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The 4 major product roadmap benefits and challenges (and how to address them)
There are a lot of useful benefits of product roadmaps—for stakeholders, product owners, developers, and customers alike—but roadmapping isn't the only way for product teams to work.
In fact, treating roadmaps like the law of product development can lead to challenges that shift your focus away from who you’re building the product for in the first place: your customers.
Last updated5 Sep 2022
Roadmaps can be extremely helpful for product managers (PMs), guiding the prioritization and execution of the product strategy. However, if used incorrectly, they have the potential to become detrimental to you, your team, and your users.
This chapter looks into the benefits and pitfalls of product roadmapping to help you decide if and when a roadmap makes sense for your development goals.
Enhance your roadmap with product experience insights
Hotjar’s Heatmaps, Recordings, Surveys, and Feedback tools help you build your roadmap on a solid, user-centric foundation.
When should you use a product roadmap?
The right amount of planning is essential in business and product development. A product roadmap is one of the most dynamic—and simplest—product planning techniques, serving as a beacon for everyone bringing the product to market.
Product roadmaps act as a shared source of truth for the product’s overall direction, priorities, dependencies, and progress over time. They’re a guiding strategic document and a plan for executing your product strategy.
However, not every type of product or company needs to have a product roadmap. Those benefiting most from this type of planning:
Can look confidently beyond their next major release
Have validated assumptions about key aspects of the business model—like the target audience and their needs
Can define a clear product vision or strategy statement, detailing long-term goals and how the product will achieve them
Have identified a set of company objectives and measurable KPIs that will tell them if the strategy is working
If you choose not to look further than immediate releases, you’re probably better off following an agile process to experiment and iterate on product improvements that put customers at the center. More on that later.
4 product roadmap benefits that lead to building better products
A product vision inspired by market, user, and business insights allows you to state and validate your ideas. But while it’s a helpful tool, your vision doesn’t tell you how the product strategy will be executed. This is where the product roadmap comes in.
The main benefit of product roadmaps is that they ensure short-term product goals are met as soon as possible while monitoring and adjusting the company’s long-term goals.
1. Product roadmaps align the company around shared product goals
Being able to visualize the product strategy as part of a roadmap keeps teams working together toward a common goal. It provides a shared, common understanding of the vision and objectives for everyone in the company, and can align them on what’s most important at any given time.
A good roadmap makes sense of all the work of individual contributors. It’s a source of inspiration, motivation, and shared ownership of product success.
In fact, product roadmaps can benefit team members at every level:
For developers, roadmaps provide a better understanding of the “big picture”
Product managers can use roadmap presentations to secure executive buy-in for their approach to development
Stakeholders get to share a common understanding of the direction a product is aspiring to go in
Using a product roadmap also inspires—and facilitates—cross-functional collaboration. It helps align teams on execution by defining who will be doing what and spotting potential dependencies and opportunities across departments.
All of this provides a continuity of purpose and communicates how everyone involved sees the product growing over the coming months or years.
2. Roadmaps help product owners manage and prioritize the product backlog
Product roadmapping begins with a clear understanding of both the product’s and the company’s strategic objectives. With the desired outcomes in mind, the product management team can generate the key themes that will get the product where it needs to be.
Next, it’s time to dive into the backlog and determine which items match up with those larger themes—and prioritize the initiatives you think will have the biggest impact or greatest ROI.
With one team in charge of the product roadmap and product backlog management, the strategic and the tactical aspects of product planning come together beautifully.
The product roadmap takes care of the strategic plan: how the product is likely to grow across several major releases, with goals and benefits. This frees up the backlog and allows it to focus on the tactical work: like epics and user stories that have to be implemented to create one or more releases.
For example, say you release a new product version every three months. Your roadmap could capture the next four major releases, while your product backlog focuses on creating the next product version.
With clear authority and responsibility, product owners can:
Provide a visual of the most critical product prioritizations
Confidently state if and when a benefit will be provided or a feature implemented
Communicate priorities effectively with adjacent teams
Unburden the product backlog by focusing it where it’s most needed
Once everything is sorted and ranked by priority, the product team can then add on elements, checking in frequently with the execution team to ensure the prioritized goals and themes of the roadmap are achievable and worth the effort.
Pro tip: Hotjar helps you confidently decide which backlog items need to be prioritized—and why.
Product experience (PX) insight tools like Heatmaps, Session Recordings, Feedback, and Surveys give you quantitative and qualitative data about your users. This can help you validate hypotheses and prioritize ideas and initiatives in your product backlog.
