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Product Roadmap Tools: 5 Easy Steps to Get Started

09/16/2016 05:12 pm ET

A great product roadmap starts with a clear product vision and a canvas explaining customer and market forces that will shape the product's direction. Historically, roadmaps were built using tools like Excel and Powerpoint.

But these tools tend to disconnect product managers from their strategy, and can be painful to update -- especially when other product stakeholders all want to see the same information presented in their own unique way.

Product managers today have access to better software tools that allow them to work more efficiently. Whether you are creating your first product roadmap or are a seasoned PM ready to get out of spreadsheets, it's worth exploring a new approach.

These product management roadmap tools make it possible to:

- Build visual roadmaps

- Link strategy through the roadmapping process

- Capture and score ideas

- Manage releases and features

- Collaborate with everyone (including customers and non-technical colleagues)

- Integrate with third-party systems

If you understand the need for product roadmap tools, you might be wondering how to go about using them? It's quite different than the workarounds you might have been using to get your product management work done in applications like Microsoft Excel or PowerPoint.

Building your first roadmap in a cloud-based tool is easier than you think. And the beauty is you only have to build it once, and then make minor updates depending on the audience who wants to see "their version" of your roadmap.

The details below are geared toward product managers who are ready to take their existing product management work into a software tool. However, the steps aren't all that different.

Here are a few tips to get you started using a product management roadmap tool for the first time:

1. Enter your data (seriously)

As experienced product managers know, it's nearly impossible to map out and keep product management roadmap information up-to-date in Excel and PowerPoint and a bug system. A product roadmap software tool makes it easy to set your product vision, goals, and strategic initiatives and link them to your releases and features.

But you have to enter your data to get the most benefit. Think about it: Did those Excel sheets make themselves? Not likely. You had to take the time to enter your product information. But unlike a spreadsheet, you only have to do this part once in a product roadmap tool.

The first step in using a roadmap tool is to add all of your product information. Many tools allow you to do this by importing a CSV -- putting all that spreadsheet data to good use. You should import as much information as possible, including: products, initiatives, releases, ideas, features, and users. Whatever you are not able to import, you should be able to easily enter to fill in the gaps.

2. Choose what releases to display

Once your data is imported, it's time to begin building a roadmap. For the sake of clarity, this post refers mainly to product roadmaps. But you can use a roadmap tool to build any type of roadmap, from IT roadmaps to product portfolio roadmaps. Some marketing teams even use roadmap tools to plan their campaigns.

Within your product roadmap tool, select which releases to add to your roadmap. By default, most roadmapping software includes all of the releases you have imported so you may need to cull those that are not necessary for your desired view.

Since you will likely only want to showcase a specific number of releases to your audience, add or remove releases at this point to make sure you have the roadmap view that makes the most sense to your business.

3. Selecting features to highlight

After you have the releases you need on your roadmap, you should also customize the features (or user stories) that are displayed. This is another method of filtering your roadmap that allows you to present that right information that is custom tailored to your audience.

4. Choose internal/external release dates

Oftentimes, you need to communicate what's coming, but you can't commit to an exact date. Many roadmapping tools use internal or external dates to give you the ability to communicate a time frame of a day; week; month; quarter; half year; or year. When sharing your roadmap, you can then select whether your internal or external release dates are presented.

5. Customize releases and features

Internal stakeholders will want to understand strategic importance, which is conveyed through goals and initiatives. You may want to display how those releases and features are supporting strategy.

To do so, customize the detail you show at the release and feature level using the options available within your product roadmap tool. For customer or cross-functional team such as sales or marketing, you can simply show the theme of the release and key features of interest.

Every roadmapping tool is different, and there are many options to choose from. It's important that you find that right tool for your product to help you build what matters and be happy doing it.

Great product roadmap tools help you seamlessly present several views of your work -- without the need for extra hours of edits. That's more time you can spend perfecting that brilliant product plan.

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