Ask Women in Product: What does a great product vision look like?

Karmel Elshinnawi, Katerina Suchkova, and Hope Gurion offer practical advice that will help you set the stage for your product’s future.

Photo via WOCinTech Chat

This week’s question: What does a great product vision look like? How can PMs work on becoming more visionary?


Answer from Karmel Elshinnawi

Karmel Elshinnawi is Lead Product Manager at ConsenSys.

If you have lately been so focused on the details of work — shipping new features, staying competitive, and evaluating performance metrics — that you feel like you’re lacking inspiration and purpose, it may be time to step back and think about the broader vision of what you’re trying to accomplish. After all, you must have a clear picture of the future before you and your team can be inspired and focused with purpose. As Yogi Berra says, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else.”

Why have a vision?

Product vision informs the strategy, the brand, the roadmap, and the way you measure the success of your product. When done well, the vision also provokes an emotional response from its intended audience and will attract people who believe in what you’re working towards. Ultimately, it’s the desired, future state of your product that you can start working towards today.

So what does a great product vision look like? To answer that question, let’s first look at some of my favorite vision statements:

  • Disney: To make people happy.
  • NIKE: To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world. 
    *If you have a body, you are an athlete.
  • Everlane: Our way: Exceptional quality. Ethical factories. Radical Transparency.

Notice that these statements offer no details about merchandising, technology, and features. Instead, they focus on the value of the product and how people should engage with it, no matter the product type or category.

The basics of crafting a product vision

While there are many templates that can help you define your product vision, it’s easiest to start with the basics, working with a small group of team members so you can share context and craft a vision together.

1. Understand the users

To fully understand the problem, you have to intimately know the people. Problems are encountered by people, not software. Understanding your users’ needs, emotions and behaviors will help you more accurately assess what value your product adds to their lives.

Some questions that can help you think this through:

  • What user journeys resonate with you and make the product personal?
  • What feelings do your product qualities evoke for the users you’re targeting?

An understanding of your users will also help you communicate your product vision in a way that connects with them.

2. Understand the problem

A deep understanding of the problem lets you focus on real solutions and makes it easier to identify the potential customers who will benefit from it. Without a clear understanding of the problem, you’re throwing darts at a wall.

You’ll find an approach that can help you think through the problem in this Harvard Business Review piece. Some questions from the article that can help you think this through:

  • What is the desired outcome?
  • What approaches have we tried? What have others tried?
  • What constraints will we have to respect when we come up with a solution?
  • Is the problem actually many problems?
  • What requirements must a solution meet?
  • How will solutions be evaluated and success measured?

3. Understand the ecosystem and your place in it

To gain a deep understanding of the ecosystem, you need to know the current state of the industry and the market, and you need a clear idea of what the future might look like for that industry.

Some questions that can help you think this through:

  • Why is the current state of the product the way it is?
  • What existing context or market research should your team keep in mind?
  • Where do you imagine this market or industry will be in the next five to ten years?
  • What will your product be like?
  • What are the most important qualities of your existing or future product?
  • If your product already exists, where do you see it going in five to ten years?
  • What milestones have you already met? What challenges have you yet to solve?
  • How do consumers and the industry view your product?
  • What will your competitors’ products be like?
  • Ultimately, what impact do you want your product to have on the world (or a slice of it)?

If you take this simple thought exercise seriously, it will spark your imagination. A note of caution: don’t let your competitors’ accomplishments dilute your own vision or turn you into a copycat.

4. Write your product vision

While you can run your product vision meeting or workshop with the working group in many different ways, you’ll always want to start by stating the goal of the workshop: to generate a vision that everyone finds compelling and helpful for knowing where you’re going and why.

During the workshop itself:

  • Have everyone draft several vision statements.
  • Expand on the top ideas discovered.
  • Vote on the best statements, then discuss:
    - Does the statement engage and inspire all members of the team?
    - Does it identify the humans involved and the impact on their lives?
    - Does it have a clear narrative? Avoid buzzwords or marketing jargon.
    - Is it connected to a larger goal? Is it achievable?
    - Does it provoke the right type of emotion?
    - What’s different in the world if you can turn this into a reality?
  • Rinse and repeat if you think your vision statement is not quite there yet!

