Product and Feature Roadmap

What is it?

When you develop a product, you may be tempted to include a lot of features and functions to boost the product's perceived value. But if you try to include too many capabilities at once, you'll run into several problems:

  • You'll delay the launch of your product. Each time you add something, you'll need to design it, test it, and understand how it changes the holistic feeling of your product or service—all of which takes time.
  • You'll increase the complexity of your product idea. In your users' minds, each new capability competes with existing capabilities, making it difficult to understand how things work or predict how your creation provides value.
  • You'll become overwhelmed by the amount of work and may end up abandoning the idea in its entirety.

A product and feature roadmap helps to prevent such problems. It describes the elements that make up a given product and illustrates how the product will grow over time. That means it also manages the complexity of new features and capabilities and can help you strategically change your product over time without delaying important pilot tests, releases, or launches. The roadmap is a timeline of your product, describing how it changes with the addition or subtraction of various capabilities.

How do I do it?

First, list your product's capabilities: the set of features that support your users in achieving their goals and produce your desired value and social impact. Give them names that clearly identify the unique elements. For example, you may be designing a SMS-based tool to help homeless people find a bed for the night. Capabilities may include:

  • SMS Bed Finder: the ability to text a zipcode and receive locations of open beds in it.
  • SMS Bed Reserver: the ability to text a unique ID and reserve a given bed for the night.
  • SMS Bed Cancellation: the ability to cancel a reservation.
  • SMS Check-in: the ability to check in to a location to finish "claiming" a bed for the night.
  • Web Bed Setup: the ability for care providers to add themselves to the database of available beds.
  • Web Bed Update: the ability for care providers to update the status of available beds.
  • Web Profile Creation: the abilities to create a profile and assign a unique ID for qualified users.

Now identify the capabilities that are absolutely required to provide social value. One way of arriving at this list—a subset of the larger list—is to begin to take things away and see whether the value remains. For example, if you remove the SMS Bed Finder, does the system still achieve the social goals you've set out? Probably not, so that becomes an instrumental capability. Can you take away the Web Profile Creation? Sure—people who want to sign up could work directly with a case manager who could email their information directly to you, and you could set up manual profiles.

The remaining capabilities define the Primary Product Offering. Write these capabilities on a timeline of months, moving from today through 12 months in the future.

Consider which of the removed capabilities would take the least time and effort to add or would add the most value. Add these capabilities to the timeline in a second group, as a Follow-On Product Offering.

Continue adding data points for subsequent feature additions until you've shown how your entire product vision comes to life.

Add dates to the timeline. How fast can you build the product, service, and infrastructure required for your Primary Product Offering? How long will you need to test this in the marketplace before launching the Follow-On Product Offering?

As you ask, and answer, these questions, you'll begin to arrive at a product roadmap—a timeline that describes what you will build, when you will build it, and how long you expect it to take.


An example of a product roadmap

When should I use it?

Create the product and feature roadmap when you have a cohesive idea of what you are making. So it will come after you've created a series of storyboards, described your impact through a Theory of Change model, and modeled your company's finances. Then continue to revise the roadmap as your product grows and changes. You can use the roadmap as a basic program-management tool, to understand how your sales targets and finances relate to your product capabilities. You can also use it to show team members and stakeholders how your product will change over time.

What is the output, and how can I use it?

A product roadmap is a visual timeline. You can use it to drive conversations with your team and with other stakeholders, and to help make decisions and tradeoffs about features.

Where can I learn more?

The Wikipedia article on Technology roadmaps provides a useful set of examples and tips for product roadmapping; at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technology_roadmap.

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