person working on theme-based roadmap

Theme-Based Roadmaps: How They Differ From Tactical Roadmaps & Why We Always Start With Themes

Explore the differences between theme-based and tactical roadmaps and deepen your understanding of how theming can unlock stakeholder buy-in.

Too many digital leaders dive into tactics before they consider the bigger picture. Good digital product strategy means understanding your particular users/audience, finding where they get stuck in the digital journey, and smoothing out their path.

We get it. Tactics are seductive. Why? Because they’re easy and they feel like doing something.

You can find lists of tactics and “best practices” all over the web. But without a foundational strategy behind them, standalone tactics aren’t likely to move the needle. You need custom solutions that are selected to address your specific conversion barriers.

So, before we talk about tactics, we have to talk about themes.

A theme-based roadmap is a problem-focused approach to optimization that supports the entire optimization process. It has to come before the tactics.

Does this mean that tactical roadmaps are out of fashion? Not at all! Tactical roadmaps also have a place in your product development efforts, but they need to come at the right time.

In this article, we compare theme-based and tactical roadmaps, including how they fit into your product plan and how you can use them to optimize the digital experience. Both have their place in product strategy, but they are not interchangeable.

What is a Theme-Based Roadmap?

A theme-based roadmap is a strategic planning tool for product managers (whether that product is a website, app, or service) that lays out a plan for improvement based on overarching themes or goals rather than specific features or timelines.

Think of it like a guiding “product vision” document that synthesizes data or research into a clear overview of opportunity/problem areas. “Themes are a promise to solve problems, not build features,” says Jared Spool, founder of User Interface Engineering.

In the roadmap, themes are represented as categories or clustered ideas, and specific tactics are nested within each theme (more on that in a moment).

These categories most often group initiatives based on customer needs they meet, like security, ease, and usability. This is true at The Good, as we theme based on user goals to create our DXO Heuristics Compass™️. In the artifact, research is translated into grouped on-site behaviors and friction points.

theme-based roadmap sample from The Good

Theming based on customer needs helps you stay user-centered. Your organization will keep the proven user barriers top of mind, and prioritize what the customer cares about most.

Alternatively, some may prefer to cluster based on business goals such as user acquisition, engagement, retention, monetization, etc. Check out this business theme-based roadmap example from ProdPad. Notice how the organization’s broad initiatives are organized into categories.

theme-based roadmap categories

Clustering your thematic roadmap based on business goals will ensure your entire team stays aligned with broader business objectives. It prevents you from getting bogged down in individual tasks or features.

When to Use a Theme-Based Roadmap

Before you can develop custom tactics to address your conversion barriers, you need to understand the context. That’s where a thematic roadmap comes in. It defines the important areas, audiences, and conversion barriers.

A theme-based roadmap is useful where flexibility, strategic alignment, and focus on broad outcomes are crucial. Here are some situations where a theme-based roadmap would be beneficial:

  • Early-stage products where an understanding of the market and user needs is still being formed
  • When you need to ensure alignment across multiple teams or departments.
  • In situations where you need to allocate resources based on priorities (not projects).
  • When you need to communicate the vision of a product without getting lost in the specific details or projects.

The theme-based roadmap is a great tool for getting early buy-in and staying aligned with your team. It can also be used to inform other roadmaps, like your tactical roadmap.

What Should a Theme-Based Roadmap Include?

Here’s a breakdown of what a theme-based roadmap typically includes:

Themes: These are categories of problems and opportunities that you identify based on data analysis, research, and user testing. Themes are broad and can encompass multiple features or projects that contribute to the overarching goal. For example, a theme could be “directional guidance” or “trust and authority.”

Objectives: Under each theme, there are specific objectives that define what success looks like for that theme. Objectives should be measurable and align with the theme’s overall goal.

Initiatives: These are the projects or sets of features that will help achieve the objectives under each theme. While initiatives are more specific than themes, they are still described at a relatively high level compared to individual tasks or features. Initiatives sometimes take the shape of user stories.

Timeframes: Unlike traditional roadmaps, theme-based roadmaps often use broad timeframes rather than specific dates. You might even use lighter prioritization by categorizing themes as “first,” “last,” or “later.” This creates flexibility and adaptability so teams can respond to changes without being tied to rigid deadlines.

What is a Tactical Roadmap?

A tactical roadmap is a specific planning tool that outlines the step-by-step actions and timelines required to solve the challenges or address opportunities outlined in your thematic roadmap. It provides a clear path of execution, detailing what needs to be done, by whom, and by when.

Here’s an example of a tactical roadmap from Toptal. Notice how tactics serve each theme. There can be multiple tactics with a theme.

tactical roadmap sample

The tactical roadmap follows a strategic roadmap. It only serves you if you have done the research, planning, analysis, and prioritization before putting it together.

