Building a Successful IoT Product Roadmap: Lessons Learned
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
– Lewis Carroll, Chapter 6 of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
It may seem absurd to apply a quote from a children’s book to discuss something as important as an IoT Product Roadmap. But the reason why is rather simple really: When you don’t have a roadmap, you will likely end up spending valuable resources and time going down paths that will not get you to your ultimate destination, or worse yet, you may end up in the ditch.
My company, Surfaceink, has worked with some amazing companies: Amazon, Apple, Fitbit, Dell and Microsoft, just to name a few. Each company has benefited from creating detailed IoT product roadmaps that have helped them successfully deliver some amazing and innovative products to the market.
Now more than ever, you see non-technology Fortune 500 companies and start-ups entering the race by designing and developing smart devices and eco-systems. They are all driven by opportunities to enhance customer experience, own data points, and grow new channels for revenue. My advice to them? Follow a proven path to success; start with a roadmap to guide your product development forward.
Build with a Purpose
In a nutshell, a well-thought out and documented IoT Product Roadmap will help align your company’s goals, stakeholders, and resources with your go-to-market strategies.
Additionally, it is the touchstone that communicates how and when to meet those goals, and what to do if (or when) you go off course.
Done right, when the rubber meets the road, your organization will be more confident to go full-speed ahead.
Align Your Stakeholders
Every product development project has a variety of stakeholders, including senior executives, design, engineering, sales, marketing, and finance departments. Sometimes it can be a challenge for everyone to understand the big picture. Each department may have different expectations and will only understand their role. You need these people on board and on the same page.
This is why having a good IoT Product Roadmap is most helpful. It explains what needs to be achieved to get to the final product. No single group will have a holistic understanding otherwise.
For example, the coordination of the design and development team will be vital, and with IoT this could be complex because implementation may be split across multiple groups depending on the company structure. Additionally, apart from the technical perspective, there are always business challenges that arise and must be addressed by other stakeholders.
Understand the Ecosystem
From a technical standpoint, there are many parts—hardware, software, communications, and the cloud. Even though Surfaceink is focused primarily on hardware design and development, I understand what we do is just the tip of the iceberg. Visible hardware is where the eye is drawn, but the bulk of the ecosystem is the software and ultimately where most of the long-term value is gained. Hardware is the hook and the software ecosystem is where the stickiness is. Software earns retention.
A place many aspiring IoT companies stumble is in software. Product planners may have identified a highly attractive customer need, created the most elegant and feature-rich hardware solution, and are able to price it all so it will fly off the shelves. Only afterwards do they think about getting to work on the software. Wrong! If your software solutions are not well planned ahead of time, you will waste a huge amount of resources attempting to fix and retrofit (ultimately creating unsatisfactory patches and Band-Aids) and the poor planning will be evident in the end product experience.
By almost all resource and time metrics, software will be the single largest contributor to IoT product scope. It permeates the product ecosystem from device bootloader, OS, and embedded applications, to mobile apps, cloud interfaces, databases, business applications, dashboards, and over-the-air updates. All of this, of course, needs to be wrapped in a coherent and sustainable security architecture, and the components need to work seamlessly together to achieve the overall product and solution vision.
To the uninitiated, software is software, and the distinctions between types of developers are fuzzy at best. As it turns out, each of these areas is really a separate domain, with different languages, frameworks, tools, lingo, and processes. Software engineers working on the database schema or web front end may know only slightly more than a mechanical engineer about what the embedded software developers are doing.
Here again, if you have an IoT Product Roadmap and pull it out to share with everyone involved, it can be a helpful internal tool to clarify responsibilities and broadly sketch out the end to end software architecture. Each contributor can then clearly understand the goals as well as any points of intersection with the other software, engineering, and product disciplines. While not a design document per se, the roadmap should identify key third-party services that need to be integrated, outline the security requirements, and highlight key metrics that need to be achieved for items like battery life, wireless range, and update experience expectations.
Plotting Out Your IoT Roadmap
Here are the key elements that every product roadmap should include:
- Product strategy and goals
- Features to be considered
- Features to be built
- Who is responsible for each part of the product?
- What are the priorities?
- What are the possible challenges and how will they be handled?
As you begin to craft your roadmap, take steps to understand your audience, the business case and problem you are out to solve with your product. To list a few:
- What part of the market are you going after?
- What kind of experience do you envision for the customer?
- How does our product solve a problem or a need in the market?
- What are customers willing to pay for the solution?
- Where will the product be distributed?
The answers you provide are going to be different depending on a variety of factors, but always keep in mind that you are seeking to get a viable product to market. You need to start wide and then narrow it down to make that process work.
Defining Product Features
You start by considering all the “indispensable” features, those bells and whistles that you first believe are necessary. Then go back and think about your customers. All those features will cost you in time, money and effort. Are those “indispensable” features really of value to the customer to the degree that they will pay extra for them? If not, your target audience may never purchase the product.
A lot can be defined by a problem statement. Let’s use the example of the hospitality industry and consider an IoT product such as a voice-enabled device in a hotel room.
- What part of the market: young, old, families, business travelers?
- What experience do you want them to have: convenience, enjoyment, assistance, luxury?
- What solutions will you provide: control lights and heat, listen to music, order room service, connect to local restaurants?
- Are there external elements such as an app, wristband or kiosk in the lobby that will interact with it as well?
- Are there internal ROIs to be gained or leveraged with the solutions: employees, internal communications, safety, insurance, operations, etc.?
Asking these questions will help you define features and the elements needed. While you would certainly like to meet the all the desires of the end user, you can’t just say, “Here are all things we can do; let’s go make them.” Take time to do research and be realistic. The discovery process is so important.
When you begin by defining your end user, your efforts are not simply about understanding your customers, but how those customers will use your product in real world conditions. So, shift your priorities to be sure you map your production in a way that offers market success.
Finally, consider price point. You don’t want production costs to be prohibitive. Your target audience must be willing to buy it. Keep in mind, your first product will usually be expensive, but you want to get it to market and get early adopters who will buy it and then you can scale it appropriately.
Remember the expense tied to laptops years ago? Once people started using them (and liking them) it was possible to find ways to utilize the cloud instead of the more expensive internal processor. It made the product more cost-effective and brought down prices considerably. That’s just one example of many.
As I mentioned at the start, great companies get great results when they use roadmaps. Amazon, a company that was once solely an online retailer, was able to get into hardware products because of a great roadmap. Microsoft started out creating software and now has Xbox. Apple began with home computers and now has iPhones, watches and more. Be intentional about what you do. Slow down, do the research and discovery process. Doing so helps you see all the places you can go.
In my experience, you need to start with the end in mind, then take first things first. Working from top down: “Here’s who we are; these are the stakeholders, etc.” and from the bottom up: “Here’s what we can do, here’s the support and the effort it will involve.” Working from both ends can often quickly identify gaps in the plan.
Get your product in the marketplace and then do another iteration when you see what happens out there. Listen to feedback and see how people use the product.
Then, be present. When you do, you’ll know how to respond to challenges or opportunities that are ever-present regardless of the product. Companies are either prepared or not. Those who are prepared are the successful ones.