put user stories under the epic.

Look at the following extract from a product map to get a better idea.

Product roadmap

Components of a product map swimlanes, themes, epics, and user stories

The phrase “Web application” at this roadmap is a swim line, “first-time user experience improvements” is the theme, then “redesign sign up process” and “smart user onboarding flow” are epics, and “support portal search” and “activity emails 2.0” are user stories.

As you create each theme use the same strategy as in step one: define why you need to add this theme on the roadmap and sort it according to its priority.

Be ready for changes

The product roadmap is not set in stone and it may change over time because of various aspects. For example, the company may change the way they distribute resources among departments, your competitor may launch an update that will cause a shift in the new feature release date, and so forth.

That’s why when you build a roadmap you should always leave some space for adding new features, making improvements, or correcting the direction in which the product is moving. Once in a quarter, you should reconsider the themes you’ve determined to ensure that they still meet the company’s goals. As the priorities of the company may change and your roadmap should be flexible to those changes.

Now, let's learn what product roadmap toolkit will help you implement all the above information into an effective roadmap. 

Roadmap tools comparison matrix

The comparison matrix below provides the best online software that will help you create a roadmap.

Roadmap tools Description Advantages Disadvantages
Spreadsheet applications The easiest and completely free option is to create a roadmap in Excel, Google Sheets, or another spreadsheet application. - Free of charge
- Easy to navigate
- Ability to view changes (in the cloud service)
- Difficult to make quick changes
- No templates
Roadmunk Convenient application, which contains a lot of templates for different purposes: portfolio development, IT product, general strategy, etc. There are several options for displaying the road map. In addition, there is a 14-day trial. - A wide choice of templates
- Two options for displaying the roadmap
- Chat for current tasks
- Separate block with ideas
- Price
ProductPlan An application is similar in functionality to the previous one. It includes templates and has advanced integration with such services as Jira, GitHub, Slack, PivotalTracker, Trello, Azure DevOps, Confluence, and Microsoft Teams. - Easy to navigate
- Several options for displaying the roadmap
- Chat for current tasks
- Separate block with ideas
- Synchronization with popular project trackers
- Price
- No predefined templates
Jira roadmap Jira roadmaps are available in different versions for different Jira Software Cloud subscriptions. The obvious benefit for Jira users is easy integration. - Included with Jira Software Cloud
- Wide possibilities for customizing roadmaps
- Schematic map display
- Complex interface
Aha! A free version for startups. In general, the application interface is overloaded with details. - Wide possibilities for customizing roadmaps - Schematic map display
- Complex interface
- Price
Hygger An interesting alternative to standard roadmaps created especially for developers. The app consists of a project tracker and a roadmap. Available effective free version. - Price
- Integration with a project tracker
- Integration with third-party services
- Insufficient visual display of the map
- Complex interface


Each of these tools will help you optimize your roadmap creation process.

Conclusion

A well-developed product roadmap is a strong strategic tool. Regardless of the complexity and duration of the project, a roadmap will help you establish effective work between different departments that contributes to successful product development and adherence to the long-term company’s goals.

Besides, cooperation with a UX/UI design agency can be important for building a SaaS product roadmap in the early stages of development. For example, Eleken designers can provide business-driven UI/UX design services and create solutions aligned with your goals and user needs. 

Struggling to identify user needs and their pain points? Want to build a SaaS product roadmap? Drop us a line.

Kateryna Mayka

Writer at Eleken