The Secret To Creating A Customer-Facing Product Roadmap

by drjim on April 13, 2015

Customer facing roadmaps contain just the right amount of information

Customer facing roadmaps contain just the right amount of information
Image Credit: Sarah Kim

I like having customers. You like having customers. In fact, once we get a customer we sure would like to hang on to them. The problem is that our customers always want our products to do more, more, more for them. What this means is that we always need to be adding new features and capabilities to our products. Where things can get a bit tricky is when it comes to just exactly how we tell our existing and prospective customers about what new features are coming and when they will arrive.

What Kind Of Information Goes Into A Customer Facing Roadmap?

Let’s face it – creating a customer facing roadmap is a tricky balancing act. The reason that this is such a challenging thing to do is because you want to provide your existing and potential customers with just enough information, but not too much. Just to make things a little bit more complicated, product managers always have to assume that their customer facing roadmaps will eventually fall into their competition’s hands. You never want to provide them with too much information…

So now we come down to the key question: what to include? Knowing the answer to this question will be something that you can put on your product manager resume. The first thing that we need to agree on is what do customers really want to know? They want to know when new functionality will be added to the product – this will allow them to create internal plans to start to use that functionality. They don’t need to have all of the details about the new functions, but they do need to have enough in order to understand what they will be getting.

The other thing that a customer facing roadmap has to clearly communicate is when your customer is going to be getting the features that you have promised them? Once again we are venturing into a minefield here. If you tell your customer that they’ll have a new function on April 28th of this year, they will be expecting to have the function on that date. If you have a development slip, a parts problem, etc. and your schedule slips, then you will end up disappointing your customer. You need to come up with a way to communicate the information without exposing yourself to letting your customer down.

What Is The Best Way To Present A Customer Facing Roadmap?

Ok, so now we know what needs to go into a customer facing roadmap. Now let’s talk about how best to put it there. The first step is going to be to come up with a timeline for your roadmap. Next you are going to want to lay in a description of the functionality that you’ll be providing at each point in time on your roadmap. Finally, you’ll want to wrap the entire roadmap in a wrapper that clearly communicates the timeframe that it is valid for.

The timeline that you use for your customer facing roadmap may be the most important decision that you make. Let us agree that providing too much detail when it comes to when your features will be delivered is a mistake. This means that you need to stay away from specific dates. I’m going to take this up one step further, you are going to want to stay away from specific months – it’s far too easy to slip from one month to the next. Instead, I like to talk in terms of quarters: there are four three-month quarters every year. Generally this gives you enough of a window that you’ll almost always be able to deliver on time.

Next, you’re going to have to talk about what you’ll be delivering. First off, let’s talk about what you should not talk about. Unless they are a big deal, don’t talk about bug fixes, behind the scenes tweaks, or other changes that won’t put new functionality in the hands of your customers. Instead, focus on the big functions and provide each one with a name and a brief description of what it will allow your customers to do.

Finally, you are going to want to make sure that when your customers look at their roadmap, they realize that it only describes a point-in-time – things will change. This means that you need to clearly label which version of the customer facing roadmap they are looking at. I like to put the quarter that the roadmap was made in the upper right hand corner: “3Q15”. This means that if they pick up an old roadmap, they will quickly understand that it is out-of-date.

What Does All Of This Mean For You

In order to win new customers and to hang on to the customers that you already have for your product, our product manager job description tells us that a product manager needs to do a good job of telling them about all of the wonderful new things that are going to be happening with his or her product. A great way to go about doing this is to create a customer facing roadmap. These roadmaps can be a bit tricky to create correctly…

Every customer facing roadmap that you create must contain just enough information to answer your customer’s questions, but not so much information that it can be used against you when it falls into the hands of your competitors. This means that you are going to have to pick a high-level timeframe to tell your customers when they will be receiving new functionality. Additionally, you are going to have include descriptions of only the most important functions at a very high level. Finally, add information to let your customers know what timeframe this roadmap covers and you will have completed this task.

A customer facing product roadmap is a part of every product manager’s product development definition. As important as they are, they can be tricky to do correctly. Follow the rules that we’ve identified for you and you’ll be able to create a roadmap that both meets the needs of your customers as well as your product. With a little luck your customer facing roadmap will cause more potential customers to turn into real customers!

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: Do you think a customer facing roadmap should ever be longer than one page?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

Can we talk about trade shows for just a moment? During my product manager career, I have been to a countless number of these things. I must confess, I love them! The travel, the pageantry, the people that I meet all appeal to me. However, when it comes down to just exactly how successful they are for my product, well, that’s another question. Since none of our companies have unlimited funds, what can a product manager do in order to get the most out of a trade show?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ashley Hathaway April 13, 2015 at 6:06 pm

Great tips. Especially helpful for working on product for developers who need extra insight into plans for the API. Lots of hesitation to use the product if it would potentially change drastically and also improves the relationship, feedback, and generally delivering a product they love.

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drjim April 17, 2015 at 11:40 am

Ashley: great points! Keeping that trust with the developers is the key to long term product success…!

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