Product Vision is the expression of what you are building, for whom you are building and why. A clearly crafted, concise and concrete product vision is fundamental to building a product.
A product vision is expression of its raison d’etre, and acts as a compass, aligning and guiding people while it is being created and promoted. It is singular unifying force that will sail the product team through the unchartered waters of uncertainty. Ken Schwaber writes: “The vision describes why the project is being undertaken and what the desired end state is.“
An effective product vision must encapsulate the following:
- Who are its customers? Who is going to use the product?
- What needs or challenges of these users will it address uniquely?
- How will the product address those needs? What attributes enable it to meet the needs and ensure its success?
- How will it differentiate itself from the present options and substitutes? Why will people jettison the present options and accept your product?
- How will the company make money from the product? What is the business model?
- How will the company build the product?
Google made its search engine offering free while making money from the advertisements pertaining to the thing you searched for. Apple created iPod and tightly integrated it with its online music store, iTunes, offering music at relatively less costs but mp3 player at a margin. The product vision necessarily must contain its business model.
Attributes of a Product Vision
Product Vision is concise expression of its essence which is shared by the team building it.
What, Whom and Why?
An effective product vision has to clearly state who is it building for, what is it building and why? This is the most vital aspect of the product vision which will always act as compass to the collaborating team, steering them out of confusion and conflict into the clear waters of clarity. The product vision will instantly inform who is the customer for which the product is being built. If this is unclear, all the product sprints will be mere spray and pray, arrows shot in dark, a rudderless ship. A good product vision will act as filter to discard unwanted ideas and will also be key to prioritization.
Unifying and Aligning
A good product vision is one that unifies the teams across the entire spectrum of stakeholders: development, marketing, sales, support, senior managements and end users. Everyone involved in any way with the product shares the vision. The vision binds the teams together under a single overarching goal. If different teams or team members have differing private visions of the product, it ceases to be a vision and becomes an opinion. Teams are not bound by opinions but are rather distracted and destroyed by them. People with private visions start pulling the teams in different directions, breed political slugfest, and drag team into a quagmire of political one-upmanship. Instead a boldly and concretely expressed vision and accepted by all, keeps re-aligning and focusing diverse teams toward the common goal.
Inspiring Creativity and Electrifying
An excellent product vision shared by all is a great ingredient for an inspired team. But a vision that fires the imagination and reverberates enthusiasm in people, in my experience, works magically towards making the team surpass its own expectations and limits. This implies that it is not over-prescriptive and leaves a wide playground for creativity. The vision is collaboratively built and refined and offers every member to participate creatively. You, as a product manager, would be guilty of crushing team’s creativity if you build a culture where everyone’s ideas are not heard and experimented with. Or if you lord over the team as the critic of ideas making favourable or unfavourable decisions about ideas emanating from the team.
Also, the vision should be broad so as to let each team relate to it. If your vision lets a team, say Operations or Tech Support, wondering what are they supposed to do when the product is being built or is launched, or if it doesn’t illuminate their mind with ideas, the vision has not been broad, engaging and inspiring empathy across the board.
The vision has to be terse and yet impactful. You don’t go about counting 20 killer features of your product in the product vision. You select three to four key features that instantly arrest attention and inspire the prospect to enquire about your product. Prospects are going to express interest or subscribe to your product based not on a list of dozen impressive features but those couple of things that they care for.
Changeable Until Product-Market Fit Realised
Not every product had its vision right from the word “go”. There are many instances of successful products which started with a hypothesis about the market only to be disproved upon taking the product to the user. But the exposure of the rudimentary product (Minimum Viable Product or MVP) to the early users revealed that they valued a part of the product or wanted something altogether different from it. This let the product teams to go back to the drawing board and “pivot” the original hypothesis. The teams reworked the hypothesis and after few iterations of building, measuring and learning, learnt the right product-market fit. In short, Serendipity would have been the cause of discovering the Law of Gravity, but that’s now how products are made. There are often, trial and error, building, learning, refining and re-learning cycles associated with it.
Therefore, the essential attribute of a good product vision is that it is amenable to change.
As the product grows, enters new markets and segments, the product vision may still undergo change. But during the early stages of the product, the product vision undergoes several rounds of changes and refinement.
Simplicity cloaking Sophistication
All the sophistication of your product must be hidden underneath while on the surface it should be easy and intuitive to use.
