What is a Theme?
Founder and CEO Bruce McCarthy describes a theme as "a high-level customer need." Note in this description that he is talking about needs/problems rather than specific solutions. This is why themes are an appropriate roadmap element.
Themes indicate areas of focus and help communicate the product strategy to internal stakeholders and external customers without prematurely committing to the best feature/solution to achieve desired outcomes.
Author and user-experience expert Jared Spool explains the trade-off between features and themes:
The viability of a feature may shift dramatically, while the nature of an important customer problem will likely remain the same. As each part of the roadmap gets closer, the customer problems often become clearer, making solutions easier to find.
Determine Themes from a Product Backlog
According to the SCRUM Guide, a product backlog is:
an ordered list of everything that is known to be needed in the product. It is the single source of requirements for any changes to be made to the product.
A product backlog is a place where a product manager keeps a list of all desired future improvements and suggestions for improvements.
When a product manager receives requests for product improvements from Sales, Marketing, Legal, and other departments in the organization, it is important to store these requests somewhere - and the product roadmap is this place. The product manager can use an Excel sheet, a text document, a wiki, or roadmap management software to add these requests to the backlog.
The product manager will also prioritize the list from time to time. Look at the list of features in the following sample roadmap:
If you organize the individual features on the product backlog and group them into related areas, it might look a bit like the image below. There are three themes grouped by related features taken from the product backlog above.
Determine Themes From Customer Needs
You learned above how to transform a list of product features (a product backlog) into a set of themes. It is also possible to identify themes first and postpone the discussion about which features or solutions comprise that theme. This can be accomplished by knowing the customer and their needs.
Author and user-experience expert Jared Spool describes how you shouldn't fill a roadmap with themes unless you know what the customers care about:
You can’t fill a roadmap with customer problems if you don’t know anything about your customers. By moving away from the invention of features (which can be done independent of whether customers need what you’re building), the roadmap technique requires deep and thorough customer insights.
If you know that customers care deeply about reporting, for example, you may state your future commitment to enhanced reporting by adding it as a theme in your roadmap.
The question then is, "how do you know what your customers care about?" It will be discussed in the next section of the course.
The benefit to a theme-first approach is that you can examine solutions (features) at the moment of solving the problem and can adjust your approach (which features to build) based on constant feedback from what is working in previous releases.
Communicate the product strategy in your roadmap so that internal stakeholders and external customers can understand, buy-in, and align with the strategy.
Use themes to explain what you will focus on improving. Avoid focusing on specifics of how you will fix something. Rather, indicate the area of focus.
This allows you to try things, learn, and receive feedback. The team can then determine which set of features will help achieve the objectives.
You can create themes by either:
Clustering features in the product backlog to form themes.
Adding themes directly into your roadmap. This assumes that you know your customers well and the jobs they are trying to accomplish.
Jared Spool on how Theme-Based Roadmaps can inspire organizational change.
Solution Sickness and how product managers should be focused on identifying the right problems and avoid becoming too attached to solutions.
In the next chapter, we will look at how to map the themes from the roadmap to the Objectives and Key Results that matter most to the business. In doing so, you will see how future areas of focus help the company achieve the results it desires.