Use Hotjar to understand how users experience your product and collect direct voice-of-the-customer (VoC) feedback from them so you know which product changes to make first.
A Hotjar Feedback widget
3. A product roadmap gives stakeholders a clear view of the development process
Product roadmaps describe how the product strategy becomes a reality. They take many competing priorities and boil them down to what’s most important.
In the process, roadmaps “translate” developer tasks—like those in Jira—into non-technical terms and a format that’s easily understood by organizational leadership.
With your vision and strategic goals mapped out in a visual way, the details of how you’ll deliver against those goals begin to stand out. As you present the work that moves the needles key stakeholders really care about, business and product priorities align, allowing you to focus on what’s important: building the best version of your product to delight customers.
4. Access to a public product roadmap means customers can get excited about a product’s direction
For product owners and managers, roadmaps unify teams working on high-impact product enhancements. As the product improves, a public or external roadmap helps sell prospective customers on features or use cases that are not yet available.
Public product roadmaps serve as a communication tool to create alignment and excitement among the customer base. To the rest of the industry, they’re an indicator that you’re planning to do more than just tweak and optimize the existing set of functionality.
This type of roadmap takes the product vision and lays out a plan for how to get there. It turns something theoretical into something plausible, with a loose timeline for how big dreams and ideas—yours and your customers'—can actually become reality.
Customers and prospects may benefit from seeing a glimpse of what’s on the horizon and where their specific requests fall (or don’t fall) on your roadmap.
Seeing your plan for the future, and how it includes them, can increase product adoption and activation and generate more trust among your user base.
Public roadmap best practices from Hotjar
Since they’re external documents for customers and prospects, public roadmaps should be visual, easy to understand, and user-centric. The focus should be entirely on the product’s benefits to customers.
At Hotjar, we built our public feature roadmap using Trello to make our past product updates and future direction clear to current and potential customers. Launched features are added only when shipped, with a link to the relevant product updates post for more details.
Our public product roadmap at Hotjar
4 product roadmap drawbacks and how to address them
Companies get very excited about their roadmaps. Product owners and managers are completely invested, spending countless hours detailing plans on how to work on the most valuable initiatives first and predicting when things will be ready to launch.
The problem with roadmaps is that they tell the team what to do instead of what needs to be accomplished.
That usually comes in the form of a prioritized list of features or projects that someone believes will solve some problem—even if that problem is often not explicitly stated or understood.
This becomes a challenge when it prevents teams from making the best choices for their product and customers, just because they don’t match what’s on the roadmap. In that moment, the product roadmap becomes less of a tool to improve your team’s efficiency and more of an outdated checklist that leads to confusion and false expectations.
Thankfully, there are ways to manage these types of product roadmap issues and prevent them from taking a toll on your product development. That said, here are some of the pitfalls of product roadmaps—and how to address them.
Pitfall 1: product roadmaps can stifle innovation at the team level
It’s easy to fall into a routine of creating an internal roadmap that’s solely focused on new features and when they’ll be delivered. After all, that’s usually what keeps stakeholders most comfortable.
However, this removes autonomy from the team. It doesn’t allow them to solve problems by finding solutions that are outside of previously defined ones. Plus, time-based roadmaps can sometimes be too restrictive in a dynamic business environment that requires more flexibility.
Take this Microsoft 365 roadmap as an example. Each feature is tagged with a go-live date, so anyone viewing the roadmap knows exactly when new features will become available. The downside is that this approach doesn’t allow for agile updates from the team.
This type of roadmap:
Constrains the team’s ability to focus on innovative solutions for problems or opportunities
Pushes them to think in terms of features in sequential order
Shifts the focus from experimenting with opportunities to executing within deadlines
How to address this:
First of all, no matter what type of roadmap you create, it should be centered around the big picture and problems to solve, not solutions to those problems.
Secondly, a true roadmap is completely subject to change. Product roadmaps are not meant to be one-time, static documents to present a product’s plan and then set aside when the work begins. They‘re there to support your product strategy. When you change focus or direction as a company, it’s okay to modify—or even stop using—your existing product roadmap.
To be successful, a product manager needs to keep the product roadmap up to date. This will allow them to adjust effectively and intelligently when circumstances require a shift in strategy.
There are a couple of ways to implement this:
1. Shift to an agile product roadmap
This is a top-level, strategic plan for a product’s direction that lists outcomes (i.e., what a business wants to achieve) instead of outputs (i.e., actions that could lead to the outcome).
Agile product roadmaps are used primarily with your development team and are organized by theme instead of specific features or updates.
