Why Working Backwards Is the Best Product Roadmap

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If you want to build robust, sustainable, and impactful products, where do you start? One approach is sit around and think about your vision of how the world should be and conceptualize a product that fits within that framework. Such an approach is hard and unless you are building a tool, a customized ring, or a piece of software just for yourself, the likelihood of building something that can scale and be useful to others is limited. Another approach, called “working backwards” is to put in simple terms what a customer or user is telling you that he or she wants.

If you don’t want to work backwards, you can make mistakes and errors that prove costly. The core thesis of this document is that working backwards is easier to do than you might expect and deeply rewarding. And, most importantly, you already have experience working backwards to build roadmaps in your professional and personal lives. More on that later on.

A simple way to do work backwards and deepen your aptitude with this skill set is to talk with users and listen to what they have to say. By asking probing questions, you can learn. When you believe you are ready to build based on feedback, sit down to write down your thoughts. The working backward framework is applied by startups and large companies who want to reduce time to market, ensure product quality, and to increase the odds that what they build resonates with users.

The process to working backwards is three-fold:

  1. Listen to users and hear what they want and need. It can help to record users so that you can listen and hear their words and the nuance of their language on repeat. Much like recorded webinars, some of the best insights are only picked up on the second or third time.
  2. Document these requests and prioritize accordingly.
  3. Use your prioritization hierarchy to build a robust forward-facing product roadmap.

If you have never deployed a working backwards product framework, it might take an adjustment to how you see technology, users, and their inputs. There are different metaphors for working backwards, including “get out of the building” and “hit the road” as these imply that you leave the safety of your desk and “thinking sanctuary” and speak with real people about their real problems.

The good news about working backwards is that in many respects you have been practising the skills needed to work backwards and build a roadmap your entire life. In grade school, for example, you study for exams by learning about what the teacher will test. When learning to drive, you start with the end goal of being competent behind a wheel and work backwards to build foundational skills. When you start a relationship you build foundations of trust over time from the end goal of creating sustainable bonds. The same is true with the product design: if you are looking to create something that helps others, you need to know what pain points users want solved.

After you have conducted user feedback you can increase the confidence intervals by which you start to conceptualize, plan, devise, build, and launch products – be it consumer applications or B2B subscriptions. Yet there is still one important step to take: after getting feedback you need a way to organize and quantify it. For example, what if two users tell you diametrically opposite things? Which one’s feedback will win out, and why?

One way to solve this problem is to take feedback in the present and think critically about what it will look like as a product in the future. Imagine writing a press release for a large newspaper or magazine profiling your future state product. What would it say? Why would your product matter, and to whom? Just for fun (and for learning) you should take time to write an article six or eight months out and work backwards from how the world will talk about what you have built. Using the future to project and work backwards is akin to putting a photograph into Google and getting the search results back. When you reverse search an image you take what you have – and use it as a guide to find out something else more valuable.

In addition to the theoretical press release, try answering some frequently asked questions that might arise. Why does this product exist? What are the resources that were needed to build it? Who is the primary user?

The application of the working backwards framework is powerful for clarifying how one thinks about products and uses insights to ensure they are guided to North Star. If you don’t know what you are building – or for whom – you won’t know what matters most. And if you don’t know that you can erroneously invest time, resources, engineering material, and product builders to solve things that will be trivial, commercially flawed, or poorly thought out. Think about all the tools available to you today via cloud platforms. If you didn’t know the direction to head, you could easily be overwhelmed by features and settings that distract from your main mission: building useful things for real people.

If you are going on a trip – and want to drive across the country – you know your end destination. You simply work backwards from there and ask: how will I get there? Maybe you pack a map or plan a path. You don’t just hop in your car and start driving.

When building a product, you need a roadmap. Much like with the example of moving goods or services (or yourself) over long distances, digital roadmaps are guides that can help allocate resources and build the right way. There are different ways to build a roadmap but starting with the real hopes, desires, values, and needs of your target audiences is a great place to start. This works for product roadmaps, design sprints, hardware, software (like how to build cloud robotic technology), waterfall, scrum, agile, and even methods to further accelerate a business.

By solving problems for real people and thinking about the future state of your product and its place in the world, you can mitigate risks and think big. Thinking big is a self-fulfilling prophecy as your big thoughts can lead to big actions and better and more holistic product designs. If someone told you there was a way to win money or beat student loans, you would jump with joy. We all would! Working backwards is like that! Though you are not guaranteed to succeed you are greatly increasing the odds of success. And that is an approach worth pursuing.

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