How to get from Firehose of Ideas to a Strategic Product Roadmap
Editor's Note: today's guest article comes from ProductPlan Director of Marketing, Andre Theus who joins us to continue our recent customer feedback best practices theme by sharing some insight into how customer feedback should make its way onto your product roadmap.
Product planning and strategizing can be an exciting process — and not just for product managers. Often it seems everybody has an idea about what should go into a product: investors, executives, sales reps, engineers, customers, prospects, the IT team...the list goes on. That’s why being a product manager can sometimes feel like being a parent: You have to say “no” a lot.
If you’ve been a product manager for any period of time, you’ve likely found your challenge isn’t a lack of ideas, feedback, or data when it comes to building your product roadmap. It’s just the opposite — having too much information, and trying to sort through it all to decide what supports your product’s goals and what doesn’t.
It can be challenging. Someone on your marketing team will stop you in the hallway with an idea for a feature set for the next version of the product, which they’re “sure as can be” will resonate with customers. A couple of your executives will show you an article they read about a competitor, and they'll suggest you change a lot of your app’s functionality because the article speaks highly about features in the competitor’s product that yours doesn’t have. And a sales rep will ask — even beg — for a very specific, and very time-consuming addition to the roadmap because they have a “near promise” from a prospect to buy if it’s included.
But as a product manager, you are not merely an order taker. You are your product’s champion and its chief strategist — responsible for driving the product’s development and bringing it to market in a way that aligns with your company’s strategic goals. If you can’t identify the impractical or otherwise unfeasible ideas — and keep them out of your roadmap — who will?
Sift Through the Firehose of Ideas Strategically
You can’t afford to passively stand in front of the firehose of ideas and suggestions from every source, and include them all — or prioritize requests based on the degree of influence or power of the requestor. Instead, you will need to use your strategic knowledge of your product, market, and other factors to proactively seek out the information and business intelligence you’ll need to build the best product possible.
This intelligence is what will ultimately lead to the details of your roadmap: What the new product (or new version of the existing product) will include, for whom, why, and how it will advance your company’s goals.
Here are some great places to start gathering this business intelligence to help determine how to build your roadmap:
1. User Feedback
Obviously one of the best sources of feedback on how your product is working and where it needs work, is from the people actually using it.
Use whatever methods of communicating with your user base that work best for you. That could be making phone calls to specific customers for detailed interviews, implementing customer feedback systems like UserVoice, running online surveys, hosting user groups, or even asking your customer support team to point out specific users they know will have a lot to say about your product — good or bad.
But keep this in mind: Your users represent a skewed set of data. They, after all, have purchased and are using your product. Don’t fall into the trap of relying on your existing customer base as the sole source of information about where your product excels, where it falls short, or what should be included in the next version.
More importantly, don’t build exactly what your customers ask for. Sometimes customers’ feature requests do not necessarily align with your product vision. As a product manager, you also need to bring to the table your knowledge of what’s feasible to solve their problem in the best possible way — which might not match with their feature requests.
2. Customer Support Product Feedback
Your customer support personnel are on the front lines gathering real-world user feedback. They know what the most common problems are with your product, what features customers most often call to ask for, etc.
As with your customers, you can communicate with and learn from your customer support teams in many ways. Take a customer support rep to lunch. Create a short online survey and ask everyone in the department strategic questions about their experiences with customers and the company’s products.
Don’t leave your customer support teams out of the product roadmap process. Including their feedback among the valuable information you’ll be gathering from around your organization will give you better real-world intelligence and will also help to better align everyone’s interests across the organization.
Imagine how much more effective you can make your products if you speak first to the people who field real-world questions and complaints about them.
3. Sales Feedback
Your sales reps are one of your primary liaisons between your company’s products and the people and organizations that ultimately buy them (or don’t).
When sales and product management don’t communicate, the business’s bottom line often suffers. If your sales reps know that a certain product or feature upgrade won’t resonate with their customer base, or that they won’t be able to sell it at the price your team has set, you need to know why.
Remember, after having dozens or even hundreds of conversations with prospective customers about your products, your sales team can represent a gold mine of business intelligence about how to improve your products — and how best to build or update your product roadmaps.
4. Competitive Landscape
Your goal, of course, is to create a unique and valuable product in the market. However, you can learn a great deal about the landscape by reviewing your competitors’ products.
You can gain valuable competitive intelligence by looking in less-obvious places than within your competitors’ products themselves. For example, check out blog comments or support pages where users are discussing your competitors’ products. This can represent another gold mine of intelligence for you. Learn what customers like about these products, what they don’t like, and what they wish they had.
Related idea: Do the same with your own product. Spend time regularly reviewing your social media channels and user support sites where your customers are discussing your product, offering each other tips, complaining, etc. There’s gold there, too.
A word of caution: While it’s possible to identify features you hadn’t thought of, be aware of the danger of using your competitors for inspiration. Simply using your competitors’ feature list for your roadmap is a sure fire way to launch another “me too” product that provides little in the way of competitive differentiation.
5. Analyst Research
Study industry reports about your category of product (from Gartner, Forrester and other analyst firms that cover your industry) to determine what types of products work, with whom, and why.
