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Product planning: a 5-step guide for product managers

Markets, customers, and business priorities change so fast they can make a product manager dizzy, and rigid product plans can quickly become irrelevant.

So how can product managers plan, then?

Last updated

22 Mar 2022

Reading time

8 min


product planning process

Creating flexible product plans that give your team structure and the ability to respond to changing circumstances is an art form. 

This guide takes you through five agile product planning steps to help guide your team in developing products that solve users’ most pressing problems.

Note: product planning is an ongoing process rather than a single event. The best use of this guide is to bookmark it and refer back to it as you move between each step in the planning process.

Feel confident in your product plan

Hotjar offers a steady flow of product experience insights to streamline your product planning

The product planning process

Product planning is the process of defining the right product outcomes and creating the right strategic plans to make those outcomes happen. It involves: 

  • Researching to ensure your product goals align with your users’ needs

  • Creating product vision and roadmap documents

  • Prioritizing actions and features

  • Getting stakeholder buy-in

  • Guiding your product team through development

Flexible product planning is important for setting the right product goals and keeping your team and stakeholders aligned in achieving them. A comprehensive but dynamic product plan is the key to creating products your users love. 

Get started with our five-step guide to product planning: 

1. Start with the why: understand your purpose

Your company mission and product vision are key touchpoints that should shape your decisions as a product team. 

See the overall company and product strategy to inform your product planning process.

It’s important to deeply understand the why of the thing. In our case, for example, we might start with a question like: why is conversational support important to our eDesk customers? 

It’s also important to ask: how does this fit in the product, and for whom? What is the ideal user experience? These key questions inform everything else that follows.

Darren Heaphy
Head of Product, eDesk

Internalize your company mission

Your first step in product planning should be to align your product team objectives with big picture goals. 

Dive into your company’s mission statement and make sure everyone on the product team is clear about the product's business goals. This will instill a sense of purpose in your team, which you can use to guide the product planning process. 

An organizational culture that helps the product team feel they're impacting the world and contributing to larger goals is a huge motivator.

Bonus reading: learn more about the importance of choosing the right company values and infusing them into your team culture.

Solidify your product vision

Once your company’s overall mission is clear, you need to define a product vision that connects the dots between fulfilling company objectives and meeting user needs. 

A strong product vision will give you product planning superpowers. 

Make sure you’re guided by the product vision when you ask for stakeholder buy-in and begin to develop your product plan. 

Your product vision can help you to make critical decisions like choosing which ideas and initiatives to include in your plan. You can then refer back to the vision throughout the planning process to ensure your team and stakeholders stay aligned. 

2. Understand the who: know your customers and market

Every product decision you make will impact your users, so they need to be at front and center in your planning. 

Start by taking steps to empathize with your users and customers and understand your market. 

Empathize with your customers

Empathizing with your customers and understanding their needs is the foundation of effective product planning. 

Study your customers’ motivations, behavior, and goals, and use what you learn to take a user-centric approach to product planning.

If you're using Hotjar: use Hotjar’s Session Recordings to put yourself in your customers’ shoes. Recordings let you track exactly how users experience your product, which will help to guide the next iterations of your product plan. 

You can also use recordings to identify which features deliver the intended value and which need improvement—and then plan the necessary changes.

Understand the market

You need to develop a strong understanding of industry and market dynamics to make a product people want and need. 

Analyze trends to understand where competitors are spending money, time, investment, and attention, and use this market research to inform your product positioning

For example, if you're building a platform for virtual courses, your product planning should respond to remote and online learning trends and market expansion. You might identify a need for a digital whiteboard feature, which you should validate with your customers and then incorporate into your planning priorities. 

If you're using Hotjar: the Feedback widget is a great way to ask users quick questions to gauge their interest in new features or product experiments.

3. Decide the what: plan user-focused outcomes

The next step involves bringing together everything you’ve learned about your users and business to define product outcomes. 

You can’t plan what you don’t define. 

Start by understanding what success means for your customers and your business, and then create measurable goals based on meeting user needs. 

Identify problems and opportunities

Identify the specific issues users need to solve—and then decide which you’ll focus on. 

To help you prioritize, dive deep into product research, and gather product experience insights with tools like Hotjar (👋). 

Let’s stick with the example of a remote learning platform. Maybe you’ve assumed the people who sign up for business accounts do so through their company. Your product experience, sales, and support work around that assumption. 

But after talking to your customers and watching how they use your platform, you discover that a lot of people signing up for free business trials are actually individual learners unaffiliated with a company. 

Now that you’ve identified a key user base—individual learners—find out what they want from your product and what roadblocks they’re experiencing in its current form.

You can then transform user problems into opportunities to deliver value: for example, maybe you should plan to release a version of your software that’s aimed at individual users who want an easy-to-use platform for occasional learning. 

Define your product outcomes and how to measure them

Once you’ve mapped out the opportunities your product will target, define your ideal outcomes. 

Determine which metrics you’ll use to measure success, and define the measurements that will allow you to quantify outcomes and test progress. 

