Ahhh, product roadmaps. If you’re a digital designer, chances are great that you’ve labored over one before. Love them or hate them, most organizations revolve around these sometimes-confusing pages.
Product roadmaps detail the features a design team plans to implement over upcoming releases. Marketing departments depend on them for bits of insider info to use as bait for customers. Customer service departments use them for training. Product development departments use them to properly budget for upcoming projects and to keep a product’s momentum going in the marketplace.
Features promise delivery of precise changes or upgrades to a website. Designers often plan new features based on the latest and greatest digital trends, and while that’s well and good, I’m fearful we’re getting the cart in front of the proverbial horse a bit.
Bruce McCarthy, founder of UpUp Labs, approaches the product roadmap in a slightly different (but very profound) way. His thought? Instead of building roadmaps around features, smart designers should be building around themes.
“A theme is a group of features tied together by a simple, clear benefit, usually to the user.” - Bruce McCarthy
Themes are commitments made to solve specific customer problems, whereas features focus on a specific end result. Themes seek to research and fully understand customers’ needs and existing problems before making any sort of call on what changes need to be made. As a result, designers oftentimes discover that what they first thought to be the problem is really only a symptom of a greater issue. When they take time to consider the bigger picture instead of starting with the end result in mind, they’re able to make more intentional and impactful design decisions while offering alternative and better solutions.
Themes help design teams to hold features loosely, instead of rushing toward a quick fix that might not be the best option. By building product roadmaps around clearly defined problems, these teams will find that the solutions that are high quality and long lasting.
You might be wondering how you can practically change the way your business approaches product roadmaps, especially when it feels like you’re currently running a well-oiled machine, and that changing up your overall strategy could spell disaster. Here are some simple ways to begin shifting your focus from features to themes:
1. KEEP YOUR CUSTOMERS AT THE CENTER OF YOUR STRATEGY.
UX research and design can no longer be considered a luxury. It must be a first-step requirement during initial strategy sessions. Researching and discussing user problems must be part of the standard operating procedure when discussing how a product is built.
2. THINK IN TERMS OF NECESSITIES.
There are plenty of features that could be classified as nice to have but are not real needs. Make sure all of your customers’ needs are met before considering anything else - your customers will thank you for it!
3. MAKE SURE YOUR ROADMAP SERVES ALL MARKET SEGMENTS.
This is not a one-size-fits-all era, and your roadmap must serve each customer group fully. Consider all of your users and their unique scenarios.
4. DON’T TRY TO PLAY CATCH UP.
When you focus on keeping up with your competitors and copying every new feature that they implement, chances are great that you’ll lose sight of your customers’ needs and your unique role in the marketplace. Focus instead on creating solutions that work for your customer base that competitors can’t easily rip off.
5. THINK BIG PICTURE AND KEEP YOUR VERBIAGE SHORT AND SWEET.
“Efficient workflow” offers a broader perspective than “create a shopping cart experience that requires fewer steps.” Settle on the main problems you’d like to address and don’t get too specific. There’s a strong likelihood that the solution that comes to mind when you begin might not be what ultimately ends up in your release.
6. STAY FOCUSED.
Don’t be a designer who’s distracted by every shiny thing on the path to a release. Stay focused on the themes you’ve settled on and work until your solutions are effective and excellent. Ideally, a theme-centered roadmap is built around three or fewer identified problems. Occasionally you’ll find a problem to be so large that it’s the only thing your roadmap centers on. Staying focused on your themes results in higher-quality design and an faster delivery.
I’m not going to lie - changing your roadmapping approach from features to themes is not going to be easy. Businesses that have worked only in the realm of features might balk at the idea of switching their focus to themes. Features won’t go down without a fight.
THIS DOESN’T MEAN IT’S NOT WORTH THE FIGHT.
If you can push through the challenges that come with change, your business will experience more focus, better results, satisfied customers, and ultimately more revenue. Simply put, change may be your best roadmap to success.
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