We’ve all been there—reacting to micro feedback, responding to a VP request, making small tweaks for small gains. They all add up progressing your product / site / experience but it always detracts from holistically crafting a strategy, a north star, a vision.
Iteration does not always equal innovation.
Innovation is hard, which is why it’s often easier to focus on the small measurable things that make a difference. Things that you can see results for in the short term, “we get 2% more taps when we change the position of this button.” And we should always be looking at the incremental improvements, but we should also be designing for the future, for newer audiences, technologies, and changing cultures.
What is design vision?
If you don’t have a vision where is your design going? What does your brand represent? Is the brand voice clear in your design, does the promise come true? As new competitors adapt to the market so should you, aside from visual design — what innovation are you striving towards, and why?
Without a strategy to align towards you’ll end up with something that is essentially a site map of features. What I like to call the “Microsoft Word effect”—keep cramming in features until the interface is unusable, then cram some more. I’m sure you’ve seen this time and time again, where designers simply run out of room. You might start seeing features dropped into multiple menus with distracting callouts alerting you to new functionality. At some point critical mass is reached and a new spin off ‘lite’ or ‘SE’ version comes out. The layout’s simply become too annoying to use, so people start using something else…
“When you can’t differentiate on price, the only thing left is experience”
— Great read on why AirBnB’s experience design is a key differentiator.
As Andrew Doherty’s article points out — sure Booking.com allows me to arrange accommodation, but at the cost of my enjoyment and experience. AirBnB’s clean and user-first design lets me browse and be inspired when looking for a place to stay. I actually enjoy using their app & site —this strategy works, the design works, and ultimately I end up using their product more and paying more.
A great design strategy pays off.
Examples of visionary teams
Let’s take a look at the New Ford GT.
The luxury automobile industry is incredibly competitive, when you are competing on the global stage against exotic brands like Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Bugatti, how does a regular car maker create something unique?
Buying an exotic car is almost completely experience and emotional driven, does the heritage of the brand make you feel like a race driver? How does the engine sound? How does it make you feel?
With a company the size of Ford, designing and visioning big bets on the re-imagining of the Ford GT40 the ‘ultimate American sports car’ is incredibly daunting. The answer Raj Nair—group VP — had was to gather a small ‘skunkworks’ team of around 15 to envision and design this car in secret.
“We had a very small, dedicated team working downstairs in secret with an aligned objective, including Raj. So the decision makers were only four or five people. We didn’t have to do market research on this car. With design in a small room and studio engineering right there consistently to-ing and fro-ing allowed us to do things quickly. The joint goal of the project was everyone wanted a beautiful car.”
— Moray Callum, VP Ford Global Design, in this great article from hotrod.com
This approach worked, the car won best in class at the historic Le Mans event in 2016, with Ford’s executives aligned withthe vision to develop the road and prestigious race variants. What typically takes 3 years took the team 14 months. A small empowered team with the key decision makers involved throughout enabled not only a rapid pace but a focussed and visionary effort to shape the future of the brand.
The secret history of the iPhone
What does it take to create one of the most influential pieces of technology? According to Brian Merchant, who wrote about the history of the iPhone, a two-year secret project that stretched everyone involved — but ultimately shaped the future of Apple.
The project dragged the top designers and engineers from across the org into secret floors working relentlessly to provide Steve Jobs with rapid prototypes and proofs of concept. Small teams working on prototypes breathed life into the ideas, offering snippets of what an Apple-Designed phone could be like, to tell the story — the vision.
“The small team was on board: Bas, Imran, Christie, three other designers — Stephen LeMay, Marcel van Os, and Freddy Anzures — and a project manager, Patrick Coffman. They worked around the clock to tie those fragments into a full-fledged narrative.”
— Brian Merchant in an excerpt from an article on the history of the iPhone.
