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Last updated on 1/13/20

Create a roadmap

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In work environments, it's easy to get distracted by last minute and seemingly urgent demands. Despite all the everyday distractions, the big picture goals can't be ignored. Roadmaps are a way to focus teams around project goals.

In addition to serving as a guide for the project timeline, roadmaps become a high-level strategic plan. They include all the key steps for the project process, including testing and iteration before a project ships or launches. Rather than specific dates, roadmaps provide estimations.  When products are involved, aspects of the timeline are paired with release dates of the product.

When it comes to app, website, or software development, the product roadmap is often created by the product manager. However, some designers may find themselves creating their own, too, particularly as a freelancer. Like everything in UX, roadmaps can be adapted in different ways for different purposes. This chapter will get you thinking about how you can apply the concept of roadmaps to any work you do.

Different approaches to roadmaps

Every company will have their own approach to roadmaps. Some will be more informal, made by hand, use sticky notes, or involve a specific visual and graphic style. These roadmaps can be incredibly simple, yet at the same time be very effective for tracking progress and maintaining a schedule. Others may be more complicated, or rely on software to create them.

Let's look at a few examples with different levels of fidelity.

1. Joceyln K. Glei, author of the podcast Hurry Slowly about being more productive by slowing down, created this self-proclaimed messy roadmap in order to track her progress: 

Quick sketch overview of jobs that need to be done to complete a project.
A messy roadmap by Joceyln K. Glei

2. This is a more formalized roadmap that is visual and literal for each step of the process:

Illustration of a curvy road with different UX steps along the way.
A visual and literal roadmap. The idea is not to get too far ahead of yourself, nor forget any key steps along the way.

3. Roman Pichler shares his own template for his "GO Product Roadmap" on his website, where you can download it at full size. It's designed to be a goal-oriented roadmap which integrates time, the project, goal, features, and metrics.

Template for a downloadable roadmap (looks like a spreadsheet) from Roman Pichler.
Go Product roadmap

Digital roadmaps

Roadmaps, like many tools used in UX, have evolved over time. "Waterfall" is an older project management style where one step literally flows into the next, with less room for revision. In the waterfall approach, the product manager uses something like a Gantt chart, which is a spreadsheet that uses horizontal bars in different colors to help mark different phases of a project timeline.

Horizontal bars in different colors to signify different phases of a project.
Representational gantt chart

More and more, project managers are managing their roadmaps using online software tools like Aha!, RoadmunkProduct Plan, and the Atlassian suite (which includes JIRA, Conflence, and Trello), among others. 

As a designer, you likely won't be the one creating the roadmap, but it's interesting to examine how they can be used in different industries. Check out this sample using Roadmunk software:

Roadmunk roadmap showing large project overview with different areas of focus.
Roadmunk sample roadmap
Column view of product management software to organize the big picture.
Roadmunk sample roadmap in "swim lane" view.

Keeping a flexible mindset

 Screen capture from a Medium article suggesting that roadmaps are a 3-month view, and there's a 5 year vision, and to not worry much about what is in between.

The image above is a comment from Cody Simms' article, Why Most Product Roadmaps are a Train Wreck and How to Fix This. It's a good reminder to not get too caught up in the process because we can't always predict what will happen, but at the same time, it's important to work towards a vision or long-term goal. Also, it's easy to get distracted by the process at times, so it's important to focus on what you are learning in each phase.

Roadmaps often need to be revised, which is a good indicator of the fact that everything doesn’t go as planned, and design and development are dynamic work environments. As you start to think about how you may be able to integrate roadmaps into your own work, consider how they serve as a visual plan, a strategy document, a dynamic plan that is subject to change, and a way to align products/projects with strategy.

Roadmaps and tracking progress

When working on anything in UX, UI, development or product there are a lot of different elements that make up a project. In other words, there's a lot to keep track of, juggle, and prioritize at the same time. Teams will track their progress using any number of different tools.

In the startup world, JIRA is currently a popular software tool which is used by developers and Agile teams (more on that soon), but also by some design teams. Taiga is another product management platform that helps manage tasks, as well as organize and manage projects.

Team members are assigned tasks which are added as "tickets" to the backlog. The backlog is a collection of all the features or technical tasks needed to complete a project. The tasks can then be prioritized based on the roadmap and project goals. As with any important project document you create, it's important to remember to refer to roadmaps regularly in order for them to be effective.

Screen inside of the software JIRA which involves multiple people collaborating on a project.
Example of a JIRA backlog. Highest priority items appear at the top of the page, lower priority towards the bottom.

View with tasks in columns, which are assigned a different status.
Different view of the JIRA backlog, organized by status. Left to right: to do, in progress, to review, to fix, to verify, verified, done. Each task is assigned to someone on the team.

The larger a team gets, and the more people and tasks are involved, the more a tool becomes important for managing the workload. In product development, sprints are used to set goals – related to the roadmap – in order to focus on particular tasks in a short period of time.

The time period can change depending on where you work, but often 2 week sprints are standard. Sometimes UX and design teams are part of these sprints, other times they work on their own schedules and within their own project management systems.

The roadmap, along with the help of a product manager, or project manager, is there to keep you and the project on track.

Let's recap!

  • Roadmaps are high level strategic documents for project management to guide projects towards their goals.

  • Roadmaps are designed to have some flexibility in terms of timelines, and may need to be updated as you go to reflect changes to the product.

  • Different teams may use different tools or approaches to roadmaps.

  • Waterfall is an older project management style, yet you still may encounter it in some workplaces.

  • JIRA is a popular software for keeping track of and prioritizing tasks.

Example of certificate of achievement
Example of certificate of achievement