Agile teams use roadmaps that focus on short-term details but still present a strategic view—linking together features and stories in a sprint to show how these individual projects are working toward a unifying objective. This is important because your developers need to understand the product’s overall strategic direction.
Keeping an agile product roadmap means that, at any given moment, the roadmap will reflect the latest strategic thinking, planning, and needed resources, based on the most current information available.
2. Focus on OKRs
Not all product management teams choose to use roadmaps to manage business objectives—for example, at Hotjar, we focus on objectives and key results (OKRs) and follow an agile process to experiment and iterate on improvements instead of committing to specific features and release dates.
OKRs provide a map of the problems or opportunities teams will work on rather than the features they'll build. The idea is simple enough: tell the product team what you need them to accomplish and how the results will be measured, and let them figure out the best solutions.
For example, say your product currently requires three days for a new customer to onboard, but to scale effectively, this needs to be reduced to two hours or less. A good example of an objective for the product teams is to “dramatically reduce the time it takes for a new customer to go live”. And one of the key results would be “average onboarding time less than two hours”.
We still use product roadmaps at Hotjar, after the creative part, to help with execution when the problem to solve has been clarified. It's all about outcome rather than output. In the (relatively rare) instance that our internal team or customers need a fixed date for a release or update, we treat this differently from our regular planning and decide on a due date for an initiative.
There are several benefits to this way of working:
Teams stay motivated when they have freedom to solve a problem the way they see fit
Teams are kept accountable to deliver a requested feature or project that actually works (as measured by the key results)
Encourages product experimentation by embracing the likelihood that teams might need to try a different approach
Promotes cross-functional collaboration by involving everyone in the process—including internal and external stakeholders and the full development team—when planning, reviewing, or adjusting OKRs
Pitfall 2: roadmaps can prioritize features instead of customers
When deciding what product goals and initiatives or bug fixes to prioritize, some roadmaps rely on delivering features instead of addressing customer needs.
Marketing needs a feature for a campaign. The sales team needs to fix an issue for a new customer. Someone wants a PayPal integration. You get the idea.
This becomes a problem when the focus shifts from what customers truly value to what stakeholders think might make the product more appealing to them. The product roadmap essentially becomes a prioritized list of features.
When based on old or inaccurate data—or false assumptions—these types of roadmaps can cause issues with product adoption, activation, and retention.
How to address this:
Product roadmaps should bring constant value to customers. Forget about the perfect roadmap; it doesn’t exist. Instead, start with providing for simple needs and allow your customers to help shape the perfect products and features:
1. Focus on themes of work, not features
Themes are high-level groups of work (like epics). Examples include customer onboarding experience, tech debt, or customer satisfaction and engagement.
By grouping work into themes, teams are able to tell a story about where they're headed, and the goals, objectives, and outcomes that will get them there.
Unlike traditional waterfall roadmaps, where themes tend to focus on business objectives, an agile product roadmap’s themes should be customer-centric. User stories allow teams to answer critical questions like:
What are we doing?
Why are we doing it?
How does it link back to our OKRs?
2. Get input from your customers
Insights that come directly from customers make it a whole lot easier to prioritize the product backlog with data—instead of relying on guesswork.
Here are a few ways to research, understand, and connect customer needs with experiences you can use in your product roadmap:
Spend time observing and studying customers: gather data that will help you understand customers' most triggering pain points by sending out surveys, using heatmaps to study behavior, and conducting interviews
Keep your roadmap agile: agile development calls for efficient adjustments throughout the product journey instead of making improvements in the end or when a problem becomes urgent. This enables you to regularly process customer feedback to incorporate product changes that meet their expectations and needs and adjust your roadmap accordingly.
Measure iteration performance: figure out what worked and what didn’t by setting milestones and tracking metrics like customer interactions, purchases, and churn rate. Measure the impact of customer experiences through customer acquisition, growth, and retention value.
3. Product roadmaps provide a false sense of certainty
When created and used correctly, a roadmap can help product teams step back anytime and examine their strategic objectives. It can detail a clear framework to plan, track, and manage the features and projects needed to meet those strategic objectives.
What it can’t provide is a 100% accurate image of the future. Sure, product roadmaps paint a picture of where the product might go and illustrate the current thinking on product strategy and prioritization. But things happen, emergencies arise, and priorities shift. Results may not be guaranteed.
Product roadmaps provide stakeholders with clarity about where the product is going. At the same time, they need to be aware that as the competitive landscape shifts, customers' preferences adjust, and planned features are modified.
Otherwise, this false sense of certainty can lead to poor prioritization in roadmaps, which can also cause issues, particularly in resource allocation.
