Designing a Product Roadmap-II

March 2016 Product, Selling

It is extremely important that a product roadmap demonstrates coherence and communicates the right message to the right audience. The audience could be internal (employees), stakeholders or customers. Thus before you get down to sketch a product roadmap, ensure that you have the right audience in mind. You would not want your external product roadmap to disclose your confidential long-term product strategy to your competition. At the same time, you would not want to publish a roadmap that makes clients and investors lose faith in a company’s capability to stay in business in the long run. The key to success is to strike the right balance between what you want your audience to know and what should be saved for later.

Getting the message right

Once you have decided on your audience, you need to word out the message that you want to convey through your roadmap. Like any typical business message it should be akin to what your audience expects to hear from you. However, a roadmap is a subtler way of communicating—you don’t spell it out, instead you let the audience figure it out themselves. When Gmail was first launched what won the hearts of the beta users across the world was the continuously increasing mailbox size. It came at the time when email users had to waste significant time every day deleting and backing up emails to avoid hitting the storage limit. The increasing mailbox size was Google’s way of telling prospects to come on board and avoid wasting time managing the mailbox. Remember, typically email users are heavily dependent on their email addresses and preventing them from switching to a new address is something remarkable.  Google managed that well! In my opinion, Gmail’s expanding mailbox is the best example of a powerful product roadmap in the B2C (Business to Consumer) world.

Product roadmap’s are more common in the B2B (Business to business) world. The reason is that businesses typically need to plan for the future—consumers are more expected to ride the hype. So for business’s it is important to know a supplier’s product roadmap so that it can plan accordingly. As an example consider the network router makers. To stay in business they need a roadmap that allows them to be capable of supporting future line rates (e.g. 100GE, 400GE etc.). To build such a roadmap they need to be sure that their component chips are also progressing in terms of access speed, density etc. Also the router maker may not want to create a new design for every product in their roadmap—so they would surely prefer chips that help them progress in performance without compromising the existing design.

If you are a B2B company, you need to ensure that your roadmap is empathetic towards the long term needs of your key customers. If your customer cares about increasing speed and all your roadmap communicates is improving memory density, then surely you are allowing your competitor a free-kick.

Another aspect that you need to keep in mind is sensitivity of the message that you are conveying. If you are concerned that your roadmap conveys too much information, then it is better to limit the circulation by legal methods such as getting the audience to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

Staying Credible

It is important that your roadmap doesn’t compromise your credibility. In your roadmap you are typically promising to make timeline based deliveries. So credibility would ideally be measured on the following:

  1. Can you deliver what you are promising?
  2. Can you stick to the time-lines?

When it comes to making promises sometimes firms may go overboard and end up losing credibility. The most embarrassing situation arises when the audience is able to catch the lack of credibility by reading the roadmap itself. For example if a phone-maker has been typically using USB for external communication it cannot make a promise about data transfer speed that is not supported by USB protocol (or is absent in USB SIG’s roadmap). If it does, it needs to clarify that in the future the plan is to not follow the USB protocol. Also making promises that cannot be kept due to soft issues (e.g. intellectual property owned by other firm) may lead to loss of credibility.

It is not expected that all the dates mentioned in the product roadmaps are hard deadlines. An audience is cognizant of the fact that sometimes product launches can get delayed due to unforeseen reasons. Yet consistently not sticking to the roadmap may lead the audience to question a firm’s credibility. A great idea would be to backdate the roadmap, to some extent, to demonstrate the compliance so far and then to open up the future.

Most of the issues concerning credibility can be overcome if during the roadmap design all risks and potential questions are taken into consideration. While it’s true that a roadmap communicates a message, it should not be mistaken as an advertisement.

Staying Updated

Just getting the message right and staying credible is not enough if the roadmap is not updated. The product roadmap needs regular updates, and it has to be ensured that only the most updated version reaches the audience. Every time a product launch is pushed out or pulled in, that change should reflected in the roadmap. Also if a particular change is planned it should be updated.

Another important point to note is that the roadmap shouldn’t just talk about when a new product would be launched, rather it should also talk about the duration the company intends to support or sell the existing products. In other words a roadmap scripted in 2016 should be able to foresee the company’s planned product portfolio in 2019.

Audiences would surely love a regularly updated roadmap. It would also help the developers to prioritize and channel energy in the right direction.

In Conclusion

Your product portfolio is about what you have today, and your product roadmap outlines what you intend to have tomorrow. If all the products in your portfolio have very long lifecycles and the business situation is expected to stay stable, you may stay away from creating a product roadmap. However if you are in a business where as a firm you need to keep innovating to adjust to the market conditions, not having a roadmap would lead to lack of clarity about the next move. While designing the product roadmap you need to keep in mind all the multi-dimensional factors (e.g. market, suppliers, competition and environment) that typically impact your business position—only then will your roadmap be a helpful tool to guide you to the future.

About the author

Anirban is a core-team member at Lifkart (an Early stage Indian Construction Start-up). Prior to the current gig he worked for about 5 years as a pricing manager at Cypress Semiconductor. He holds a BE in Electrical Engineering from National Institute of Technology , India and an MBA in Marketing from Symbiosis Centre for Management and Human Resource Development (SCMHRD), Pune, India.

Anirban Sengupta
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