Why You Don't Need A Public Product Roadmap

TL;DR A public product roadmap is too blunt a tool for gathering user feedback, and likely a distraction from your core product mission. Focus on other more holistic ways to collect user inputs instead.


Oversharing is a time-honored tradition for the age of instagram and reality TV. If celebrities can gain likes by sharing their anorexia confessions, surely startups can gain customer goodwill by sharing their product roadmap? Indeed, public product roadmaps have become such a trend that there are now numerous SaaS products dedicated to the purpose that allow your customers to suggest improvements, vote on features, and monitor the implementation of voted features.

Once in a while we have well-meaning users write to our support desk at Soundwise asking when we are going to have a public product roadmap. Our answer to that question has been: Not this year. Not next year. Actually, probably never.

Don’t get me wrong. We are not arrogant assholes oblivious to user needs. In fact, we pore over all our user suggestions one by one carefully, and have regular one-on-one calls with users to gather feedback. We can’t imagine not doing those things if we want to build a product that evolves and improves and truly make creators’ lives better.

Still, our answer to the public product roadmap is NO.

Before I explain why, let’s consider the argument of the opposite side. Proponents of public product roadmaps tout its benefit of transparency– it’s a grant (and very public) gesture to tell your customers that you care, by letting people opine and vote on product features. It can make users feel like they have a stake in the product and may help increase user loyalty. It’s an easy way to figure out what to build next–just look at which features have the most votes and you’re set.

So if a public product roadmap makes users happy and makes your job as the maker/creator easier, why not have one? Because–

It distracts from the product mission

A new product is an opinionated creation. It reflects the unique perspective of you, the innovator, on how the world works and how it can work better. In that sense a product creator is not different from an artist– you are searching for that synergy between your unique perspective and what the market needs. When you find a specific cohort of people who will buy your specific vision, you have a winner. And that is true for both art and products.

Yet Andy Warhol didn’t poll the audience about how he should paint his Marilyn Monroe. Greta Gerwig didn’t consult movie goers whether she should use non-linear timeline for the Little Women screenplay. And Facebook, Uber, or Salesforce wasn’t made out of the result of online surveys. This is not because of some egotistical hubris on the part of the creator. It’s because as the innovator/artist, you need to have something to say first. You need to have your own point of view to offer, and that point of view is the value added you bring to the marketplace.

Innovation is not a democratic process. More popular does not mean better, and most requested does not mean it should be included in your particular product. A suggestion we get a lot from users at Soundwise is to allow automatic ad insertion in free podcasts, a popular feature among many podcast hosting services. Is it a useful feature? Sure. Are we going to build it? Certainly not now. Because our product mission is to serve creators who sell audio directly to listeners, not creators who primarily make money through advertising. So we need to focus our resources on creating features for the former. Such focus would be harder to maintain if our product development is driven by fulfilling requests from a publicly voted feature wish board.

That opinionated vision–about what problem your product focuses on solving and for whom– is ever more important for product creators in this day and age when software projects can be built and shipped over a weekend. A startup CMO friend recently commented, “Selling SaaS is just like selling shampoo now.” Indeed, when technology is no longer a barrier to competition, your product’s unique point of view is increasingly important in differentiating you from other equally capable development teams. You can’t afford to lose it among the noise created by a populistic tasklist.

Making product decisions based on popular votes may make some of your users happy in the short term, but what it may lead to in the long term is more commoditization of your product. Shiny objects are surely popular, but they are also obvious. If you can chase them, others can, too.

It breeds intellectual laziness

It may seem simple to make product decisions based on which features receive the most votes. You may even pat yourself on the back for taking a “data driven approach”. The only problem is that product decisions are actually not that simple. At the very least they are the conjuncture of your insights on a problem worth solving, your observations about user behavior, and your knowledge about what’s feasible. These decisions should be made with thoughtfulness and deliberation, not with an overarching eagerness to win immediate applause.

Who are behind those feature votes you got? Are they from your core users or people who interact with your product once a quarter? Do those votes reflect critical needs? Or are they nice-to-have addons? (Keep in mind that even if you specifically ask people how important a feature is, you’d likely get biased answers because people will exaggerate just to get their point across.) Do people vote for a feature because it’s “the flavor of the month” on the internet (e.g. give us a TikTok integration!!)? Or because there is a real problem to be solved and your product should be the one solving it?