How to address this:
Don’t develop your products based on predictions of the future—build to adapt to changes as they come. Accept that change is inevitable and build your product roadmap and processes based on that expectation.
1. Review the product roadmap on a regular basis
It’s important to ensure that your product roadmap adapts and continues to reflect the status of current work—as well as long-term goals.
You’ll know if your roadmap needs to be reviewed and updated more frequently when your stakeholders start calling you for updates instead of consulting your roadmap.
2. Promote a mindset of continuous delivery and discovery
Expectations in product roadmaps are often based on specific date commitments. If they’re made too early in the process, they may not be realistic as to whether:
You can actually deliver on this requirement
What you deliver will actually solve the problem for the customer
Instead of making early commitments to deliver on certain dates, ask stakeholders to give you more time in product discovery to investigate the necessary solution.
In the continuous discovery and delivery model, the discovery work is all about taking the time to validate that solution with:
Customers, to ensure it has necessary value and usability
Engineers, to ensure its feasibility
Stakeholders, to ensure it is viable for your business
3. Use short- and long-term roadmaps
Using two distinct roadmaps—one more tactical and another that delivers the long-term vision—creates a clear separation between “what’s going to happen” and “what you might like to happen”.
Short-term roadmaps often cover what the product team is planning for the next three to six months. They should be updated as often as necessary to ensure they accurately reflect the current thinking and expectations.
Long-term roadmaps set out the plan for the next two or five years. They’re a great opportunity to highlight what the product is trying to eventually accomplish and how the team's immediate efforts and day-to-day activities relate to that vision.
Long-term roadmaps don’t require the same frequency of revisions and updates since they’re about the overall vision, not a release plan.
4. Test quickly and often
This is where feedback tools and A/B testing come in handy. Ask your audience for feedback on their experiences using surveys, incorporate feedback widgets to see what should be improved, and analyze session recordings to see how users respond to changes in the product.
Pro tip: use direct feedback to understand how customers react to your product features and updates.
Place a Hotjar on-site survey on a product landing page to learn what they think about your latest iteration. This data can help you understand if your iteration succeeded and how you should approach future product roadmap updates.
An example of a Hotjar on-site survey
5. Use a prioritization framework
Deciding which features or upgrades make it onto a product roadmap requires careful prioritization.
Speed Boat Technique
Value vs. Cost/Complexity/Effort
Value vs. Risk
Pitfall 4: product roadmaps require high levels of overhead to create and maintain
Having one person in charge of the product roadmap and the product backlog can become overly demanding. On the company’s part, investments can range from budgets and costs to time and effort.
Whether it’s project management tools, PowerPoint, Gantt charts, or Excel spreadsheets, product owners and managers often turn to a range of software to produce product roadmaps with lots of data.
How to address this:
Invest in the right tech stack to manage product roadmaps. If you’re not using a tool designed specifically for roadmaps, you may be creating extra work for yourself.
There are many different product roadmapping software out there that will help you create, manage, and prioritize your roadmap effectively. Purpose-built roadmap software is designed to make your life as a product owner or manager easier.
The advantage of these tools is that they:
Unlock the ability to create visual, theme-based roadmaps that shift the focus from specific features to strategic goals
Enable custom versions of the roadmap to be generated using templates based on the particular audience it’s being presented to
Sync with other vital parts of the product stack to keep things up-to-the-minute accurate and alert stakeholders when changes are made
Eliminate out-of-date versions from circulating among teams
Here are two tools we recommend:
1. Atlassian Jira
Jira allows cross-functional communication teams to plan, track, release, and report on software. It's a great product roadmapping software that also comes with features like:
Code and deployment status overviews
ProductPlan is a dedicated roadmapping tool that has drag-and-drop capabilities to help product teams collaboratively build product roadmaps in just a few clicks.
The tool comes with customizable layouts and unlimited roadmaps, ensuring your team can effortlessly align on product strategy.
Note: stay tuned for a more detailed list of product roadmapping tools in the upcoming Product Roadmapping Tools chapter of this guide
Next steps in product roadmapping
How you plan and prioritize product development should be based on more than just what the rest of the industry is doing. Using a roadmap will only be beneficial when it suits your product and business goals.
As you analyze these product roadmap benefits and pitfalls, use Hotjar’s qualitative and quantitative product experience insights tools to understand what your customers need and what your product development initiatives should look like.
Enhance your roadmap with product experience insights
Hotjar’s Heatmaps, Recordings, Surveys, and Feedback tools help you build your roadmap on a solid, user-centric foundation.