Conclusion

A well-crafted vision is an aggregate of many points of view. Don’t forget to share your vision within your organization. You don’t want to write a vision statement and leave it behind closed doors or in your head! Instead, start by sharing with a few people to explain your process and get feedback. Once you are ready, you can share it with the entire organization.


Answer from Katerina Suchkova

Katerina Suchkova is a Product Coach and Design Thinking Facilitator.

The art and science

A product vision is the essence of a product, the North Star that inspires and guides teams to build great solutions. When done well, a product vision keeps your teams aligned and motivated when rough waters hit your product boat.

Creating a concise, inspiring, ambitious, yet achievable product vision is an excellent example of both the science and art of Product Management. It is an exercise that involves the following:

  • Fingerspitzengefuhl, translated literally from German as a “fingertip feeling,” it’s expertise — a leader’s intuitive sense and knowledge of a field;
  • Imagination— the ability to see what does not yet exist and what others do not see;
  • Customer insights — understanding who you serve and what needs they have;
  • Market data— identifying threats and new trends by looking at raw numbers and making sense of them;
  • Courage— the strength to pursue what you think the right thing is for the business, the customers, and the employees.

Make product vision your priority

More often than not, we as product leaders skip over crafting a product vision or we rely on a vision that already exists but no longer reflects our product strategy. Our instinct is often to jump right into building things instead of getting clear about the “Why” before the “What.”

The absence of a clear vision eventually yields many symptoms: products become bloated with features that don’t solve a clear need for users, leaving teams feeling uninspired and plagued with opinion-based decision-making. Ultimately, this lack of clarity can lead to a failed product. Prioritize crafting a product vision that articulates the purpose of your product, the reason it exists, and the direction you want it to go, especially when you’re working on a brand new product. Doing so will de-risk your roadmap for the long term.

If you are responsible for scaling an existing product, revisit a vision before you kick off your product efforts. You’ll help to realign people, agree on priorities, and create focus for the team. Plus, the team may not have been around when the broader vision was generated, so regrouping around it can create shared context.

Bring your team and stakeholders together

Going on a solo vision quest and then bringing a shiny new vision back to a team may sound like an appealing and convenient shortcut, but it rarely works. Great ideas come from everywhere. By giving everyone a voice and allowing the vision to come together collectively, you help ensure that it resonates beyond just being a statement on the wall.

When I run Design Sprints, I usually include a Mission Statement exercise to capture our product vision and direction. Unfortunately, most teams have only a vague idea of where their product is going. They know the “How” and the “What” but not the “Why.”

Running your own vision workshop with a group of nine to twelve people is an excellent way to tap into the collective genius of your stakeholders and create ownership beyond your immediate team. This invaluable exercise should take about half a day if you’ve already done your homework: understand the domain, talk in detail about users’ needs, study the competition, analyze market trends, and find the untapped or trapped value in the market. Then, weave it all together.

If you find it challenging to break the ice and explain to your teams and stakeholders what you are trying to achieve with your meeting, kick off your workshop with this quick video from the Silicon Valley show. It works every time!

Start with your users

To build and maintain a successful product that delivers value to users, start with an understanding of who you are creating solutions for. There is no shortcut here: talk with your customers, listen to them, observe how they use your product, and become a scientist about what emotions they may be experiencing beyond just what they say.

When you’re equipped with data and insights, you will be able to articulate who exactly your product is for and align others in the company around that person’s goals and needs. If there is disagreement about where to focus, talk to more people out in the field, and then come back to the drawing board.

Define a timeline

As the pace of life and technology increases, crafting a product vision that is five to ten years out is becoming more challenging. Many companies have started experimenting with a vision that provides a direction for the next two to five years. When meeting with your team, decide on the timeline that works for your product/product line. Consider customers, technical complexities, and business objectives among others when agreeing on the time.

Begin with the end in mind

“To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.”
— Stephen Covey.

Use the time with your stakeholders to talk about the ideal outcomes. Once you agree on the destination, the product strategy and roadmap will organically evolve around your vision. When you bring a cross-functional group of people together to create the vision statement, you may be surprised to learn just how many of them have different goals and assumptions about your product. Don’t be afraid to ask essential questions and dig deeper while holding strong opinions weakly.