When to Use a Tactical Roadmap

A tactical roadmap is more detailed and focuses on specific tasks, features, and deadlines. It’s ideal for scenarios where clarity, detail, and timelines are crucial. Here’s when you might opt for a tactical roadmap:

  • When the project or product requirements are clear and well-defined (meaning you have specific steps, features, or tasks to achieve objectives).
  • Your product is in a mature stage where your focus is on enhancement and optimization rather than exploration.
  • Situations where you have fixed deadlines or non-negotiable deliverables, such as contractual obligations to other brands or regulatory compliance requirements.
  • When multiple teams or departments have their own deliverables on a shared project.
  • When you need to track progress against specific milestones.

What Should a Tactical Roadmap Include

Here’s a breakdown of what a tactical roadmap typically includes:

Initiatives: Specific initiatives, projects, or tasks that need to be completed to address the theme. These should be broken down into manageable chunks of work.

Timeline: A clear timeline indicating when each tactical initiative will be executed. This could be broken down into quarters, months, or sprints, depending on your needs.

Ownership: Who owns the initiative? What are their roles and responsibilities?

Milestones: Checkpoints that mark progress or achievements for each initiative.

Resources: Any resources, including budget, workforce, and technology, needed to execute each initiative successfully.

Communication: How progress will be communicated to stakeholders, including regular updates, status reports, and meetings.

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The Benefits of Theme-Based Roadmaps

At this point, you’re probably wondering why you should use a thematic roadmap vs. a tactical one. Building your roadmap around themes offers four powerful benefits:

1. Themes are Better Tools to Solve Customer Problems

Is it best to use nails or screws in woodworking? That’s a question of tactics, but the question is inherently limiting. Maybe neither is appropriate. Maybe there’s a better tactic, like glue, tape, or something unique.

Your problem– the theme–is to attach two pieces of wood. By focusing on the problem, you give yourself the freedom to find the best solution. Tactics come later. We always refer back to the theme to make sure our tactics are moving us in the right direction.

For example, adding an industry license badge to your product page is a great way to build trust. But you shouldn’t simply add the badge and pat yourself on the back. Job well done, right? Not quite. Now, you have to actually measure whether it creates the intended trust. Otherwise, you have no idea if your tactic satisfied the theme.

2. Executives and Stakeholders Often Prefer Themes

Generally speaking, your organization’s leadership prefers to focus on high-level goals and outcomes, rather than the specific features you’ll use to achieve those goals.

(This obviously isn’t true for every leader, so your strategy may vary.)

With a theme-based roadmap, you can explain to your leadership (or external stakeholders) what you hope to achieve and your expected performance. For instance, you might say, “We’re going to implement social proof on our product pages that we expect to improve user trust and confidence in purchasing.”

Whether that social proof takes the form of written reviews, video testimonials, case studies, or a celebrity endorsement doesn’t really matter to your leadership, just as long as you’re solving the problem.

3. Theme-Based Roadmaps Create Better Team Alignment

A theme-based roadmap outlines what you’re trying to achieve. This document should be shared publicly throughout your organization because it’s a great way to keep everyone aligned.

Organizations that use theme-based roadmaps tend to have fewer team meetings. There’s less to talk about because team members understand the organization’s priorities.

Furthermore, a theme-based roadmap is great for spurring debate. It allows your team to discuss tactics within the context of the theme and possibly come up with unique ways to achieve your goals.

4. Thematic Roadmaps Create Effective Prioritization

A theme-based roadmap helps you identify which tasks are important and deserve more of your focus and optimization dollars. For instance, it’s hotly debated that testing call-to-action colors can boost performance, but other initiatives are far more impactful.

By prioritizing themes, you can focus on the projects that move the needle the most. This ensures you’re always getting the biggest benefit upfront (which also helps you keep those key stakeholders happy).

How to Determine Your Roadmap Themes: The Heuristics for Digital Experience Optimization™

Before we get into how to organize the themes, let’s look at some examples of roadmap themes.

If you’re theming based on customer needs, a handy tool is the Heuristics for Digital Experience Optimization™. We have found these six common optimization issues or opportunities are a great starting point. They include:

  • Priming & Expectation Setting: Setting users up for success by clarifying how the interface will perform, what actions users should take, and managing their expectations. For example, explicitly mentioning free shipping early in the journey can reduce cart abandonment rates.
  • Trust & Authority: Establishing trust from the outset with users. This is critical because issues like bugs or anything that violates users’ sense of trust can lead to disengagement. Building trust enhances users’ confidence in the website. Violating it can lead to abandonment.
  • Ease: The ease of use throughout the website, including aspects like information architecture, navigability, and seamless functionality. Making a website easy ensures that users won’t abandon it due to its complexity.
  • Benefits & Unique Selling Points: Highlighting the benefits and unique features of products or services to persuade users to choose to purchase here versus elsewhere. This includes factors like faster shipping times, better product quality, or the vendor’s reputation.
  • Directional Guidance: Supporting users in finding and discovering what they need through visual hierarchy, way-finding, and guiding them to the next best step in their journey. This is particularly helpful for users who may need extra assistance in decision-making. Think of them as your friend who never knows where they want to go for dinner. We’re offering them an easy guide to follow. Directing users towards desired actions or outcomes.
  • Incentives: Additional motivation for users to make a purchase or convert, such as expedited shipping for VIP members, promotional offers, or guarantees. Incentives add not only confidence but sometimes urgency to act promptly. Ideally converting today rather than at a later date.

