Bringing visionary ideas to life through Product Design
Tried and true principles for building innovative products, from how to come up with fresh ideas, to getting buy-in, to plotting your path to success.
I’ve been working at Pinterest for about five years now. I feel very lucky to have seen this company grow from a couple of hundred people to a couple thousand in a blink of an eye. I joined the product design team back in 2014 when Pinterest acquired my company Icebergs. When I got here my first question was: “What am I going to be working on?” The answer I got was another question: “What do you think you should work on?”
I jumped in wherever the business needed help most, building products such as Explore, Buyable Pins, Lens, Visual Search, along with a complete redesign of the Pinterest app. Most of these projects were a clear company bet whereas others started as fragile ideas, just an engineer and me thinking through our bold vision for where we could take the product. Some of these ideas failed to take off. Others grew into top priorities for our company, with over fifty people working on them.
As a Creative Director, this type of work can be very inspiring and be incredibly impactful for the business, it can also make you doubt yourself. I’ve seen people despair and quit over projects like these. But over time, I’ve developed a few principles that have proven to be consistently successful for me.
Give yourself time
Before you can disrupt a problem space, first you need a deep understanding of it. The more time you spend at a company, or working on a specific problem, the more you can see the bigger picture. Be relentlessly curious. Ask lots of questions. Every conversation you have adds to the ever-changing network of concepts and ideas you have growing in your head.
At first, this thought ecosystem tends to be quite chaotic and disorganized. But over time, you start making sense of it, spotting patterns and connections that not everyone sees. Given time, these insights can turn into visionary thinking.
The key is to keep saying yes to new challenges, especially in areas you’re unfamiliar with. Don’t get comfortable with your teams and problem space. When you find you’ve hit a ceiling, where you’re no longer learning new things, that’s a good time to take a risk and try something new.
Everything comes full circle
In my experience, visionary ideas tend to move in an orbit, like a planet circling a star. Maybe the idea doesn’t connect the first time around. You find yourself doubting if it was a good idea in the first place. But then something changes. The market shifts, or company priorities evolve, or a new team with a different mindset comes together. Suddenly the idea is back in the spotlight again. Circumstances align, and it finally makes its way onto the product roadmap.
Most ideas orbit on a fairly predictable cadence of 1 to 2 years. If the planets align, sometimes you land that idea on the first orbit. But some ideas take multiple attempts to land.
The very best ideas have an eternal life span — no matter how hard we fail at executing them. The same good idea will come up again and again, suggested by countless new folks over the years, until finally, we decide to invest in it. We put an all-star team on it, get full executive support…but for whatever reason, the idea still fails to make it into the product.
After this, most people assume the idea’s dead. In reality, it’s just been set aside for a while. Each attempt makes the idea stronger, bringing you more knowledge and more perspective. You document what you learn from each failure, so you can make informed iterations next time around. Until finally the idea gets enough momentum to break free of the gravitational pull and really takes off.
Who to pitch, and when
One of the most important factors in the success of a good idea is pitching it to the right people at the right time. Most people think that project momentum happens in a straight line, either from the bottom-up or the top-down. But what’s worked for me is a bit more organic, going up and down the organization structure in more of a pretzel-like pattern. Here’s what it looks like, and who I talk to at each stage.
- Forming the idea. In the very beginning, when the vision isn’t fully formed and is still fragile, I look for people that I trust completely. People who tend to think about things similar to how I do. I’m not looking for agreement. Rather I’m looking for help as I sharpen my point of view, get crisp on the details and understand what I’m missing.
- Testing the idea. Once I feel confident about my pitch, I like to reach out to senior leadership and executives. The higher the better. The reason for this is that people in top leadership roles are usually less involved in the day-to-day operations and tend to think more holistically. They look for strategic, long-term opportunities. They think less about how and when and more about what and why. From these conversations, what I’m looking for is an answer to the question “Does this feel right?” If everyone leaves the meeting feeling energized, it means we’re onto something, and we’re ready to move on to the next phase. If not, then it’s back to the drawing board.
- Scoping the idea. It’s time to meet the people who can make this idea happen: The managers and heads of big teams. They drive and ship products every day and, most importantly, they draft the roadmaps of their respective teams. These are the people who will help you measure how feasible your idea is and what kind of investment it’s going to take. They’ll also spot all the weaknesses in the plan in a heartbeat. Getting top leadership aligned upfront helps get them in a problem-solving (vs. problem-seeking) mindset.
- Roadshowing the idea. At this point, you want to get as much exposure as possible. To really get momentum, you want people excited about your vision. You want talking, thinking, and reaching out. The teams and individual contributors (ICs) that will be doing the actual work are the obvious first stop on your roadshow tour, but other disciplines should be considered as well. The important thing is that they hear the vision directly from you. Your passion for the project is infectious. It also makes sure that your thinking doesn’t get diluted or miscommunicated in side conversations.
But meeting with the right people is only part of the equation. To make sure you get the feedback and buy-in you need, you have to present your work in the right way and approach things with the right mindset.
Show don’t tell
At the end of the day, what we build is a product that people are going to use on their phones. For them to have a great experience, the right technology, business goals, and product thinking all has to come together. Product design brings all of these elements together to truly bridge the gap with the people who use our app. That’s why I like to show, not tell. It’s the best way to understand how the products we’re envisioning will look, feel and behave.
