May 3, 2023
A Practical Guide to Successful Product Planning
The key to any successful project is to have a clear action plan. The same goes for products – good product planning ensures your product meets the needs of users and aligns with the company's goals. In this article, we'll explore what product planning actually is, why it's important, and how it is still relevant in modern product management despite being a well-established process. We will also provide you with a practical guide to creating a successful product plan yourself.
What is product planning?
In simple terms, product planning is the process of defining and prioritizing the features, requirements, and goals of a product. Product planning is a valuable process that helps teams ensure that their products are developed with a clear purpose and direction, and that they meet the needs of their customers. At its core, product planning is not a one-time thing, but a continuous process in which you define what to build, how and why. In the present-day context, product planning overlaps heavily with product discovery.
The process of product planning goes hand in hand with defining your product strategy. It is multidisciplinary in nature and usually involves market research, competitor analysis, defining the target audience, defining the product's positioning, and aligning the product plan to your business’ goals.
In some cases, the output of this process can be a documented product plan – a deliverable that outlines the product's roadmap, features, and milestones, though this is not necessarily the case.
Why is product planning important?
In simple terms, product planning is important because planning in general is important. This may seem obvious, but many teams still take an ad hoc approach to product management, jumping into products and features without a clear plan. Product planning is important in that it enables you to do a few things, including:
Understanding the target user: First off, product planning helps ensure that the product meets the needs of your potential users by clearly scoping the target audience. Defining the target audience and their needs is crucial for ensuring the success of any product in the market.
Driving business outcomes: Second, product planning helps ensure that the product aligns with your company's goals. By defining your desired outcomes and ensuring they align with your company’s wider goals, you can make sure the product contributes to the company's overall strategy.
Maximizing impact: Finally, product planning helps ensure that your team’s resources are allocated effectively. Prioritizing features and requirements is a core part of a product plan and crucial in maximizing the impact of the time and resources you invest into your product.
What is the difference between product planning and roadmapping?
Product planning and roadmapping are often used interchangeably, but they are actually two different things. Product planning is linked to your strategy and is the overarching process of defining your goals, customer needs and prioritized features. The output is a general plan and not necessarily a concrete deliverable (though you can always document your plan to share it with others).
Roadmapping, on the other hand, is the process of creating a visual representation of the product and features you are working on. It can often be a part of a product plan or an outcome of it, but it isn’t the same as the product plan itself. A product roadmap typically focuses on visualizing milestones, timelines, and the most highly prioritized features that have already been decided and agreed upon.
Product planning in 5 simple steps
The best products are developed through an iterative approach, so it might feel counterintuitive to make a fully fleshed out product plan in the form of a single deliverable. That is why we advise to look at product planning less as the process you will use for developing a new product, but rather as an exercise for ensuring you have a full overview of what you want to build and why.
Product planning can be very helpful as part of defining your product strategy, aligning it to your product operations. It’s a useful way to gain a holistic overview of your plans and can form the basis of a concrete deliverable that you can share with other stakeholders; so long as everyone is aware that once you dive into product discovery, many things will change, evolve and become subject to iteration as you learn from your users.
Here’s a simple 5-step approach to product planning:
Step 1: Define the target audience
The first step in product planning is to define the target audience. Identify your key segments and ideal customer profiles, create personas and map your customer’s journeys. This includes identifying the needs and pain points of the target audience, as well as understanding their preferences and behaviors.
Step 2: Conduct market research
The second step is to conduct market research. This includes researching the competition, analyzing market trends, and identifying opportunities and gaps in the market. Look at things like features, pricing, positioning and marketing.
Step 3: Define the value proposition(s)
The third step is to define the product's value proposition(s). This includes identifying the product's unique selling points and the benefits it provides to the target audience. Think about your problem-solution fit and create an opportunity solution tree to see how your solutions address your customers’ problems.
Step 4: Prioritize features and requirements
The fourth step is to prioritize features and requirements based on the customer needs, the team resources and your business outcomes. This means identifying the right prioritization framework and prioritizing a list of ideas based on your biggest opportunities.
Step 5: Create a roadmap
The final step is to create a roadmap that outlines the products and features in line with your plan. Make sure to clearly outline the timeline and milestones within your roadmap and link the roadmap items back to your main outcomes.
Common product planning pitfalls to avoid
While product planning can be important for the success of a product, there are common pitfalls that product teams should be aware of. These include:
Failing to define the target audience: Without a clear understanding of the target audience, it is difficult to create a product that meets their needs. Spending more time in the opportunity space to understand the problems you need to solve is crucial for any product plan.
Not understanding the market early on: Without properly researching the market research, it is difficult to understand how you can leverage gaps within the market that your competition leaves behind. Differentiation and unique positioning is something that starts with your product strategy and is not something marketing should do after something is built.
Failing to define clear value propositions: The key to a good value proposition lies in a deep understanding of the customers' use-case. Spending time understanding those use-cases is key to formulating value propositions that users relate to.
Prioritizing the wrong features: Prioritizing the wrong features can lead to a product that doesn't solve your users’ problems. Doing discovery well is crucial for prioritizing ideas that impact your outcomes.
Failing to adjust the plan as needed: Product planning is an ongoing process, and you will need to continuously iterate as you learn from your customers.
Product planning is a valuable process that helps you translate your product strategy into action and communicate key priorities to other teams. By following a fe simple steps, you can create a successful product plan that helps you gain a holistic overview of your product and its desired impact.
Remember, product planning is an ongoing process, and iteration is the name of the game. There is no such thing as creating a single plan that turns out 100% as expected. Product planning is often much messier in practice than on paper, and that’s ok. The important thing is to keep in mind the key principle of understanding and solving your customers’ problems as you make product decisions.