Beyond that, how do you determine which themes are right for you? The process goes like this:

1. Map Your Conversion Journey

Break down the customer journey into stages and study how customers interact with your product at each stage. Use data to understand how customers move through the conversion journey. Where do they spend the most time? At what point do they convert, and where do they drop off?

2. Identify Conversion Barriers

Use analytics tools, customer feedback, observation techniques, and user testing to identify where and why potential customers drop off or disengage. These barriers could be related to user experience, product features, pricing, customer support, or any other aspect.

In the following example, the organization identified a delay in the purchase process as a conversion stopper. You can see the tactics they’re using to address it.

ProductPlan sample showing tactics that support themes
ProductPlan shows how tactics support themes. 

3. Create Alignment with Business Goals

Ensure that your themes align with the broader business goals. Whether it’s market expansion, revenue growth, customer satisfaction, or innovation, your roadmap themes should directly contribute to these overarching objectives.

4. Iterate and Evolve

Themes should not be static. As you gather more data and generate insight, revisit and adjust your themes to ensure they remain relevant and impactful. Ideally, you should establish a regular interval to review your theme-based roadmap and adjust if necessary.

5. Prioritize Your Themes

In many cases, we find it effective to organize your themes based on your user’s conversion journey through your site. In the case of an ecommerce site, that tends to look like this:

Home page or landing page > category page > product page > shopping cart > checkout.

We identify the themes that relate to each area of the site based on how they help us achieve a goal. Here’s a visual of what that looks like.

Strategic roadmap example

As you can see, the theme of “directional guidance” is present on almost every page because we must always actively move the user to the next step. “Priming” is an important theme on the product page, but not useful anywhere else. “Trust and authority” is useful in the later stages, but it’s not helpful on the home page.

Other Types of Roadmaps

There are many types of roadmaps you can use to guide your organization. They all serve different purposes and have their own benefits and drawbacks. For the sake of clarity, let’s quickly walk through some other types of roadmaps you might encounter or create.

Feature-Based Roadmap

A feature-based roadmap is a planning tool that outlines the specific list of features and enhancements planned for a product over time. It focuses on detailing the exact features that will be developed, improved, or launched. Feature requests are added to the feature-based roadmap over time.

Feature-based roadmap example from Appcues.
Feature-based roadmap example from Appcues. 

This roadmap provides a clear and itemized list of what the development team will be working on. The team members who implement the feature-based roadmap aren’t necessarily marketers. For instance, a data scientist may be asked to pull reports, or a web designer may be asked to build a page.

Strategic Roadmap

A strategic roadmap lays out the high-level business priorities and key objectives of your organization over a long-term horizon. It bridges the gap between your company vision and the actionable plans needed to realize that mission.

This rigid roadmap focuses on the major strategic themes, critical initiatives, and milestones that will guide that journey. It does not dig into granular tasks.

Strategic roadmap example from Roadmunk.
Strategic roadmap example from Roadmunk.

Technology Roadmap

A technology roadmap outlines the planned tech advancements your organization intends to undertake. It ensures that technology investments are aligned with business goals. It also includes timelines for new technologies, upgrades, and eliminating obsolete tools.

Technology roadmap example from Boardmix
Technology roadmap example from Boardmix

Data Roadmap

A data roadmap is a plan that highlights how your organization intends to collect, manage, analyze, and leverage data to make informed product decisions and drive business growth. It outlines key data initiatives, governance policies, infrastructure upgrades, and analytics tools that will be used.

Data strategy roadmap example from Roadmunk.
Data strategy roadmap example from Roadmunk. 

Marketing Roadmap

A marketing roadmap is a strategic document that outlines the marketing strategies, campaigns, and activities planned over a specific timeframe. It keeps the marketing team aligned by listing objectives, target audiences, channels, content plans, and metrics.

Marketing roadmap example from Newity.
Marketing roadmap example from Newity.

Themes to Tactics

Think of a thematic roadmap as an elegant solution that diagnoses your problems. Tactical roadmaps, on the other hand, are the medicine that treats the ailment.

And just like you visit a doctor for a diagnosis, it’s important to consult with a digital optimization expert to find out what’s wrong with your digital product and learn how to address it,

At The Good, we’re the optimization experts who can identify the main themes that support your growth. Then we can prescribe the medicine (a tactical roadmap) that will make your product strong.

Learn more about our Digital Experience Optimization Program™, a custom program that unlocks the full potential of your website, app, or digital product.

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Natalie Thomas

About the Author

Natalie Thomas

Natalie Thomas is the Director of Digital Experience & UX Strategy at The Good. She works alongside ecommerce and product marketing leaders every day to produce sustainable, long term growth strategies.