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Is Your Product Roadmap Still Meeting Customer Needs?

| Posted by Justin Zalewski Follow 0 Followers , reviewed by Shane Hastie Follow 28 Followers on Jun 10, 2018. Estimated reading time: 10 minutes |

Key Takeaways

  • A great product vision is tied to meeting a customer need without being prescriptive of the solution.
  • There is a marked difference between soliciting feedback on your product to work towards refining your customer experience and gaining a better understanding of the problem that your product solves.
  • Because your customers’ needs, pain points, and experiences will change as time goes on, it’s critical to implement customer research and validation into your processes at a systemic level.
  • Since your customers’ needs and the market landscape can change so quickly, it’s important to revisit your roadmap often. Exactly how often depends on the size and position of your company
  • An effective product leader should be so familiar with the roadmap that they instinctually recognize when new information about the customer is in conflict with what’s currently in the plan.

Great product leaders cast compelling visions. It’s how Apple became Apple, and Tesla became Tesla. Successful product companies are propelled by visions of how—and why—their product can make a difference in the lives of their customers. It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of having a strong vision for the product. However, that vision must be frequently and consistently kept in line with the needs of the customer.

A great product vision is tied to meeting a customer need without being prescriptive of the solution—for example, “providing accessible and affordable transportation” or “providing secure and private communication.” 

As a company grows, the industry, available technology and the customer all change and evolve over time. Amidst all this change, a product vision that’s tied to a long-term customer problem can remain strong. The strategies and tactics for achieving the vision, however, will inevitably need to adapt to these changing factors. 

Most companies diligently follow information about the state of their industry or technology, but the unfortunate reality is that it’s less common for companies to stay as closely attuned to their customers’ needs and experiences.

To successfully scale a product, you must ensure that your roadmap isn’t just pointed towards the long-term vision, but that the initiatives and features on the roadmap are tied to your customers’ core needs. By consistently including customer research and validation in your product design and development process, you’ll have the insight, direction, and confidence you need to keep your roadmap flexible, while still driving towards the overarching vision.

Quantitative and Qualitative

Most companies have no problem collecting quantitative data. It’s relatively quick and easy to implement any number of analytics solutions to give you visibility into what areas of your product customers are using the most, how frequently they’re logging in and what your churn rate is. These are valuable sources of data that can inform important decisions about your product, but these metrics don’t always tell the whole story. They can give a picture of the whatbut don’t tell you anything about the why. 

That’s where qualitative customer research comes in. Talk directly with customers about what problems they encounter, their motivations, frustrations, backgrounds, and experiences—not just with using your product but in their daily lives. The more conversations you have with customers, the better you’ll understand their journey, and the clearer your perspective will be about the problems your product can address. 

It’s important to note that these conversations are not centered around user testing. You should absolutely be running frequent user tests to validate solutions and identify usability issues within your product (I’ll cover that in the next section), but that’s not the kind of qualitative customer research I’m talking about. There is a marked difference between soliciting feedback on your product to work towards refining your customer experience and gaining a better understanding of the problem that your product solves. 

Example: Customer Journey Maps

We recently worked with a company in the home services market. They already had a busy development team with an ambitious product roadmap, but recognized a lack of understanding about their target customer. 

Through many rounds of one-on-one interviews, workshops, and co-creation exercises with customers and target customers, we created a set of customer journey maps. On these maps, we laid out the results from the customer research, including what customers are doing, thinking, and feeling at each step of their journey. At each step, we also identified opportunities that became clear through the research for the client to better meet customer needs.

These customer journey maps not only gave us and the client a grasp of the problem so that we could formulate effective solutions, they also served as a way to bolster the broader company’s understanding of their customer’s needs and pain points.

These more clearly-defined customer needs—as well as the additional opportunities identified—ultimately served to keep the product roadmap aligned with the company’s overall vision for how they serve their customer.

Test Early, Test Often

All too often, companies forgo testing for the sake of launching quickly. This is especially reckless when features were never based on a clear understanding of the customer need in the first place, but even when your solutions are founded in customer needs, validating that solution should never be skipped. Just because you understand the problem, doesn’t mean that your customers will understand your proposed solution. User testing helps ensure that what you created will actually solve the customer’s problem.

Some companies will conduct user testing before each new product or feature release. This is certainly better than nothing, but at this point you’ve already spent significant resources getting the product or feature built. 

Instead, test as early as possible. Using a clickable prototype can be a great way to validate a design concept before any development resources are spent. Changes to the design are significantly cheaper to implement beforeit goes into development.

The most common reason the validation step is skipped is time, but testing doesn't have to be a long, drawn-out process. If scheduled ahead of time, you can set up a group of users and complete a round of user testing in less than one day. The groups can remain small, consisting of around five users who you expect would get the most value out of the feature you’re testing. Five users may not seem like much, but Nielsen Norman has seen diminishing returnswhen testing with a group of users greater than five. Depending on the particular product or feature, you may need to do more extensive testing, but for validating the concept and UX, this can be done in a very lean manner.

