When I asked Nikolai Tolkatsjov, co-founder and head of product at the intellectual property management tech company Brainbase, just how important product roadmapping is to a product manager, he told me this: “It’s basically, like, a bible for you. It’s the basis of everything you do.”
Ultimately, as a product manager, Tolkatsjov said, your job is to make sure everyone in the company has an understanding of what you’re building, why you’re building it and when you’re building it. To keep customers and stakeholders happy, you need to prioritize feature releases effectively and convey clear expectations about product updates and shipping deadlines.
“Customers ask, ‘Do you plan on building this feature or not?’ he said. “You instantly go to the roadmap. Usually the answer is yes. The majority of questions lead back to the product roadmap.”
Many experts agree that the power of visualization is core to what makes a product roadmap useful. Whether it’s displayed as a Gannt chart laying out a timeline of scheduled releases, a list view of prioritized to-do items, or a kanban board assigning responsibilities to team members and tracking task progress, a roadmap helps a product manager see what needs to be done and who’s doing it.
But before a roadmap can be elegantly visualized — ideally, in a form fluid and descriptive enough to appeal equally well to C-suite stakeholders and software developers in the trenches — you need to figure out what’s actually worth building.
“What is it, at Tesla, Elon Musk had to figure out?” asked Hubert Palan, CEO of the roadmapping platform productboard, rhetorically. “We’re going to first build the roadster, and then we’re gonna build a sedan, and then, eventually, we’re going to go to the mass market, but [we know] where to start.”
He continued: “Jeff Bezos at Amazon had to figure out, ‘OK, let’s start with books, and then DVDs, and eventually we’re going to be an everything store.’ And my point is that this is the kind of decision-making every product manager undergoes. The outcome is the roadmap. But the hard part is prioritization.”
All efforts are doomed, Palan said, if you don’t start with an understanding of “who needs what and how big an opportunity it is.” Amazon was successful because people wanted to buy used books cheaply. Tesla was successful because people — at least in their wildest dreams — wanted to drive badass electric cars.
So product roadmapping is about prioritization, but it goes deeper than that: It’s about what is being prioritized to begin with and how well that high-altitude vision is funneled down to designers and developers working at the technical level. Software visualization can help bridge the gap, bringing ambitious ideas down to earth and placing them in the descriptive reality of, say, a Jira subtask or Hive action card — but in a crowded market choosing the right software is not easy.
To learn what tools they find the most valuable for roadmapping, Built In spoke with product leaders and service providers across the country. Here’s what they recommended.
14 Product Roadmapping Tools Experts Recommend
- Google Slides
- Google Sheets
- Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)
Productboard is a roadmapping tool driven by customer insights, Palan said. Think of it as a customer relationship management (CRM) tool that, instead of using customer feedback to improve sales relationships, uses the data to drive decisions about release prioritization. Insights culled from user research, interviews and insights from customer intelligence and analytics tools like Zendesk, Gainsight and Intercom are collected in a searchable database and can be fed back into an evolving roadmap.
“It’s not just the surface, right? You need all this richness underneath to make sure that you’re building the right thing.”
“And what you can do here, as a project manager, is highlight just what’s important in [these conversations],” Palan said. “The signal is what you need, just the key insight. And then you can link [these insights] to the feature that ultimately ends up on the roadmap.”
He gives this example: Say you’re debating about whether to add a group video chat feature to your interface — a backlog item that’s been sitting on the shelf for months. Is it mission critical? Customers can tell you through a feature voting portal, where they can upvote ideas identified through market analysis and user requests.
“So it’s not just the planner,” Palan said. “It’s not just the surface, right? You need all this richness underneath to make sure that you’re building the right thing.”
Aha! is a multi-functional roadmapping tool characterized by what Tolkatsjov calls an “outdated web design, but a deep feature set,” able to track initiatives and features and assess their impact. Brainbase relies on the tool as a hub for storing and analyzing OKR (objectives and key results) data and evaluating insights from sales teams and recurring themes in customer feature requests. Together, data from these three input streams guide prioritization decisions.
“So, in a lot of cases, if we’re going to build a feature, we know for a fact that five other customers will be pretty happy with this,” Tolkatsjov said. “If it’s a very customer-specific feature, then there are different criteria — whether it’s a showstopper for a firm, a critical feature they really need.”
According to Tolkatsjov, Aha! is especially useful as a scheduling and management tool: “We have clear visibility of each release, how much capacity we’ve filled, how much capacity is available and what percentage of the general objectives features are already planned,” he said. “If you want to go deep and schedule Aha! on the engineering level, based on your team’s availability, based on their capacity, then you can do that.”
Tolkatsjov touts Canny as a narrowly focused tool for collecting customer feedback. Through integrations with Slack and Intercom, customers can submit product and feature requests and vote on which requests are most valuable. Internal product teams can then use this data — on what is essentially live user testing — to prioritize releases.
