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Product planning: the definitive guide for product managers
Excellent products don’t appear out of thin air.
Even the simplest, most intuitive products were meticulously planned by a product manager and product team who developed an intimate understanding of their customers and the market.
This guide walks you through what product planning is, why it’s important, common mistakes product teams make, and how to avoid them. We also look at how Hotjar’s tools help bring your product plan to life.
What is product planning?
Product planning, or product management planning, is the iterative process of establishing, refining, working toward, and measuring the key outcomes your product creates for your customers and business.
Conducting research to identify the outcomes that best define success for your customers and business
Discovering the elements and features your product must contain to achieve these outcomes
Identifying processes and measurements to take the product from ideation to execution
Remember: the goal of planning isn’t to produce a perfect plan, but to engage in continual learning that guides your team to create a product your customers will love.
What product planning isn’t
To truly understand what product planning is, you also need to understand what it is not.
Product planning isn’t:
A meticulous roadmap outlining features, requirements, and deadlines
An excuse to constantly shift outcome goals
A yearly or quarterly event to give your team a false sense of certainty
Product planning is often confused with project planning, but where project planning is all about outputs and deadlines, product planning is about outcomes and iteration.
But while these terms and concepts are overlapping and connected, their purposes are distinct:
Note: product research is a key activity that spans planning, strategy, and discovery. This is because understanding the customer’s needs is at the heart of the essential work of a product team. Hotjar is a pivotal tool for product teams to turn learnings about customers into real product experience insights that can inform the product planning process.
Why is product planning essential for your product team?
Product planning is a mindset and a commitment to a way of working rather than something product teams occasionally do. Adopting this mindset aligns teams around key outcomes that define success for both the customer and the business.
Benefits of product planning
Clearly defined and measurable outcomes
When you're in the thick of product discovery and design, it can be easy to lose sight of the outcomes in pursuit of shiny new initiatives—but continual product planning helps you stay on target.
A unified, outcomes-oriented product team
Every healthy team will have disagreements about decisions in the product development process. A commitment to continuously planning product improvements helps teams focus on key outcomes, creating alignment on team decisions.
Stakeholders who understand every decision
Product planning gives your team a powerful answer to why you’ve made certain decisions around product and feature development. By showing stakeholders exactly how users interact with your product, tools like Hotjar’s Heatmaps give everyone involved a visual representation—and solid proof—of the improvements that need to be prioritized next.
Managing technical debt
Teams that continually engage in product planning will also continually measure progress against the most important outcomes instead of focusing solely on building new features. Ongoing measurement of feature adoption and performance measurement creates space for managing technical debt and brilliantly prioritizing your product backlog.
Prioritizing research and analysis
A continual process of product management planning keeps your team focused on measurable outcomes that prioritize research and analysis. Tools like Hotjar’s Session Recordings give a clear picture of how your users feel and what they need, helping you build your case with user data.
Uncovering and fixing issues fast
Product bugs and blockers are easy to miss when your team isn't focused on product planning. In the planning stage, ongoing user behavior and product experience (PX) insights—from complementary tools like Hotjar and Mixpanel—help you understand the user experience and fix issues fast.
Avoiding recency bias
This is one of the most distracting forms of bias—when diverting attention to solve a recently discovered (but less important) problem leaves the most important outcomes undone. Regular product planning keeps teams focused on the outcomes that matter most.
5 core elements of successful product planning
While product planning isn’t necessarily a linear process, certain elements will drive your team to success:
1. Knowing your customer
Every element in the product development process ultimately centers around your customer. Understanding the customer—their motivations, behavior, and goals—is absolutely necessary to provide them the most value. It’s also a critical part of establishing the right outcomes for your team.
Use Hotjar’s Incoming Feedback widgets and Surveys to give your team a constant source of customer feedback. Capturing user feedback while they engage with your product is the best way to learn how they are (or aren’t) experiencing value.
