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How to Create a Product Roadmap

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This post is part of a series called Productize Your Freelance Services.
Why You Should Productize Your Services
How to Test New Feature Ideas

Unless you’re planning to sell just one single product and not change it the entire time you’re in business—a plan that most business experts would advise against—you need a way to decide how to continue to improve and evolve your product. The same holds true for services, by the way. If you don’t move forward with your product, your customers won’t have a good reason to come back to you or to choose your product over the competition. But if you have a clear path forward, you can anticipate your customers’ needs, and cement yourself firmly as the best option they can find. 

A product roadmap is the ideal tool for creating that path.

1. Start With the Milestones

Step One

If you’ve been paying attention to the comments and requests your customers make after looking at your product as it stands today, you likely have a good idea of what features you want to add.

You may have come up with a couple of bright ideas separate from those requests. But taking your product and completely revamping it to include all those upgrades at once is a problem. Numerous small software teams have found that it takes years to make all the changes you want, whether or not you start over from scratch.

Instead, you want to think in terms of a gradual evolution, whether or not you’re building software. For any product you offer, you can choose a small change to make for each new edition or batch, letting you move iteratively.

Take the list of improvements you want to make and break it down into the smallest changes you can make that will be valuable enough to release on their own—something as simple as trying a new color might be worth considering in this context.

Step Two

Once you have a clear list of changes you’re planning to make, consider how you’re going to prioritize those changes. Which are the most important and which should you make first? Exactly how you decide your priorities depends on your business and your resources, because there are a wide variety of options:

  • Go for the low-hanging fruit. If you’re confident that you’re going to have more resources down the line, it makes sense to focus on what you can do quickly and easily now. You’ll build some momentum, letting you get the easy improvements out there where your users can see them.
  • Choose testable changes. Particularly if you’re not sure of the overall impact of a given improvement, design tests to see how valuable a particular change is. Then roll out just enough changes to let you run that test. That way you can go back to a previous version if you really need to.
  • Consider the requests your customers are making. If all of your customers are asking for one change in particular, you may want to start there. It’s always a good idea to listen to the people who are actually using your product out in the real world.
  • Let your resources dictate your moves. We never have enough time or enough money to do every single thing we’d like, and that includes adding features to our products. You’re going to find that some features are more feasible than others when you look at what resources you currently have available.

It may be worth reordering your potential changes according to different criteria to see if any opportunities stand out for you or if a particular order just makes more sense. Take the time you need to consider your options.

Step Three

Once you’ve got a general idea of the order in which you will pursue each improvement, calculate how much time you think they will take. Be pessimistic about your estimates: even if you know exactly what you’re going to do and how long it should take, you’re running a business at the same time. 

Taking care of your existing customers is bound to slow you down, at the very least. It may not look pretty, but try fitting the timeline you’re building to a calendar to get an idea of whether you’re being realistic.

2. Detail the Evolution of Your Product

Step One

While you’ve now got a general timeline, that isn’t quite a robust enough document to get you through actually developing these new features. In order to upgrade your timeline, you’re going to need to add in some details.

A product roadmap is essentially a guide to how you expect your product to grow in the long run. That means that you should be able to refer back to it easily to determine what your next step is in the evolution of your product.

Flesh out each milestone you hope to achieve with the basics of what you’ll need to accomplish them. A rough budget of time and money will help you determine when to start work on each new step.

Details like what tests you need to run first can help you make sure that you really are making an improvement to your product, rather than tacking on an unnecessary bell or whistle. The more information you can add, the more use you’ll get out of your product roadmap.

Step Two

You may be considering adding your entire product roadmap to whatever tool you use for project management. Don’t. Even those project management tools that have the capability of helping you manage work that may be months or even years out won’t be able to help you easily adjust details as you need to.

But the real danger in adding all that information to your project management software is that it’s overwhelming. You’ll constantly see that you have all that work to get to, even though you have more current projects you need to focus on. It’s incredibly distracting and demotivating. So build your roadmap in a document that you’ll be able to refer back to easily, but that won’t interfere with the day-to-day operations of your business. Wait until you’re ready to work on a particular piece of your roadmap before adding it into your project management workflow.

Step Three

Build in flexibility within your roadmap. You may not be able to guess every possible twist and turn the future of your business may hold, but you can think about a few of the possibilities and look for opportunities to adjust for them.

If you know that certain steps of your roadmap aren’t dependent on any other part of the path, marking them as such can let you keep moving forward even if something stops another part of your plan in its tracks. Don’t be afraid to reorder your plans, even if they are based on some very careful considerations, provided that circumstances call for the change.

3. Convert Your Services Into Stops on Your Product Roadmap

Step One

Even if you sell services rather than concrete products, you can use a product roadmap to build more options to offer to your clients. You need to think of your services in terms of offering a package or a product. What results are you really offering your clients? Most clients are really looking at the end results they get out of working with you, rather than the actual work you’re doing, so focus on how to improve those results, and offer more options that add on to them.

Adding new services or finding new processes to handle the work you do for clients are just as important for you as adding a new feature is to a product-based business. As you explore your options, you may find that you can build a few products (whether they’re information-based or actual tools to help in your business) that will fit in well with your services.

Step Two

Especially with service-based businesses, adding new features to your product roadmap can require learning some new skills. Offering a new type of service, after all, means learning how to provide that service.

You may need to go beyond client surveys in terms of researching and learning about how to offer something new. You may want to put an emphasis on such factors when setting up a detailed product roadmap.

Now You Just Have to Follow Your Product Roadmap

Actually writing down your product roadmap may be the easy part of adding new features and improvements to the products and services you offer to your clients. You actually have to do the work to follow that roadmap for it to be a useful tool. You need to stick to your plan and start building those improvements.

Your product roadmap should be a living document, though. You built your roadmap based on the information you have available today. Tomorrow, your competition may leapfrog you on a particular feature and you’ll need to adjust your product roadmap to stay in the game. Make a point of coming back to this document and checking if it’s still accurate—if the assumptions you built it on are still valid.

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