All these important nuances can be more easily unpacked if you opt to have real conversations with your users. But they are not so discernable when you simply ask people to vote on a list of features. It’s even more dangerous if you actually use those votes as the north star to guide your product development.

In addition, it’s really not the customers’ job to know what you should build next. Your users are busy. They have a life to live. And they spend much less time thinking about your product than you do. That’s why if you outsource the job of product design to your users, be prepared to get a lot of “build-a-faster-horse” type of suggestions that are seemingly relevant yet not-at-all thought-through. If you busy yourself with implementing those suggestions, don’t be surprised that you are not the one inventing the car.

But what if you have a public product board and don’t follow through?

You may say, well, I can still have a publicly voted roadmap, but I don’t have to follow the user suggestions. But then you’re simply creating unnecessary disconnects between you and your customers. If so many users have suggested you should build a faster horse, but you are obviously not doing it, then clearly you are not listening to your customers. “What’s the point of having us publicly suggesting and voting on features if you don’t plan to implement them??” Get ready for writing email campaigns with much apologizing and explaining involved. Why not save the distraction and energy wasted for everyone?

It sets misleading metrics

“The customer is always right” is an easy cop-out. It’s the false safety blanket that the innovator/creator crawls under when we are not feeling courageous enough to stick to the unique perspective our product offers. Your job as the creator is to bring value-added where your customers didn’t realize value existed. If you’re building a product merely following what you are told by your users, you are shunning your duty as the product maker, all the while believing you are simply being customer-oriented.

It’s tempting to try to measure the effectiveness of your work by how quickly you implemented suggestions laid out in your public voting board. Because the metric is tangible and easily trackable. But just because a metric is easy to track doesn’t mean it should be the focus, just like you shouldn’t be looking for your keys only where the light is. Of course theoretically we all know that. But in reality most of us would find it hard to look elsewhere, when it’s so easy to just keep searching under the streetlight.

It puts the team under the wrong pressure

When you have a product roadmap in the open, it certainly creates the urgency to do more. But whether that urgency translates into meaningful productivity is a totally different question. Your team will be under more pressure to deliver– but only as far as the items on the roadmap are concerned. Here’s the thing though. The scope of tasks your team needs to work on likely go much beyond what users put on the roadmap, if you want to build a sustainable, scalable product. Every startup has technical debt. If your user base is growing and you prepare to grow in the future, a lot of often-thankless hours may need to be devoted to tasks that your users can’t see any immediate impact on the frontend. Unsexy projects such as restructuring your server architecture or moving databases are not going to earn you the Customer Care Award from users, and yet may be an absolute must if you want to continue serving them well.

But if your team is under constant pressure to deliver what are on the public roadmap, it would be delusional of you to believe that it wouldn’t affect any tasks not on the roadmap. At the end of the day, whether that extra pressure helps you set the right priorities is questionable.

What to Do Instead

The point of this long rant is certainly not to say that you should ignore user feedback. Far from it, as product creators we should all gather as much user feedback as we can. It’s just that having a public product roadmap is not the best way to approach user feedback, and likely creates more problems than it solves. There are better (less sensational, more holistic) ways. Here are some.

1. Have one-on-one conversations, especially with your most enthusiastic users. This way you get a lot more nuanced feedback about what your users really need and why. And one conversation with a passionate user for your product is probably worth 10 with lukewarm users. Because the former actually “gets” your product, really needs you, and is thinking more about your product than anybody else. They are the group you want to serve really well. The latter group doesn’t need you. Move on.

2. Encourage users to submit product suggestions, but through support desk or suggestion forms. At Soundwise we have the product suggestion form link in the email signature of every support team member. We also ask why the feature is so important, and how much the user would be willing to pay for the suggested feature. (Not that this information is totally reliable. But at least it gives us some sense of what’s behind the user’s request.)

3. Communicate with users regularly about what you did and what you’re planning to do. We try to do these through emails every quarter, to remind users to try out the new features just shipped and of what to expect for the next 6 months. Social media updates serve the same purpose. But the good old email is still most reliable and platform-neutral. Whatever medium you use, getting your users into the habit of hearing from you regularly is a worthy project in itself.

© 2021. Natasha Che. All rights reserved.