On Canny’s main page, the left-hand column allows a user to search requests. The right-hand side lists requested features, which can be filtered by category. Customer feedback also reaches Brainbase’s product team through Slack notifications, and Intercom chats, “if customers have a customer support ticket or something they want to ask,” Tolkatsjov said.
Once in the chat, if the customer is signed in on Brainbase, they can select a feedback button that triggers the Canny integration. A smart search field that appears in the display window allows customers to select from a list of existing auto-generated requests or type in a new one. While these requests are typically for micro-level, one-off updates, not global changes, they make a difference, Tolkatsjov said. Brainbase recently finished planning its Q3 and Q4 releases, which will include more detailed filtering options allowing clients to parse list views of trademark licensing contracts and product approvals — options that came in direct response to customer requests on Canny.
Atlassian’s Jira software has been around for some time, but it remains an industry standard for roadmapping. Why? Mostly, Tolkatsjov said, because of its rich customization options and usefulness for breaking down a high-level product vision into specific action items for engineering and development teams. The epics, stories and subtasks that serve as its backbone have become a part of nearly every product manager’s working vocabulary. Jira’s popularity, in fact, has strengthened the business case for choosing it over other tools.
“If you hire someone for a PM position, you can be confident if they worked previously as a PM, they know how to use Jira.”
“If you hire someone for a PM position, you can be confident if they worked previously as a PM, they know how to use Jira. So they don’t have to learn any of the new software that you might use in your company,” Tolkatsjov said, adding that there may be “cooler, newer products that have a tad better UX, but moving everything to a new product is such a hassle. And, ultimately, it does its job.”
Project roadmapping goes beyond timelines, charts and spreadsheets, said Ayesha Bose, a product manager at Threads. The San Francisco-based company’s long-form conversational interface is a space for asynchronous discussions that are lengthier and more technical than what might appear in a Slack channel. The software is flexible, used by clients ranging from a cricket farm in Ghana to a Bay Area cryptocurrency fund. Threads can be assigned to relevant topics, such as product feedback and user research, and linked to other organizations.
“For example, we have a shared space with one of our customers, Buffer — a fully distributed company. Being able to get their feedback and share our early ideas with them helps us make sure that we’re building the right things or thinking about problems in the right way,” Bose said.
Usability is one of the platform’s chief assets. A top-level navigation bar gives product managers easy access to members of design and engineering teams “to get estimates and talk through project considerations at an early stage.” Unread messages light up to alert team members of evolving priorities and conversational threads can be shared throughout the organization to help align teams around key goals in the roadmap.
Threads leverages its own software for narrative explanations of key features in its roadmap, but cloud-based spreadsheets are an important companion. The workspace organizational tool Notion, Bose said, is the company’s current home for quantitative metadata, such as the number of customers impacted by a release and the size of its outlays.
Threads uses Notion mostly as a spreadsheet — using the platform’s table and list features for hard data that sits well in rows and columns — but the product, used by companies like McDonald’s, Verizon, IBM and Pixar, has cross-departmental uses, according to the company’s website. While a product manager can use Notion to create a roadmap and write feature specifications, a design team can use it to catalog logos, fonts, and assets, a marketing team can use it to put together a style guide, and an HR team can use it to onboard employees or create a company wiki.
Airtable is a hybrid database-spreadsheet service that can be used in much the same way as Notion, Bose told me. Field types in a sheet can be configured for text notes, attachments, bar codes, dates and record links in third-party programs, and data can be presented in grid, calendar, kanban, gallery and form views. Airtable also offers Blocks, a suite of templates — pivot tables, timelines, video chats, world clocks — that operate like self-contained apps to speed up workflows. On the scheduling and accountability side, a design product pipeline feature presents a list view of job requests, personnel assignments and status reports.
“Being able to take that data and slice it in many different ways helps us prioritize and schedule out the work in each product cycle,” Bose said.
Todd Boes, chief product officer at the customer training software company Thought Industries, said he had never encountered an especially useful roadmapping tool until very recently, when he found a a tool developed by the company Thrv. “It’s essentially product roadmap software that helps product teams use the Jobs to Be Done framework [also known as Jobs-to-Be-Done Theory] to build products.”
“People don’t simply buy products or services, they hire them, and they hire them to make progress in specific circumstances.”
The framework stems from the work of the late Harvard University professor Clayton Christensen. His book Competing Against Luck advances the premise that “people don’t simply buy products or services, they hire them, and they hire them to make progress in specific circumstances,” Boes said.
The theory points to the need to prioritize features around customers’ struggles. With Thrv, a product manager can distribute surveys to users that are automatically evaluated to generate a customer effort score. Another benefit of Thrv is that it maps customer pain points to specific job steps in the development cycle. “So it’s a really nice interface for also communicating to the rest of the company why we’re building a feature,” Boes said.
The New York-based software company Hive, whose project management software is used by teams at Google, Starbucks, Comcast and Toyota, brands itself on its website as a “productivity platform” for distributed teams. What differentiates Hive from other product roadmapping tools, said Jeremy Chase, a technical product manager at the company who spent three years on IBM’s development team, is its ability to quickly toggle between several different views — Gantt, kanban, table and calendar — giving more autonomy to teams to manage projects in a way that makes the most sense for their working styles.