What’s often useful about these reports is the survey-generated data they gather from your target customers across the landscape. While it is relatively easy to create a survey for your own customers or prospects, it is much more difficult (and costly) to gather a similar set of responses from all of those target customers out there with whom your company has never communicated and has no relationship.
And remember: Studying only your own customers will give you a skewed picture about your products.
6. Analytics and Metrics
Evidence is far more compelling than your opinion — or anyone else’s opinion, for that matter. Your stakeholders and your other product roadmap constituents will be less interested in what you think or what your gut tells you than in what you’ve proven.
If you have real-world user data on your product — or, if you’re developing a new product, data on similar products you’ve launched in the past — then you already have an excellent source of business intelligence to inform how best to build your product roadmap. Let your own analytics help guide your decisions.
This data could be video of your customers discussing or using your product, user analytics, direct customer quotes or requests, etc. But it needs to be evidence, not speculation.
Four Traits a Successful Product Manager Needs
Once you have gathered and analyzed all of this business intelligence, you will be ready to begin the next two stages of your product’s development. First, you will need to distill all of these ideas and business intelligence into a focused, strategic direction for your product. Then, you will need to communicate this strategy to multiple stakeholders, earn buy-in from decision makers, and ensure the appropriate teams understand their roles and have the tools they need to execute the strategy.
Navigating these stages will be difficult — you will inevitably face a series of fires, competing agendas, and, of course, limited resources. To deal with all of these obstacles, and others, you will need at least the following skills:
1. The ability to distill direction from ideas
When you step back and take an aerial view of all of the ideas and business intelligence you’ve gathered in your pre-roadmap planning and prioritizing stage, it will be time to translate all of this raw data into a clear, focused strategic direction for your product.
You will also need to be able to distill this strategy into a simple and straightforward message you can articulate to the many stakeholders who will need to understand this direction — executives, engineering, sales, customers, prospects, etc.
2. The ability to artfully say no
This might be the hardest of all skills to master. Product managers always work in the context of limited time, limited money, and other real-world constraints. As a successful product manager, you will need to be able to keep any extraneous items out of the the roadmap, to ensure the product stays on plan and meets its high-level objectives.
Just as important, though, you must also be able to communicate these tough decisions — often to powerful stakeholders, such as executives or investors — in a way that persuades these constituents the decision is necessary for the success of the product.
3. The ability to plan top-down — from vision, to strategy, to execution
Remember, the product planning and strategizing stages can be exhilarating — especially in an organization where the team is truly enthusiastic about the product. At these early, pre-roadmap stages, everything is possible. People often can’t help but get carried away in brainstorming all of their exciting ideas: “We should do this!” “And we could even add that!” “How cool would the product be if we did this?!”Those ideas are a great source of inspiration and should be taken into consideration, but don't simply plan new features without properly vetting them from a strategic perspective.
As the product manager, you need to start planning with an overall product vision. That vision must then inform your strategy, and any component of the strategy that doesn’t support the vision must go. Finally, the strategy must inform the details of the execution, and any detail running counter to the strategy must also go.
4. The ability to prioritize ruthlessly
Because product managers are often the single point of contact for everything that happens in a product’s development, they can often find themselves pulled into putting out fires — issues that are not important enough to affect the product’s success but that demand immediate attention.
As a successful product manager, you will need to stay focused on the strategic and to place these little fires in their proper perspective — delegating them to the appropriate teams, or simply setting them aside as the low-priority events they are. Your rule must be simple and consistent: If an issue doesn’t advance our product’s strategic goals, or the product vision, we don’t prioritize it.
Conclusion: Be a Great Listener; Be a Great Communicator; and Be Great at Saying No
A product manager’s job can be described in many ways. But there are three key functions of being a great product manager, and all of the other elements of the job fit into one of these buckets.
First, a product manager needs great listening skills. You will need to take in feedback from many sources. And because you are your product’s central hub, interacting with so many different constituencies — executives, engineers, customers, etc. — you will need to understand the subtleties of each constituent group’s unique dialect. Any idea, from any source, could be a terrific addition to your product — or a resource-draining failure. You need to be able to listen for that as well.
Second, when you’ve distilled this firehose of information into a workable strategy for your product, you’ll need to be able to articulate that strategy in a way that is clear and persuasive to all of your constituencies. Mastering this skill is the only way you will be able to earn the buy-in you’ll need to get your product development underway, and it will also be necessary to ensure that every constituent group clearly understands their role. And third, you will need to artfully push back against the ideas, suggestions, and requests you deem do not further the strategic direction you set for your product. I say artfully because your constituents will often have strong feelings about including a specific feature or theme in your roadmap.
Here you will need to bring in all of your other skills — analyzing data, building a case with evidence, and presenting that case clearly — to explain persuasively why you are including certain things on the roadmap and not others.
None of this will be easy. If it were, anyone could be a product manager. And you and I know different.
Want to learn more roadmapping best practices plus get sample roadmaps and prioritization frameworks you can use at your company? Check out ProductPlan’s new book (it’s free): Product Roadmaps: Your Guide to Planning and Selling Your Strategy. And best of luck at your next roadmap meeting!