Design’s North Star

Telling the story of an inspiring future

Design, past and present

The North Star

What is a North Star, and what is its purpose?

  1. A design “North Star” is a visual output (commonly a video, although it can also be a storyboard, a series of hi-fidelity designs, etc.) that explains the high-level narrative of why an idea or concept will improve people’s lives.
  2. A North Star is meant to get everyone on the same page about what the idea is and why it’s exciting, without focusing too much on specific execution details.
  3. A North Star should be inspiring. Hence, North Stars generally benefit from being imagined a good ways out in the future (think six months or a year or even longer.) By placing the narrative further out in time, you free yourself of existing constraints so that the results can be bolder, more imaginative, and more impactful.
  4. A North Star should seem achievable and realistic, even if it’s on a longer time horizon. The proposed idea shouldn’t feel like science fiction, nor should the narrative feel like it doesn’t ring true to people’s real problems, desires, or habits.

What is a North Star not?

  1. A North Star is not a spec, roadmap or detailed set of mocks. In fact, even if everybody is sold on a particular North Star vision, it’s dangerous to jump straight into working backwards to build the exact thing as presented. Instead, a better idea is to start from where things are now and work forwards towards the North Star by mapping out a detailed execution plan that seeks to validate the most controversial parts of the vision first. The North Star is only meant to be a guidepost; what eventually ends up being built and launched may not look or function exactly like the original vision, which is fine because things like executional details (which aren’t the focus of a North Star) clearly need to be thoroughly explored at some point in the actual building of the product. If done correctly, however, the final output will have retained the spiritual soul of the original North Star, and will have successfully delivered upon its promise of improving people’s lives.
  2. A North Star should not simply describe an interface and describe what each button or navigational element does. It should tell the narrative of how people would incorporate the idea into their lives. For example, if we’re talking about introducing a new feature, questions that should be answered in a North Star are: when would a person use this feature? What would get them to remember or want to use this feature? How would they use it, and what would make them stop?
  3. A North Star should not simply be a redesign. Redesigns might help improve clarity, ease of use, and aesthetics, but they don’t fundamentally transform or introduce new value into people’s lives. (Also, ask yourself: when was the last time you were really inspired by a rearrangement of elements on a screen?)

Design, future

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.