Build what is essential to the product rather than making it a Christmas tree of features! Steve Jobs is reported to have said, “Innovation is not about saying yes to everything. It’s about saying no to all but the most crucial features.” Whenever you chance upon an idea or requirement for your product, think whether it is critical to the success of the product. If not, push the idea into the backlog (it may become useful in due course of time, but not now).
Simple User Interfaces are key manifestations of a simple product vision. Compare the minimalistic Google Search Page with its competitors’ search pages which are splattered with many links and stories making them cluttered.
The product should not only be aesthetic but also be intuitive to use. Simplicity, ease of use, and intuitive interactions are pivotal components of an excellent product vision.
The Vision Sprint
One may often be required to run few vision sprints before the concrete product vision is arrived upon. You may make a few prototypes, carry customer interviews and refine based on the feedback received. You will begin with a vision (with the vision informing you what/how to build the prototypes and what to ask of the users) and then, based on your observation and learning, take your product few steps further. Each vision sprint will be an incremental step adding some essential value proposition of the product. Once your hypothesis is firmly established, you have a product vision resulting out of the vision sprint(s).
Techniques for Creating the Product Vision
With the advent of the Lean Startup movement, Visioning itself is an iterative and experimental process involving multiple team and may be, many sprints. Roman Picher writes: “The key to effective experimentation is to generate the necessary knowledge rapidly by implementing and testing prototypes and mock-ups.”
Prototypes are dispensable and provisional artifacts that can be created trivially, cheaply and quickly to test your basic hypothesis. They need not necessarily be working piece of software but a paper prototype or a ghost model (one that manually mimics what the actual product intends to do) good enough to establish the veracity of your idea.
Prototypes are not only vehicles of your experiment with the initial product idea and user interface, but also insurance against inadvertent failures. When you begin work on a new product or a feature, you have an abstract idea of what it will be. To lend it concreteness, you build a prototype and place it in front of the customer (what is noteworthy is that you may still be finding your right customer segments!). With the prototypes, your team tries what would the product do essentially, how its user interface will be and what would be its core technology and architecture. Ofcourse at a throwaway cost!
Once you place the prototype in front of your users and let them test it, you begin to get your feet firm on ground and get signals as to what should the product do, what it should not and how people would like to use it. This is one of the potent ways in which to create a product vision and refine it. (This is also a definitive way of discovering new product ides and creating a healthy product backlog, a topic that I shall address in the next article)
Over the years of practice of Product Management, I have come to firmly adopt and trust the virtuous cycle of Build-Measure-Learn (enunciated by Eric Ries in The Lean Startup). However shaky may be my steps at the outset, the cycle of experimentation and validation has been miraculous in giving us firm ground in the face of extreme uncertainty of creating a new product.
Working Backwards (Amazon’s technique of product management)
Radical as the company itself is, Amazon’s approach to product development itself is quite exemplary. Its product management appreoach is known as Working Backwards. All projects work backwards from the ideal customer end state. This usually starts with the product manager writing a mock press release announcing the finished product. The press release is meant for the end customer and contains information about the problem, how current solutions are failing, and why the new product will solve this problem. The press release acts as a product vision document and is one of the most creative ways of forming a product vision I have come across.
The Amazon product press release thus intended to check if the product is worth investing in. If the team is not excited about reading the press release then the idea may need to reworked. If the team finds the idea worthy, the press release serves as a guide to reflect upon and compare with what is being built.
An alternative practice at Amazon is also write an archetypical user review. The product manager thus, by means of a fictional (which would perhaps one day be reality) review writes what she expects the product to do and how it will find acceptance.
This is indeed a cogent way to establish a product vision. (Though it does not override the method of experimentation and iteration and changing the vision as and when required.)
As you work on your product idea, hold your vision always at the forefront. Imbibe it. Read it outloud everyday. Share it as often as possible with your team. It should be imprinted in everyone’s mind who is the partaker in the product’s success. Keep the vision succinct, simple and convincing. Let it convey what is coming in the next version of the product. Think big, but begin small. Build in quick iterative steps, with validated hypothesis. Release the product increments and invite customers to test them. And as your observe, measure and learn, use the feedback received to evolve the product further. You are always building for what the end user has given you the conviction that she would find value in.