The Virtues of Selling Vaporware

Before your ship your product, there’s one important sale you must make, and it’s likely for something that you will never build.

Marty Cagan, the seasoned Silicon Valley product leader, provocatively wrote that “engineering is important, but user experience design is more important, and usually more difficult.” People who have worked with me throughout the years will know that I agree with his position.

”Engineering is important, but user experience design is more important, and usually more difficult.”

The world’s greatest products manifest this fact with an almost fractal-like expression. Dig deeper and you will find thoughtful attention to the most hidden corners of the user experience. If you’re unconvinced that those details matter, I recommend that you spend some time reading some of the great articles on A List Apart.

Recognizing this early in my career, my first move was to work with designers to provide engineering with an unambiguous UX spec. From wireframes through visual and motion design, there was no detail unspecified.

Besides wireframes, we also developed detailed visual and motion design requirements.

Things would start out seemingly fine. Of course, I realized quickly that the silent acceptance from the engineering team was only an illusion. You might be familiar with this story… As development continued sprint after sprint, I encountered increasingly frequent resistance to push through some of the more difficult details. I became jaded with the process, adopting a bit of an adversarial position with some engineers. I doubted my conciliatory approach and wondered if I should be more insistent, this is how it was designed, this is how it was tested, this is how we should build it.

Anton Volkov: Lead Designer, Google Hangouts

Years later, I had the great pleasure of recruiting Anton Volkov to join my team in San Francisco. Anton is a design lead at Google and one of the best designers I’ve had the pleasure of working with.

Anton’s talents were not only with UX design, but more importantly for me, with the softer behavioral aspects of getting a design properly executed. Here, he was a master.

Working with him, the lesson I learned is conveyed well by one of my favorite quotes from Antoine de Saint-Exupery:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

The problem was that in my limited experience, I advocated for a typical design / development model. It had feedback loops at most steps but otherwise followed a fairly linear and logical progression for each feature:

Discovery > User Research > Lo-fi Visuals > Visual Design > Prototypes > Build and Iterate > Profit!

So, when Anton was churning out quality marketing-grade visuals very early in the process, my reaction was to ask what was going on. Clearly, at this stage the mock ups he was creating would never actually see the light of day — it was vaporware. We had yet to do any user testing, any sort of iteration and surely we’d throw these concepts out. With my purist Lean mindset, this was wasted work.

His response surprised me and was instantly resonant: We need to sell the team on what this product could look like, how fantistic it might be. How all the details could feel and why they matter. Without getting the team to indulge in this fantasy, there would be no well of motivation to draw from when we needed it—when we are tired and running out of steam, eeking out another hour of work to get the animation timing just right is unlikely without the proper motivation.

Anton showed me that the greatest product minds have as much skill in tech and design as they do in salesmanship and marketing. This combination of aptitudes is key to motivating the team to push through an implementation—a business—where nailing the finest details may matter the most.

Recommended tools and techniques

Since working with Anton, I explored a number of different approaches to foster this vision and motivation. Here are some exercises and tools that I recommend as a starting point.

  • The Product Box Exercise: The whole team collaborates in designing a product box (remember when software came in boxes?)
  • Keynote: An insanely versatile tool for creating high fidelity visuals including motion that matches a lot of the timing on iOS and Web.
  • Scenery: Showcase your mocks in beautiful photographic and sketch-based templates. Just drag and drop, super simple.
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