There were two competing projects both developed in secret, one an evolution of the popular iPod platform and the other a new multi-touch screen device developed from earlier tablet and touch screen prototypes. Series and series of prototypes and proofs of concept were created, even a fully fledged rotary style iPod that could make calls!
Imagine how different the landscape would have been if Apple decided to take the easy route, to take the beloved iPod brand and add a phone? This would have been the logical route, the familiar path, it might have been even been successful in the short term.
Ultimately the touch screen prototype proved to be more compelling and future forward, with fragments of product demos inside of a tactile prototype device — all forming the narrative of how the device could be. It took real design vision to create an elegant, future-forward, personal computer that fits in your pocket (which also made phone calls). A truly unique and differentiated product created by a visionary team that has ultimately shaped Apple’s future.
Remember Facebook Paper?
Paper is a fascinating app that re-envisioned a newsfeed, was widely hailed as a great design and had many fans (“Paper is the best Facebook app ever”, wrote The Verge). The unique approach to read content and browse topics with large imagery and immersive sections — all brought together in a tactile grid-like interface.
This was just one of the experimental apps that Facebook Creative Labs created, amongst others such as Slingshot, Mentions, Rooms, Facebook Groups, Riff, and Hello. Facebook Creative Labs was a small nimble startup style team — using the opportunity to create stand-alone apps to test concepts, new UI patterns, and broader engagement experiments.
In Paper’s case, a 15-strong team working for a year had the vision to create an immersive content-browsing experience without completely changing the experience of the main product. Ultimately, Creative Labs were disbanded and the apps shut down after a few years, but learnings from those apps were brought into the wider platform.
Why is Design for Vision important?
As these examples illustrate—to create unique, differentiated, and compelling products you really have to create the space and dedicate time and resources—you have to take it seriously. To innovate and push ideas forwards, being aligned on a design vision helps give focus and direction, it makes sure you are aiming for something with a purpose.
Some exercises to try
Vision teams are great if you have dedicated resources, but if not you could try out some of these exercises…
Start with ‘Why’
As Simon Sinek explains in this great TED Talk, use the ‘golden circle’ to help define 3 simple things = why, how, and what. Most people and organizations start with the what and then describe how and usually never why. Many of the the world’s most visionary people start with the why.
Why = What’s your cause, belief, why does your organization exist?
How = How do you make your beliefs come to life? What’s unique?
What = What are the products/features you have to offer?
This model applied to Apple…
Why = Everything we do we challenges the status quo. We believe in thinking differently.
How = The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly.
What = We happen to make good computers, want to buy one?
People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.
— Simon Sinek
What if statements
This can help you come at problems from a different angle, cause lateral thinking, and spark some visionary ideas. Part of a design thinking approach, it can help frame ideas and provide a catalyst to visionary thinking. For example…
What if you could watch what you wanted when you want = Netflix
What if you could have an electric car that was desirable = Tesla
What if you could explore other people’s minds = Plot of movie Inception
A product playbook helps you define some statements, goals, and objectives around what exactly you are striving towards and serves as a reminder to that vision.
People = What are the user problems? What are the pain points in their journey?
Purpose = What unique benefits do you offer? what is the user benefit to your product?
Product = What experiences do we want to build? Audit what you have, what can be improved, where are the friction points?
Path = What’s the plan? What are your Critical user journeys, design principles, what’s the roadmap?
Innovation is really hard — which is why so few get it right. Defining your purpose and having a vision is so important. Getting team alignment on the vision is as equally important. These are really the fundamentals of a successful design strategy, if you are simply trying to ride a wave or imitate others, or believe that small micro changes are a compelling solution—you may be doomed to fail — or at best swim in a sea of mediocrity.
Ask yourself: What is your why? What is your vision? If you do not have a compelling answer, chances are you are wasting your own, and your user’s time.
People’s time is precious, if they are inviting your design into their lives, we have an obligation to ensure that it helps them achieve their goals, makes their lives better, and ultimately provides real meaning.