The Product Designer’s Concept Car
How Optimizely Uses Concept Cars to Drive Product Vision
“The creative process, like a good story, needs to start with a great leap of lightness, and that is only attainable through the suspension of disbelief.” — Frank Chimero, The Shape of Design
My team and I often use concept cars to find, test and kickoff our next big idea to inform product strategy. We borrow the term from the auto industry where it is used to describe fantastical prototypes of far-future technologies and designs. These cars are often non-functional and used to gauge customer interest before spending time and resources on mass-production. In the technology industry, where success rates are volatile, we’ve found creating wildly futuristic concept cars for software products just as useful. If your team is asking high-level questions like, “What is our product vision?” or “What should we build next?” or “What is our next big bet?”, then a concept car can help you.
direction through process.
Optimizely’s Design Director defines our version of a concept car as “a crazy-awesome state of what Optimizely could look like in the future.” The deliverable is a story of a hypothetical version of the product in 5 to 10 years. The process behind creating the story prompts conversations about the future and validates hypotheses. The story then inspires the team to take action.
A great concept car is not a roadmap; it is a fantastical far-future vision that inspires people and provokes action to turn the dream into reality.
Often, we have a general idea of where we want to go and are familiar with our customers’ problems, but everything doesn’t quite line up. We may have a thousand great ideas but be uncertain about how they converge into one holistic vision. Going through the process of fleshing out and validating those ideas helps orient our team. The ideal end result of this process is to know which direction the road should lead, not to have the road paved.
love the data. form a hypothesis.
Like any design project, we draw from our own preconceptions of what the product should be. We also look at product usage data, research market trends, and engage with our target customers. We attempt to get all the way inside our customer’s problems. By sifting through the collective knowledge of colleagues and customers, clearer patterns begin to emerge. We then create a hypothesis about how we might solve these problems.
make it. point at it. iterate.
Once we define a hypothesis, we create loose wireframes that demonstrate a customer story through the future product. We don’t worry too much about being pixel-perfect or technically feasible. The concept car is not a tool for usability feedback or working through real data prototypes; it is a tool to validate concepts and see if our big ideas resonate with customers. These wireframes are sketches for customers and employees to point at stuff and say, “This is a nice idea but I don’t understand X,” or “Cool but I wish it had Y.” From there, we iterate until we’ve got them saying, “I’d use this every day all day. When can I have it?”
show and tell.
After we’ve gained valuable feedback, iterated, and found something marketable, it’s time to present the dream and knowledge to the rest of the company. It’s important to create a cohesive story around the whole process: the initial research, hypothesis, learnings from that hypothesis and the final wireframes. By sharing this information, we are loading the whole company with knowledge and excitement about where we want to go. The intent is to inspire action to turn the vision into reality.
Designing concept cars has been incredibly useful for us. Suspending technical challenges and imagining a new future world teaches us about our customers and their problems. By designing concept cars, we inspire our team to build the future today.