Example: Lean validation through design sprints

We often run design sprints (based on the Google Ventures model) as a way to understand, concept, prototype, and validate a solution in a compressed amount of time. Design sprints are a great example of how customer validation can be included in the process in a very lean and efficient manner.

In a recent design sprint, we designed the next iteration of a product that allows customers to create and maintain email signatures across their organization. (That’s just one aspect of their product, but it’s the area that the sprint was focused on.) Per the design sprint process, we scheduled 5 user tests back-to-back for the last day of the one-week sprint. This validation step can add a week or more onto a project timeline when not carefully coordinated ahead of time. However, through careful planning, we conducted user testing in one day, while still leaving time at the end of the day for us to synthesize and document the patterns and key takeaways we heard in the user testing.

There is a good chance that the results of user testing may lead to additional work, which in turn may affect the timing of your product roadmap. This can cause some pain, but it’s better to know early on than to waste time on a feature that your customers don’t want or can’t figure out how to use. 

Systemic Customer Research & Validation

Because your customers’ needs, pain points, and experiences will change as time goes on, it’s critical to implement customer research and validation into your processes at a systemic level. Whether it’s a dedicated research initiative with a new group of customers each quarter, or meeting with one new customer every day, make sure that research is ongoing. Similarly, set time aside in your design and development processes for customer validation at multiple stages.

Even a small amount of time spent consistently with customers can make a difference. Jared Spool and his team at UIE found that design teams who spent a minimum of two hours every six weeks with customers showed significant improvements over design teams that only spent time with customers once a year or less.

Having these processes consistently in place will get you to a point where you have such a deep understanding of your customers that creating solutions for them feels automatic, almost like instinct. Except in this case, you can back your instinct up with documented customer research.

When to Revisit Your Roadmap

Since your customers’ needs and the market landscape can change so quickly, it’s important to revisit your roadmap often. Exactly how often depends on the size and position of your company: 

Young Startup

A newer startup should update their roadmap at least every quarter. If you work at a startup, you know that it’s often the case that the roadmap changes even more frequently than this. Although it can be frustrating to change your carefully laid plans, and it may even feel like you’re trying to hit a moving target, it’s critical to your success. Startups are constantly learning about their users and trying to find the best market fit, so it’s important to maneuver accordingly. Also, the less formal the structure of startups means that they can execute ideas quickly. Revisiting the roadmap frequently allows them to adapt quicker than larger enterprises. 

Mature Company

A more mature company should be evaluating their roadmap on an annual basis. The target moves a lot less, and a larger enterprise should already have an established customer feedback loop in place to understand their users’ shifting needs. A mature company’s long-term planning should help them iterate and expand. It’s often the case that timelines need to be longer to account for multiple layers of approvals and for the fact that the initiatives themselves are more complex and time-consuming. 

It’s important to note that these are only guidelines based on generalizations. An effective product leader should be so familiar with the roadmap that they instinctually recognize when new information about the customer is in conflict with what’s currently in the plan.

There are practical reasons for having periodic and expected cycles in which to review and update the product roadmap, but this structure should not prevent critical adjustments to the roadmap based on new information learned about needs of the customer.

When the Roadmap Needs to Change

Change is uncomfortable. By sheer exposure and the pace of the environment, product organizations develop a tolerance for change—or, more ideally, embrace it. But it’s still not many people’s default setting.

A change in the plan can be frustrating. In some cases, leadership may be inclined to “stay the course” and “maintain momentum”, but if what you’re hearing from customers reveals that the course needs correcting, then it would be foolish to “maintain momentum” in the wrong direction. With clear customer research backing your decisions, you’ll have a strong, objective foundation to stand on in the event that you do need to argue your case.

It’s important to note that these changes in the roadmap may be jarring at first, if your organization doesn’t have a strong source of customer insight right now. But over time, if you have consistent channels to hear the voice of the customer, most of your updates to the roadmap should be far enough out that work your product team is doing doesn’t need to be interrupted or thrown away. 

The closer you’re connected to your customers and the more you understand their needs, the less dramatic these updates will need to be. With clear customer perspective, you’ll have enough confidence in the right path that the roadmap should feel like smooth steering, not swerving.

Roadmap Confidently

Maintaining a product roadmap requires a great deal of confidence. Any time you’re making changes to the plan, you need to be confident that those adjustments will accomplish the vision and high-level objectives in a way that the existing plan would not. Depending on your role and your organization, you may face resistance to changes in the roadmap, but with a consistent source of customer insights, you’ll have an objective foundation for decision-making.

With consistent sources of customer research and validation in place, you can move forward confidently, with your decisions rooted in a deep understanding of customer needs.

About the Author

Justin Zalewski is the Director of Product Design at Studio Science where he leads a talented team of UI/UX designers and developers focused on digital product design and development. Clients range from small startups to world-renowned brands including Salesforce, Angie’s List, Stack Overflow and MailChimp.

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