Even when I present something quite complex, I try to demonstrate the concept via designs and prototypes. Even the most complex concepts feel simple when you show how they’ll feel. Here’s why:
- Everyone is a user first. We get used to looking at our product through PRDs, OKRs, spreadsheets and google docs. But when you put a very real-looking prototype in their hands, their minds instantly shift to thinking more like a user, less as an employee.
- It creates an emotional reaction. You can spend hours talking about things in docs, or in slides with pie charts, but when confronted with an experience you can interact with and use as if it was already shipped, your reaction tends to be more emotional than analytical. You immediately feel if something is right or worth pursuing.
- Focuses the conversation on what matters. This one’s my favorite. Seeing a product vision through high-fidelity prototypes makes your mind leap to the final state. It shows you what it could be if we really pursued this. Since it’s right there in front of you, it simplifies the conversation. You can start talking about how to make this happen instead of what to build.
Polarize the room
I’m in love with the principle “Strong opinions, weakly held.” It’s a great way to act on your knowledge, while still doubting what you know. This mindset is extremely helpful when it comes to vetting future-thinking concepts. There are so many unknowns and variables, it’s difficult to articulate every detail or edge case. With that in mind, a great strategy I use to help me structure my thinking is to approach every meeting like it’s a test group.
It goes without saying that the best way to gather comprehensive feedback is to do a deep-dive and brainstorm with a set of highly engaged individuals. Unfortunately, time is sparse and meetings like that can be expensive. Learning how to leverage regular short meetings can be really helpful to constantly help inform your thinking.
To do this, I use a simple trick to force people to form an opinion quickly: Present your concepts with strong conviction, even if you’re still forming an opinion. Most people when presented with a strong point of view are more naturally inclined to take sides — they love it or they hate it. From there, you can dissect the reasoning behind their thinking, and use that to nurture or reassess your convictions.
If going bold with your presentation doesn’t trigger it, sometimes I go so far as straight-up asking the room if they love it or not. This engages people to form an opinion on the spot and generates a healthy debate that can truly push the idea forward.
Also, stay on the lookout for people who don’t look totally convinced. Arrange to meet them one on one later to really understand their perspective. Sometimes, they just need time to process before they get on board. Other times, they just see things differently, and through conversation, you can evolve your point of view for the better.
Build the right team
Once you have a great concept, you need a great strategy. Are you building something completely new? Building something that reacts to a market trend or convention? Your strategy informs the amount of detail you need, and what risks you’re willing to take. It also informs what team you build.
If you go for something new, you’ll need to take a lot of risks. In this case, you might want to look for a lean team of A-players and single decision-makers that can move fast and bypass unnecessary meetings. Look for people who have been successful building great minimum viable products (MVPs), and who can tell a story in a way that will take your project from 0 to 1.
On the opposite side, if you’re trying to catch up with a market trend, you probably want a team that focuses more on a tactical strategy that can execute flawlessly. They will probably have a track record of building high-quality, end-to-end experiences using metrics to quickly validate hypotheses and growth mechanisms to make the project go from 1 to 10 as fast as possible.
Take it one step at a time
One big mistake I see people make is they only work on the ideal future state and skip the steps they need to take to get there.
It’s like those shiny, futuristic “concept cars”: They’re great for testing market reaction and accelerating development, but rarely do they become the cars that real people actually drive. The same goes for tech. Showing the ideal future state of your product can be a great way to get executive sponsorship. But to actually get something made, great ideas still need to be tangible enough to build a roadmap around.
This happened to me with an idea we had to evolve the Pinterest experience. We wanted to create new, richer ways for people to achieve specific use cases, like getting married or running a marathon. It was the third time we’d pitched the idea, so we did a lot of work upfront. We looked at all the edge cases, we prototyped a clear north star for where we wanted to take things. But while people at the company loved the idea, something didn’t click. Yes, the end goal was conceptually clear and made a ton of sense. But the path to get there wasn’t clear. It required too many new features, too big of a technology investment… basically, too many things had to go right before it would work.
Desperate to break through, I went off by myself and created a huge chart. I mapped out all the things we’d have to design, develop and ship before we could realize our overall vision. It didn’t look like a straight line. More like a maze, where any direction we took would get us closer to the vision. The beauty of it was, it forced me to break down every single step into tangible smaller projects that could be understood and built in isolation. Each of them would deliver value on its own. But altogether, the elements coalesced into something bigger.
I didn’t share this chart with anyone. Instead, I started small. I looked at all the individual projects that needed to get done, and I pitched the one that was most likely to get the wheels rolling. It had to be something simple, of obvious value, and a quick win so key stakeholders could get on board. I chose board sections, a new feature that lets people organize their boards into sections. Pinners had been requesting the feature for years, and it was relatively easy to build. We shipped it in just a couple of months, and Pinners loved it.
But beyond making Pinners happy, board sections were also a means to an end. Through launching sections, we were able to create a new user-generated semantic structure for content. From there, we could start understanding how someone might go about planning a birthday party, a trip, a wedding. We could then suggest new content specifically for each use case, which turned into the More ideas tab on boards. That tab was so successful, we were able to push for a more prominent entry point, which now appears as board-inspired tabs on people’s home feeds. All of these things were on that initial chart I’d mapped out. We just needed the right starting point to act as a catalyst. It has been more than two years and there are still many more ideas from that initial chart that we still have yet to build.
I hope these principles help get your next big idea in motion. I can’t wait to hear how they work for you. Do you love them? Hate them? Is this all just crazy-talk? Or maybe you have even better processes and strategies to share back. Looking forward to seeing what you come up with!