What Is a Product Roadmap? (+ How to Craft One)

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For early-stage startups, having a well-defined product roadmap can mean the difference between success and failure. It sets the vision, strategy, and features needed to delight users and beat competitors. But crafting a useful roadmap takes thought and alignment across teams, from product managers to developers to sales teams.

In this article, we’ll answer the basic question: What is a product roadmap? Then, we’ll cover why product roadmaps are critical for startups and provide a step-by-step guide to help even the scrappiest startup create a product roadmap that promotes growth and innovation. 

Recommended: Check out our review of the best product roadmap software for startups.

What Is a Product Roadmap?

A product roadmap is similar to a map that guides the creation of a product over time. It shows the product vision, important features, product strategy, and release plans that the product management team wants to add to the product to make it better. 

The roadmap usually looks ahead one to two years and is broken down into smaller chunks of time, like quarters or releases. It helps everyone understand where the product is heading in the future. The roadmap can change based on new information, but it provides direction so the product team knows what to build next and why.

In essence, a product roadmap lays out a high-level plan and product vision to show what major improvements and new capabilities will be developed on a product over the next year or so. It acts as a guide for the product team’s priorities and activities.

Internal Roadmap vs. External Roadmap

Before you dive into the types of product roadmaps and how to create one for your startup, you need to determine whether your product roadmap is internal or external. 

Internal product roadmaps are tactical plans for building the product to be used by internal stakeholders and teams such as developers, product managers, or a sales team. They guide the development teams and provide specifics by providing information on budget, timelines, and potential roadblocks, as well as detailed technical information. 

External product roadmaps are strategic plans for aligning stakeholders to the vision, often including less detailed or sensitive information than internal roadmaps. They excite customers about where the product is headed by conveying the value proposition and vision. 

What Is Included in a Product Roadmap?

The included information, or the focus on the information included on your product roadmap, varies based on a number of factors. However, a product roadmap typically includes the following elements:

  • Timeframe: The roadmap covers a specific time period, such as 12–18 months out. Longer time horizons are usually high-level.
  • Themes: The high-level initiatives, epics, or goals for the product over the timeframe. These are often tied to strategic objectives.
  • Releases or Versions: Major releases, iterations, or versions of the product that are planned for delivery. May include target release dates.
  • Features: The significant new features, experiences, and components to be added to the product. These are high-level rather than highly detailed.
  • Prioritization: The prioritization of the various themes, releases, and features to indicate relative importance and dependencies.
  • Milestones: Key dates, targets, or events that will be reached as progress is made through the roadmap.
  • Gaps: Significant gaps or opportunities identified in the product experience or capabilities.
  • Team: An indication of the internal stakeholders, such as the development team or product management team, as well as the skills or resources needed to execute the product strategy.
  • Metrics: The key results, metrics, or outcomes that indicate progress for the roadmap initiatives.
  • Assumptions and Risks: The assumptions, risks, and dependencies that underpin the roadmap strategy and timeline.

The specifics included in your product roadmap will vary based on the product, team, and key stakeholders involved. The roadmap can take many visual forms, from simple lists to more detailed graphics. Regardless, the goal is to provide a guiding vision for the product’s evolution over time.

What Are The Different Types of Product Roadmaps?

The type of roadmap depends on the audience and purpose. Many product teams use a combination of roadmap types or have different versions tailored to specific stakeholders like executives, customers, or developers. Agile teams may rely more on higher-level product roadmaps and refine the details quarterly or monthly. 

There are several common types of product roadmaps that companies use:

Theme-Based Roadmap 

This type of roadmap centers around major themes or initiatives rather than specific features. This can be especially useful for communicating vision and high-level strategy.

Release Roadmap 

A release roadmap is focused on specific releases and projects. This roadmap outlines major features and target release dates for versions of the product.

Goal-Based Roadmap 

Structured around goals and objectives rather than features, goal-based roadmaps help align the plan for the product to overarching business goals.

Timeline Roadmap 

This is a simple timeline view of releases and milestones. Typically light on details but provides a high-level overview.

Feature Roadmap

A feature roadmap offers a detailed view of specific features and target release dates. This type of roadmap is especially helpful for development teams.

Value or Customer-Based Roadmap 

This roadmap type is centered around the value propositions and benefits delivered to customers. Rather than focusing heavily on features, value roadmaps are outcome-focused. 

Opportunity Roadmap 

Built around major initiatives and opportunities identified for the product/business. Useful for strategic planning.

What Are Agile Product Roadmaps?

An agile product roadmap is a high-level visual summary that outlines the vision and direction for a product using agile principles. The roadmap focuses on larger initiatives and goals rather than specific features. The details are flexible and filled in as the work is undertaken.

An agile product roadmap covers a specific timeframe, usually a quarter or less. Initiatives and themes are ordered based on importance to strategic objectives and customer value.

The agile roadmap serves as a guidepost for the product team rather than a rigid plan set in stone. It aligns priorities and creates a shared understanding of the direction while still allowing for rapid adaptation.

Why Do I Need a Product Roadmap?

A product roadmap is an essential tool to align with internal and external stakeholders. Product roadmaps can effectively communicate the product strategy and ensure all relevant parties are on board. 

This is especially essential before the product strategy is executed to keep all parties informed and on task rather than getting bogged down with other less important projects. 

The product roadmap also offers a valuable guide to where the company is headed for employees and stakeholders, keeping them aligned with your startup’s mission and vision. 

How to Create a Product Roadmap

Finally, it is time to create your startup product roadmap. If you want assistance creating a product roadmap, you can always use a product roadmap tool such as Monday, ClickUp, or Excel to make creating your roadmap easier. Otherwise, follow these steps to make a product roadmap for your startup. 

1. Determine the Type of Product Roadmap You Want

To create a product roadmap, you first need to determine the type of product roadmap you are creating and whether it is internal or external. 

The type of product roadmap you should choose depends largely on knowing your audience. Developers, customers, and external stakeholders will all want to know different aspects of your product. If you are planning to present a product roadmap, you should have a good idea of what your audience will be looking for in your product. 

2. Compile the Relevant Information

Once you’ve decided, you can move forward with creating a product roadmap for your startup by compiling relevant information. For example, if you opt for a features-based roadmap, you will need to include any information related to features, including the timelines of their release. 

3. Add Metrics to Help Convey Your Message

Product roadmaps should include valuable metrics such as key performance indicators (KPIs) to showcase where your product is at and where it is going. 

While this can be helpful for staff to keep them informed about the state of the startup and product, it is especially helpful when communicating with investors or external stakeholders. 

4. Tell a Compelling Story

Product roadmaps need to tell a compelling story. Not only does this help keep your staff motivated by continuously reminding them of the purpose and mission of your company, it also conveys to any external stakeholders the “why” behind your product or startup. 

Best Practices for Product Roadmaps

The best product roadmaps follow a few basic practices: involve stakeholders, set clear goals, determine your priorities early on, and dive your roadmap into milestones to manage expectations and better track progress. 

All of these practices work together to ensure your roadmap is painting a clear path forward for you as a founder and your team. While your product roadmap should be somewhat flexible as changes arise, for the most part, it should be a reliable guide to the timeline and execution of your product.