The following is an excerpt adapted from Get Your Priorities Straight! The Product Manager’s Guide to Smart Product Roadmap Prioritization, our free eBook geared towards product managers facing some tough decisions as they map out the next leg of their product’s journey on their product roadmap.
Get the full version for detailed advice on how to prioritize your product roadmap!
Creating and maintaining a product roadmap is undoubtedly the product management task most fraught with difficulty and unpleasantness. Since most product managers do not possess psychic abilities, figuring out what to build first (and second, and third) is a truly challenging part of the job as there’s no “secret recipe,” no scientific formula, no “one size fits all” approach to building a winning product roadmap.
With every feature you slot into the front of the queue you are pushing many other items out…what should you do?
Do you focus on really big, high-impact features or do you prioritize getting a whole bunch of little ones out the door? Do you focus on features aimed at attracting new customers or satisfying the ones you already have? Do you invest in the platform or rack up more technical debt that must eventually be addressed? The list of questions goes on and on, but rest assured that you are not the first person facing these seemingly unanswerable questions, nor will you be the last.
3 Questions to Ask Before you Roadmap
The questions above aren’t actually the right ones to be focusing on unless you can successfully (read: thoroughly) answer the following questions which are a prerequisite for any roadmapping or prioritization activity:
- Where are you going?
- How are you getting there?
- Why are you going there? (And with who?)
Your product roadmap should define your product’s journey over time and highlight important milestones throughout that journey. A good product roadmap tells a story about where your product came from and where it’s headed in a way that helps your team, stakeholders, and in some cases, your customers, understand what you’re up to.
As is a prerequisite for most adventures, you’ll need to have a destination in mind, a means of traveling to that destination, and a compelling reason to embark on your journey before you can hit the road.
Don’t bother roadmapping or attempting to prioritize initiatives on your roadmap until you’ve successfully (and thoroughly) answered the three questions above, as they will provide extremely valuable guidance, which you will absolutely need throughout the course of your career. So before you begin building or prioritizing a product roadmap, take some time to answer them- soon you’ll begin to understand what the major influencers behind your product roadmap should be/are—what are the influencing factors behind every roadmap decision? And prioritization will get easier for you.
Product Vision: Where are you going?
In order to maintain focus and organizational alignment, you must establish, share, and live by a compelling product vision.
If you don’t have a destination in mind, you’re sure going to have a hard time building a map that will take you there. There’s not much point in trying to prioritize items on your roadmap if you don’t have a clear product vision. Your vision is the guiding force behind every decision you make in your product’s lifecycle; and your product roadmap is the navigation tool you’ll use to find your way; it dictates the direction your team will be going to reach that vision.
As Janna Bastow of ProdPad says, “If you don’t have your product vision, don’t bother with roadmapping. Stop right there, go back to the beginning and make sure that you understand what you guys are building towards, why you’re in this. If you don’t have your product vision, you’re either as far as you’re going to get already or you’re going to end up somewhere else completely unexpected, and you don’t want that.”
Product Metrics: How are you getting there?
You absolutely must identify your key metrics early on and then respect those metrics when making product decisions, otherwise emotional decision making can overtake rational decision making.
Once your company is moving full speed ahead toward your grand plan, you’ll discover that certain actions have a greater impact on your progress than others; some initiatives will drive your product toward where you want it to be at a faster pace than others, while some initiatives will appear to have no observable effect. Having a grasp on what these levers or metrics are should be a prerequisite to any prioritization activity.
The key metrics you monitor will vary throughout your product’s lifecycle as business needs change and priorities evolve.
For example, if your product or company is in a growth stage, metrics that measure things like Acquisition, Retention, and Referrals may be at the top of your list; and as your product matures, your priorities will likely shift to also include moving the dial on Sales and Revenue metrics and monitoring Churn (and diagnosing its cause).
You’ll want to monitor metrics every step of the way as they’ll help you identify and solve problems and make more informed roadmap decisions. Meanwhile, a keen awareness of the metrics your organization is most focused on at any given time can help you prioritize initiatives that will help move your KPIs in the right direction
“…Every business is different and if you don’t define and agree your priorities up front you risk optimising for the wrong thing, or nothing at all. Pick the 3-5 levers that you can affect and that will have an impact on your business, and then pick measures of these levers that are trackable, actionable and distinct.” says Martin Erikson, Chief Product Officer at Covester
Customers: Why are you going?
Captain Obvious here with a special report: Customers Are Your #1 Priority.
Customer retention is the holy grail of business, and don’t you ever forget it! Without customers, you don’t have a product or business, so if you want to keep them (happy), it’s in your best interest to serve their needs.
Your customers should be the “why” behind your product vision and at the end of the day there shouldn’t be anything that goes on your roadmap that doesn’t help soothe customer pain and solve their problems. Maintaining customer focus within your roadmap also means not wasting your team’s valuable time and resources on features that will have no impact. Investing time into meticulously prioritizing your customer’s needs and coming up with real solutions to real problems is the best possible way to keep your product in tip top shape.
Getting to know your customers and their problems before you start trying to solve them is a wise move. So if it’s been a little while since you last connected with your customers, or since you last looked at their feedback, now might be a good time to reconnect.
Once you’ve answered these three critical questions, you’ll be much better prepared to properly prioritize your product roadmap. Get a free copy of our Product Roadmap Prioritization guide and read up on a few of the most effective feature prioritization strategies and how to apply them to your own product roadmapping process!
Heather J. McCloskey, Content and Inbound Marketing Manager at UserVoice, writes about Product Management and Customer Support on the UserVoice blog. UserVoice builds customer engagement tools for product managers and customer support teams.
A version of this article previously appeared on UserVoice’s Product Management blog.