Balancing Short and Long Term Product Thinking

One of the greatest challenges I’ve faced as a product designer at tech startups is learning how to balance short and long term product thinking. If the type of products I’m designing are always growing and changing, I often wonder, how do we best iterate on products with both the short and long term in mind? While the short term goals should be clear, the medium and long term goals for the product are often quite blurry. If the future vision is blurry, do we stop and think about it?

Parallel Design Investigations

Over the holiday break, I read Jony Ive, the Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products and learned Robert Brunner, a former Director of Industrial Design at Apple, helped the company balance short and long term thinking with “parallel design investigations.” The book explains;

“‘As product schedules get tighter and the level of difficulty rises, the first casualty is innovation,’ Brunner said. ‘I wanted to see design that was leaning forward… design that could predict what was coming’… Brunner had started conducting offline projects — what he called “parallel design investigations.” ‘The idea was to develop new form factors, new levels of expression and strategies for handling new technology without the pressure of a deadline.’… Brunner wanted to keep this type of investigation ‘off-line’ because it allowed his team to make mistakes, to feel separate enough from the grind of production that the creative juices could percolate. ‘Because the ideas generated off-line are often our best ideas, parallel design investigations can be extremely valuable… This information not only enriches our language, it gives you something to point to and say this is what we can move towards.”

When looking for designers to work on the investigations, Brunner interestingly turned to outside design consultants because he believed, “consultants want to build their portfolio and will compete to do the most interesting work.” Most notably, Brunner hired Jony Ive as a consultant for a “parallel design investigation” before wooing him to Apple’s in-house team.

While I’m not sure about hiring consultants for long term product thinking, I am intrigued by the idea of using “parallel design investigations” to help teams explore both the short and long term. In particular, I love the idea of conducting investigations in “parallel” because it allows both short and long term thinking to be done at the same time without interference. One team can be focused on executing the short term product roadmap while another team can spend their time exploring the fuzzier long term concepts.

The greatest question I have about parallel iterations is regarding intersection points. I wonder if and how the short and long term teams come together. On one hand, it seems both teams might benefit from knowing what the other is working on. On the other hand, too much interference might get in the way of each team achieving their objectives.

My Experience

When thinking about my own design career, I realized I’ve only experienced two types of long term thinking investigations. The first, and more common, is when the team takes a few hours or a day to stop what they’re doing, and think about the future of the product. In my experience, this time successfully allowed the team to reflect on the current product and generate lots of ideas, usually through a method such as card sorting. Although interesting, I look back on these days and think they weren’t particularly useful because the time was too limited to really dig deep and explore. Are a lot of fuzzy ideas about the future better than no ideas at all?

The second type of longer-term investigation I’ve experienced is more similar to Brunner’s “parallel design investigations” and was far more successful. Last summer, the Percolate product design team took a month off from the product roadmap to do research projects. Together, we explored the future of the product by conducting research and building prototypes. The permission to think big, with a healthy allocation of time led to some very exciting longer term visions for the product. This was by far one of the most interesting and exciting design experiences I’ve had to date. Aside from being fun, it was also entirely useful. Over the past six months, the product team has turned to the learnings from these research projects to help guide the roadmap. Although, the designers are now focused again on more short-medium term thinking, we design with a clearer longer term picture in mind.

Conclusion

Although I’m still exploring ways of balancing the short and long term thinking in product design, the greatest lesson I’ve learned to date is the importance of devoting a healthy amount of time to the long term vision. If you’re a product designer, I recommend pausing on short term thinking to explore the long term vision of your product. Whether it’s a week, a month or longer, it will be a valuable experience for your team. From my experience, a day is not enough. At some point, I would love to try short and long term investigations in parallel.