With the above example of non-business users on business trials, you might identify the following outcomes:

  • Reduce the number of business trial signups by individual learners by 75%

  • Get 10% of individual-learning users who visit your site to purchase an individual license

  • Increase the average customer satisfaction score (CSAT) of individual learners by 3 points 

Pro tip: use Hotjar to seamlessly integrate CSAT surveys into your site or app. Customers can rate their experience quickly, without leaving your page, and get back to exploring your product.

Prioritize desired outcomes

You’ll identify a lot of desired outcomes during the product planning process, so next, you have to prioritize your product ideas and initiatives. 

To manage your product backlog and plan effectively, ask yourself which of these outcomes will have the biggest impact on your customers and business

Use product prioritization methods like the cost of delay analysis to identify which outcomes you should focus on to minimize revenue loss and maximize profits.

If you're using Hotjar: use Surveys and the Feedback widget—which acts as an on-site suggestion box where users can share their experiences with different features and elements on your site—to collect and analyze customer feedback and test your assumptions against your customers’ needs.

4. Execute the how: develop based on learnings

Product planning doesn’t stop when product execution starts. 

Adapt your product development plans along the way depending on the success of your outcomes.

Focus on one thing at a time

Start by taking stock of where you are in relation to your product goals. 

Determine a clear set of steps that need to happen to reach the outcomes you’ve prioritized, and try to anticipate potential obstacles and plan around them.  

For example, let’s take the previous case where non-business users were signing up for business trials on a virtual learning platform. 

Maybe you discover that the reason individual users aren’t purchasing licenses is because there isn’t an easy way for them to do so.

In this case: 

  • Identify your opportunity: individual users on business trials aren’t converting, so they have needs that aren’t being met. 

  • Determine your desired outcomes: these might be to increase conversions, revenue, and customer satisfaction scores. 

  • Identify obstacles: in this case, there isn’t a version of the product available for individual, non-business users. 

  • The next step will be to develop a path for individual users to purchase individual licenses.

Iterate and adapt

For agile product management and planning, keep batch sizes small so you can build, measure, and learn. 

Use continuous discovery to stay connected with customers throughout the process and use their input to revise and refine the next steps in your product development plan. 

In our example, let’s imagine that after delivering a way for individuals to purchase licenses, the data shows only 2% of individuals actually convert. To decide how to refine your plan, you need to find out why

By using a learning tool like heatmaps, the product team can see which parts of the site users are clicking on and scrolling past. Maybe you learn users aren’t scrolling down far enough to reach the CTA to purchase—so your next step might be moving the CTA to a more prominent location.

Pro tip: use Hotjar Heatmaps to see which site elements users are engaging with or skipping—then go deeper with Session Recordings, which show you exactly how individual users are experiencing your product.

Hotjar Session Recordings help you go deeper into how users experience your product

Hotjar Session Recordings help you go deeper into how users experience your product

5. Communicate the when: focus on results

Your product planning should center on outcomes rather than time-bound outputs. Here’s what to do:

Base your product roadmap on problems, opportunities, and outcomes

One of the biggest mistakes product teams make in roadmap planning is tying specific features to specific deadlines. Of course, you may need to fix tentative release dates, but focusing too much on deadlines in your product plans can block your team’s ability to make adjustments as you learn. 

Plan for flexibility: you can’t always know in advance the amount of time and effort it will take to iterate a specific feature. 

Make your product roadmap a high-level plan for achieving product goals. Your team should be able to use it as a communication touchpoint and prioritization aid without getting too bogged down in delivery dates. 

Take a look at Hotjar’s public product roadmap here for a sense of how we do it.

Create an internal and external communication plan

It’s important to make a plan for communicating your progress to key stakeholders as you iterate, experiment, and learn.  

As product manager and entrepreneur Jason Shen emphasizes: "Until you ship, communication is the deliverable."

Product planning is important for teams so that there’s a shared vision of goals. It gives everyone a clearer sense of the process and how they can contribute. Product planning is important for teams so that there’s a shared vision of goals. It gives everyone a clearer sense of the process and how they can contribute.

Chris Hunter
Product Owner

Plan for cross-functional collaboration touchpoints with other departments as well as external partners and customers. 

Key opportunities for internal communication include:

  • Product updates in company all-hands meetings

  • Product update summaries on internal communication tools like Slack (check out Hotjar’s Slack integration!)

  • Holding regular product Q&A sessions to give updates and field questions

  • Sharing key user insights (with Hotjar Highlights, it’s easy to share an overview of product experience learnings)

Key opportunities for external communication include:

  • Email newsletters to customers for recent and upcoming releases

  • Social media posts for recent and upcoming releases

  • Changelog—either in-product or on a support page (see how Hotjar does it)

  • Partner-facing Q&A sessions or webinars

Product planning doesn’t have to be overwhelming

Brilliant product planning needs to balance thinking ahead with responding quickly and flexibly to changing markets, business goals, and customer needs. 

The best product managers integrate planning into the product workflow so that planning becomes an ongoing process of continuous discovery and communication.

By focusing on outcomes, centering user needs, and adapting plans based on results, you can ensure your product planning leads to delighted users and a motivated product team.  

Feel confident in your product plan

Hotjar offers a steady flow of product experience insights to streamline your product planning

FAQs about product planning