2. Understanding the market opportunity
A constraint for many people in product is that, ultimately, products created for users also have to produce valuable outcomes for the business. That’s why product planning must involve identifying and creating a strong value exchange between the company and the user. A grasp of market dynamics, trends, and opportunities is essential to produce products and features that serve your customers and your business.
3. Analyzing the competitive landscape
Another constraint in identifying key outcomes is understanding how customers are currently solving their problems. Your solution must be significantly better than their current alternative for customers to adopt it. Your product planning process should also consider the value competitors offer and how your ideal outcomes will produce substantially greater value.
4. Identifying product outcomes
Once you have a solid grasp of your customers’ wants and needs, market trends, and the competitive landscape, you can focus on the outcomes that make both your customers and the business successful. Remember: outcomes are specific and measurable, so it must be clear how achieving them will result in success for the business.
Common outcomes for successful products include increased acquisition, retention, revenue, and a lower cost of acquisition.
5. Executing your product development process
Once you’ve identified the outcomes your team will aim for, you’re ready to execute your product development process and turn the product opportunity into a reality. At this point, your plan is less a linear set of steps and more a process of continual learning and iteration to achieve your identified outcomes.
During this process, use tools like Hotjar’s Surveys to collect continuous feedback and learn what users think about your latest plans before putting them into action. Designing surveys helps your team be proactive in asking customers about additional problems and discovering new opportunities.
5 common mistakes in product planning (and how to avoid them)
Product planning is a complex process with lots of moving parts, and mistakes are inevitable. To set you on the right track from the start, here’s a list of the most common mistakes and tips on how to steer clear of them.
1. Treating planning as a single event rather than an ongoing process
The mistake: treating planning as an event prioritizes the plan over planning. A plan is just a snapshot of your understanding—of the product, market, and customer needs—at the time the plan was created, which means it becomes obsolete very quickly.
How to avoid it: schedule regular planning sessions and continuously collect user feedback to emphasize the process over the snapshot.
2. Planning too far into the future
The mistake: sometimes teams plan months or years into the future, assuming their users, the market, and their competitive landscape will be the same forever (which is never the case).
How to avoid it: stick to a timeframe in which you can reasonably take action and deliver value. Instead of planning major changes for the future, focus on small, iterative changes with product research tools like Hotjar that enable you to do effective A/B testing.
3. Planning in a silo
The mistake: some product teams don’t work closely alongside other business units. But because product planning requires a broad understanding of customers, the market, and competitors, it’s impossible to succeed in a silo.
How to avoid it: have your team and key stakeholders participate in product planning discussions to get their unique insights and help them feel more invested in your direction and outcomes. Use Hotjar’s Highlights feature to keep all your insights in one place, sort them into collections, and tag team members to loop them in on your discovery.
4. Relying on too many assumptions
The mistake: basing product decisions on assumptions and guesswork is a waste of your team's and users' time. Without an understanding of why users are interacting with your product in a certain way, teams risk prioritizing issues that don't exist (and neglecting those that do).
How to avoid it: put effort into learning about customers and the market to gain data-informed insights. Tools like Hotjar minimize roadblocks later down the line, ultimately helping you reduce assumptions and prevent those pesky pitfalls we discussed earlier.
5. Focusing more on outputs than outcomes
The mistake: many product teams focus their planning on delivering outputs (i.e. new features) instead of achieving outcomes. But features alone don’t drive success; what drives success is how features help users accomplish their jobs to be done (JTBD), and how they produce business outcomes.
How to avoid it: don’t introduce unnecessary features and bombard users with information and options—the best products are usually the simplest. Every new feature should be geared toward improving the product experience for the user, and producing real business outcomes like increased revenue, acquisition, and adoption.
Ready to dive in?
Product planning doesn’t have to be scary or intimidating. The more you understand the purpose and benefits of product planning—and how to avoid common pitfalls—the better equipped you’ll be. And with Hotjar’s insights to guide your decisions, you can be absolutely certain that every update is in line with what your customers want.