Product Roadmaps: Just One Damn Thing After Another?

Dostoyevsky once wrote (paraphrasing) that every man needs both a place to be, and a place to go. Others very cleverly talk about the difference between roots and routes, arguing that in order for humans to reach their full potential, they need to know both who they are, and have a vision for what they wish to become.

The same applies to products.

Unfortunately, product managers and humans alike rarely think deeply about either being or becoming. They think of life (that of the themselves or their products) as simply the cumulative effect of adding one thing after another. True, this may be life in the strictest and barest sense, but would anyone call this ‘flourishing?’ I think not.

Let’s talk about product roadmaps.

A product roadmap is NOT a list of features on a timeline. A roadmap is not a prioritized list of feature requests. A product roadmap, insofar as it IS a roadmap, MUST begin with a clear idea of what the product is, and what it aspires to become. It must have roots and routes.

Of course, the way that a product thinks of its roots and routes is always subject to change in the same way as a human being may change their self-conception and aspirations. What is VITAL, however, is that they HAVE a self-conception and a vision for the future.

You can’t steer a parked car.

It’s incredibly easy for product managers to fall into the same trap as humans in general, thinking of their roadmaps in terms of ‘what’

  • WHAT am I going to do?
  • WHAT am I going to do next?
  • WHAT are my product gaps?
  • WHAT are my customers requesting?

But a product roadmap should NOT first and foremost be concerned with ‘what’ questions. It needs to instead be laser focused on the ‘how.’

The ‘what’ is fundamentally about vision.

  • What is it?
  • What should it become?

Only once these questions are asked and answered can a product manager start thinking about creating and prioritizing specific features and enhancements. A clear vision gives a product a ‘why,’ and makes it possible to frame a roadmap as the ‘how.’

In the absence of this vision work (which is hard to do), however, there is no roadmap. There is no beginning. There is no end. Without a clear vision framed in terms of what a product is, and what it aspires to become, a ‘product roadmap’ is simply one damn thing after another.

Product as Praxis: How Learning Analytics tools are ACTUALLY Differentiated

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about product as praxis. Without putting too much conceptual weight behind the term ‘praxis,’ what I mean is merely that educational technologies are not just developed in order to change behavior. Ed tech embodies values and beliefs (often latent) about what humans are and should be, about what teaching and learning are, and about the role that institutions should play in guiding the development of subjectivity. As valued, educational technology also has the power to shape, not just our practices, but also how we think.

When thought of as praxis, product development carries with it a huge burden. Acknowledging that technology has the power (and the intention) to shape thought and action, the task of creating an academic technology becomes a fundamentally ethical exercise.

Vendors are not merely responsible for meeting the demands of the market. ‘The market’ is famously bad at understanding what is best for it. Instead, vendors are responsible for meeting the needs of educators. It is important for vendors to think carefully about their own pedagogical assumptions. It is important for them to be explicit about how those assumptions shape product development. The product team at Blackboard (of which I am a part), for example, is committed to values like transparency and interoperability. We are committed to an approach to learning analytics that seeks to amplify the power existing human capabilities rather than exclude them from the process (the value of augmentation over automation). These values are not shared by everyone in educational technology. They are audacious in that they fly in the face of some taken-for-granted assumptions about what constitute good business models in higher education.

Business models should not determine pedagogy. It is the task of vendors in the educational technology space to begin with strong commitments to a set of well-defined values about education, and to ensure that business models are consistent with those fundamental beliefs. It will always be a challenge to develop sustainable business models that do not conflict with core values. But that’s not a bad thing.

When it comes to the market for data in eduction, let’s face it: analytics are a commodity. Every analytics vendor is applying the same basic set of proven techniques to the same kinds of data. In this, it is silly (and even dangerous) to talk about proprietary algorithms. Data science is not a market differentiator.

What DOES differentiate products are the ways in which information is exposed. It is easy to forget that analytics is a rhetorical activity. The visual display of information is an important interpretive layer. The decisions that product designers make about WHAT and HOW information is displayed prompt different ranges of interpretation and nudge people to take different types of action. Dashboards are the front line between information and practice. It is here where values become most apparent, and it is here where products are truly differentiated.