Hive boasts more than 1,000 integrations, and the company recently released action cards to carry executive-level directives and insights from third-party apps down to the day-to-day workflows of engineering and development teams. The action cards, which include title, description and due date fields, are automatically synced across project views. Together, with a new navigation panel, they aim to streamline workflow for development and engineering teams, Chase said. “We want to make it so you can focus on work without signing on to gain access to various layouts and organizations. Spending less time scrolling,” Chase said.
Pendo helps product teams understand how their products are being used by customers via analytics and in-app messaging. The capabilities of the platform, which takes its name from the Latin word for “value,” are fairly robust. You can “see how product adoption varies based on account, user role, or user sentiment,” a blog post on the website notes, “all with no coding required.”
Hive embeds Pendo in its software to administer customer satisfaction surveys at regular thresholds — 30, 60 and 90 days, Chase said. But it’s not only used to solicit customer feedback. As new navigation features and action cards are being released, he said, an integration with Pendo will help educate users about the new functionality. As they travel the site, small pop-up windows will provide contextualized mini-guides that explain where new features are located, what they do, and how to find more detailed video tutorials.
ProductPlan arrived on the market at a time when product teams were using PowerPoint presentations and Excel spreadsheets to create their product roadmaps, said Jim Semick, a co-founder of the company. Because it was web-based and updated in real time, Product Plan solved the problem of outdated roadmaps circulating among teams. The software has remained relevant, in part, because of its visual appeal and narrow focus on prioritization, rather than the entire product lifecycle.
“The nice thing about the kanban style roadmap is that you can remove the dates and show what’s in progress.”
ProductPlan offers two different display options. A timeline-based map includes drag-and-drop bars that represent epics: “And you can click into that and see the strategic purpose behind it, and get an understanding of how complete it is. And we integrate with other tools like Atlassian Jira, Microsoft Azure DevOps and GitHub to pull in completion information,” Semick said.
A kanban-style view, preferred among agile firms that operate without clear delivery dates, shows which tasks are being considered, in development or completed: “The nice thing about this list view, or the kanban-style roadmap,” Semick said, “is that you can remove the dates and show what’s in progress. This helps the stakeholders understand what your priorities are and what you plan to work on next.”
Google Slides and Google Sheets
Peloton’s product roadmapping strategy is driven by a quarterly planning process, in which product management teams meet to update product roadmaps for the company’s various lines of connected fitness devices. Maureen Coiro, a senior product manager at the company, told Built In that “hardware tends to be a bit less dynamic and longer term than software, due to the time it takes to design, build and test a new electromechanical device.”
Coiro said she leans heavily on Google Slides and Google Sheets because they are accessible. She can communicate information from the roadmap easily with team leads — mainly hardware engineers, industrial designers and program managers — without the need to create new accounts or download software.
At Peloton, the two work in tandem: A high-level, visual roadmap that lives in Google Slides shows product launches, new market launches and considerations at the end of the product life cycle. Google Sheets allows for more detail: the purpose, priority and development phase for each item in the roadmap are spelled out on the spreadsheet. Since multiple hardware product lines exist in the same format, Coiro said, they can be easily overlaid to assess how product launches align. Restricted-view access settings help maintain confidentiality on the details of future plans.
For some companies, traditional roadmaps can be eschewed altogether, said Abbie Bys, who is the director of product at Lumere, a software service provider for hospital systems, which was acquired by GHX in January. Lumere follows an objectives and key results (OKR) methodology inspired by Marty Kagan, a partner at Silicon Vally Product Group.
“What we do is assign key results, which are measurable to those objectives. And we let the team make the decision on how they’re going to get there. We do that by measuring both leading and lagging indicators,” Bys said.
Hypothetically, to reduce the time it takes for a user to make a request through Lumere’s workflow tool, Bys’ team might set a measurable target of a 10 percent time reduction. To get there, the team could conduct a series of user interviews and lightweight engineering experiments, iterating on what works and scrapping what doesn’t.
“What we do is assign key results, which are measurable to [specific] objectives. And we let the team make the decision on how they’re going to get there.”
The OKR approach allows for more flexibility than a traditional Gantt chart, which tracks progress against hard deadlines. If you abandon a timeline-driven roadmap, however, customer engagement and event tracking tools, such as Hot Jar, Google Analytics and Periscope Data, become important to monitor progress. At Lumere, a Spotify-style squad model assigns one product manager to work with two to four engineers and a designer — another accountability check built into the model.
“Anyone reading this, I assume right away the questions they would ask,” Bys said. “They would say, ‘Well, how do you tell your customers when you’re going to deliver something?’ Or ‘How do you empower your customer services teams to know that?’ And what we do is focus on the problems we want to solve for our customers this quarter: And we’re going to iteratively work on this together and gather qualitative data and quantitative data to determine if we’re actually solving problems in the right way.”