Do not confuse the end with the means

A product vision is not a strategy nor a roadmap. Your vision comes first; it is the prerequisite to everything else. A vision is mostly about the “Why” and not so much of “How.” It is a goal but not a path, a big picture without nitty-gritty details. For example, Tesla’s vision statement “to create the most compelling car company of the 21st century by driving the world’s transition to electric vehicles” does not tell us how they are going to achieve it.

Your vision ultimately feeds into and informs your product roadmap. Every decision you make, any new feature someone requests, all the ideas your stakeholders come up with can be vetted against the product vision. It is your North Star. Don’t lose sight of it.

Make it ambitious and meaningful but achievable

A slightly intimidating product vision can inspire, energize, and attract the right team. People want to work on meaningful projects that are audacious and ambitious and can capture their imagination and efforts for several years. By dreaming big, you are tapping into your team and your company’s potential.

I find it inspiring to think from a place of abundance and possibilities, then reframing customers’ problems and market opportunities as “How might we” or “What if” statements. This approach allows everyone to let their guards down and tap into a beginner’s mindset.

Avoid buzzwords

A great product vision is eloquent, clear, and concise. Avoid clichés and sales jargon. Make it impactful, unambiguous, and inspiring. Reconsider every word you are using to ensure it is valuable.

The final statement you end up with should spark imaginations and energize the entire team. Don’t stop at good enough. You want everyone to leave a room with “Hell yeah!” and not with “Sure, that works.”

Use it or lose it

Now that you’ve run a workshop, created a compelling product vision everyone is excited about, briefed the leadership team, and have a product strategy and roadmap that move you closer towards your vision, you may think you’re done. Not so fast!

Don’t fall into the trap of moving quickly towards an unknown goal. Instead, every time you groom your backlog, accept a new feature request, brainstorm with the design team, plan a sprint, or revise a roadmap, evaluate what you’ve just worked on against the vision. And if you are a Product Manager who struggles with saying “no,” your product vision is the best tool against the trap of just saying “yes.” Use it wisely.

Product vision templates and other resources

Below are three templates I recommend if you’re looking to jumpstart your product vision. The exact format might not work for all the products so don’t be afraid to improvise:

  • Product Vision Board by Roman Pichler
  • Elevator Pitch Template Turned Product Vision by Geoffrey Moore
  • Here’s the template I use: [Product] is [product category] that provides [key benefits, Unique Value Proposition] to [users] via [how] so that [users can accomplish their goals/feel good about themselves]. 
    For example: Credit Karma [Product] is a web and mobile application [product category] that provides free credit monitoring and tax filing services and tools [key benefit, UVP] to everyone [users] via a secure and intuitive interface [how] so that you can make informed financial decisions and feel confident about your finances [users can accomplish their goals].

These resources can help you scan and scout a market and its trends:

And, finally, you can use these resources to learn more about the design thinking techniques I mentioned in this article:


Answer from Hope Gurion

Hope Gurion is the CEO of Fearless Product.

Why do product leaders need a meaningful, motivating product vision?

People care about themselves and their own problems. As a product leader, you encounter this universal truth daily. Your sales team requests features they believe will help them close deals. Your support team asks for features to reduce the number of stressful calls from frustrated customers. Your CEO wants to demo something new to look good at an upcoming Board meeting. Your engineering team wants to try a new programming language to speed up development. Your product team wants to spend more time with customers to ensure they’re working on the right thing.

Product leaders spend an extraordinary amount of time empathetically tailoring their communications about the product to respond to these competing needs. A product vision that is both meaningful and motivating cuts through the internal noise to align your company toward a clear and impactful future. It also enables you, as a product leader, to spend more time building that future instead of explaining it.

A product vision that is both meaningful and motivating cuts through the internal noise.

Why must your product vision be meaningful? Meaning speaks to the mind. Our minds want answers to factual questions such as: How big is the market? Who are our target customers? Or why are they dissatisfied? Testimonials, statistics, analogies, and examples are the key ingredients for meaning in your Product Vision.

Why must your product vision be motivating? Motivation speaks to the heart. The heart wants to understand the customers, the pain of their dissatisfaction, and the impact of future possibilities. Knowing something isn’t enough to make you want to act on it. Feelings drive action. Story, drama, and resolution are the key ingredients for a motivating vision. With a great vision, your audience should experience a series of emotions:

  • compassion for the customer, their needs and goals;
  • anger at the inadequacies of the currently available solutions;
  • shame that we haven’t done better to meet their needs sooner;
  • optimism that we now understand their needs; and
  • hope that we can and will improve their lives.

A meaningful, motivating product vision enables employees to zoom out from a self-interested mindset (“how can I make my job easier?”) to a purpose-driven mindset (“how quickly can we make our customers’ lives better?”).

How might product leaders communicate a meaningful, motivating product vision?

While it’s a helpful starting place, a “Product Vision Statement” expresses a product value proposition more than a vision. And a value proposition alone is not sufficient because it lapses on both meaning and motivation, failing to be a catalyst for action.

I think of it this way:

  • A Product Value Proposition is the plot summary.
  • The product vision is the movie preview.
  • The customer is the hero.
  • The status quo is the villain who has cast an evil spell on the hero.
  • Your product is the magic potion that frees the hero to become who they’ve always wanted to be.

Consequently, we can use this mapping:

  1. Hero: A clearly-identified customer with a . . .
  2. Hero’s goal: meaningful, measurable problem/need, but only has . . .
  3. Evil spell: painfully inadequate solutions, so the . . .
  4. Magic potion: visualized future solution . . .
  5. Hero’s self-actualization: enables the customer to fulfill their potential.
  6. Why us: Employees and customers are emotionally connected and inspired to realize this vision

Some Examples

It can be helpful to see examples of “product videos” that fall short and examples that soar.

Microsoft: Workplace Analytics

  1. Hero: Unclear
  2. Hero’s goal: To know what their employees are doing . . . ?
  3. Evil spell: Unclear
  4. Magic potion: Workplace Analytics?
  5. Hero’s self-actualization: I don’t know
  6. Why us: I don’t know

This product video runs into a handful of common pitfalls: it is company-centric, not customer-centric; it doesn’t describe who the customer is or what problems they experience in ways that people can easily understand and with which they empathize; it’s neither inspirational nor wholly logical.

Asana: The Future of Asana

  1. Hero: anyone on a team with a goal
  2. Hero’s goal: reduce the work about work — meetings, scheduling, updates, confusion about who’s doing what, lack of progress transparency
  3. Evil spell: project management software, nagging for updates, manual updates on key results
  4. Magic potion: Asana — automating time-sucking menial work
  5. Hero’s self-actualization: high-performing teams doing fulfilling, important work
  6. Why us: Asana employees and customers are emotionally connected and inspired to realize this vision

GE Healthcare: Making MRIs less scary for kids

  1. Hero: sick children
  2. Hero’s goal: get well
  3. Evil spell: scary, noisy MRI machines that require kids to remain perfectly calm and still
  4. Magic potion: kid-friendly adventures and designs
  5. Hero’s self-actualization: an enjoyable experience that helped expedite their treatment
  6. Why us: GE Healthcare employees and hospital are emotionally connected and inspired to realize this vision

The Girl Effect (Non-Profit): The girl effect: The clock is ticking

  1. Hero: 12-year-old girls in poverty
  2. Hero’s goal: stay in school, HIV-free, and child-free until adulthood
  3. Evil spell: childhood marriage, sex slavery as their survival options
  4. Magic Potion: The Girl Effect
  5. Hero’s self-actualization: healthy, educated, calling her own shots
  6. Why us: donors are emotionally connected and inspired to realize this vision

When will you use your meaningful, motivating product vision?

Here are just a few of the opportunities you’ll have to get a return on your product vision investment:

  • Hiring: Recruiting employees, onboarding employees. The fact that you know where you’re going and why is a massive competitive advantage in hiring great talent for your team.
  • Investor meetings: Board meetings, fundraising. Your vision, packed with meaningful facts and a motivating story, will indirectly address the “Why this team?” and “Why now?” questions on people’s minds, and pave the way for the investment allocation decisions.
  • Operational meetings: Product strategy meetings, Roadmap reviews, Project kick-offs, All-Hands, prioritization debates. Having something to point to that everyone can rally around will turn tough decisions into easier conversations.
  • Customer and prospect meetings: Roundtables, sales calls, customer advisory meetings. A vision for the future that customers identify with and positively respond to will reinforce employees collaborating well to accomplish shared company goals.

Any time you have a meeting where people need to be aligned and make choices about how they spend their time, your product vision should be the star at the center of the decision-making.