A practical guide to design visioning - Part 1

Part 1 of 3: What is visioning + why it’s important

This is the first article in a 3 part series that covers the basics of what design visioning is and why it’s important. In the second article I share some techniques for how to make visioning a realistic priority in your daily work and the third article talks about how to communicate visioning and make an impact.

When I started at Thumbtack in late 2016 one of my personal on-boarding missions was asking everyone I met about their long-term vision for the company. Each person I talked to had a different answer at the time. We were at the beginning of a company-wide initiative that eventually led to our Instant Match product strategy, and many people saw the outcome differently, or had mismatched long-term perspectives.

I also noticed the designers were working diligently with their feature teams, but hadn’t partnered together much or engaged in any longer-term, big-picture design thinking. There was an opportunity here, one I’d seen many times before! The design team could help kickstart the conversation on what the future of Thumbtack looked like, and it started with visioning.

What is design visioning?

At its core, design visioning is user-first storytelling with a future-focused lens. It enables teams of any size and functional makeup to have more focused, aligned, and meaningful discussions around long-term product strategy.

Design visioning makes an intentional leap from current business and engineering constraints and rallies the company around one or more potential future states.

An establishing screen from a Thumbtack visioning narrative from late 2016 that was shown to the entire company to align teams on what eventually became our Instant Match strategy. We intentionally deviated from the current brand to get the teams thinking outside of current constraints.

Sometimes that vision is set just a few months away, other times it’s years in the future. Regardless of timeline, it orients the company around user-first narratives and gets them out of the weeds of day-to-day problems they’re trying to solve.

Designers and creatives have been doing visioning work in some form or another for a long time. For many designers visioning is a natural part of their creative process. In my case, imagining the future made it easier to back up to the current problem at hand and it helped guide my short-term decisions.

Often I’d come to my team with explorations ranging from the most practical and realistic to implement, to progressively more future-forward. The spectrum of ideas allowed us to have a more informed debate about where we wanted to end up in the future, and then prioritize what to do to get there.

All of a sudden we weren’t just executing on a feature for that project cycle, we were building stepping stones that were part of a larger user journey.

Did we really need to spend so much time on an area of the feature we didn’t think would even be there in a year? Maybe not. The visioning work helped us decide faster and more confidently how to spend our time.

Wireframes from a visioning project we did in 2017 to show how a Thumbtack Pro’s job preferences could become more opportunity-focused in the next few years. Since sharing it with the teams last summer, we’ve been gradually shipping it in pieces as we work to realize the full vision.

There were also plenty of times when these future-forward explorations were a bust, whether it was because they weren’t framed in a way that was relatable to the team, were too far out and blue-sky for what the team needed at the moment, or they simply missed the mark. But they were still incredibly useful, since they still created something concrete to react to and debate, which helped guide the team to a better solution we were all excited about.

Why design visioning is important

Design visioning can be an incredibly powerful tool for you and your team:

  • It’s a conversation starter: visioning can function as a conversation starter for a new strategic direction.
  • It inspires and motivates: visioning is a great tool for creating a north star for teams and keeping people excited and motivated through long product iteration cycles.
  • It creates more focused and meaningful debate: visioning helps make all of those meetings and conversations more concrete and efficient, especially at earlier stages of product development where there’s more ambiguity.
  • It guides short-term decisions: visioning is great at helping teams prioritize what they need to do today in relation to what needs to be done to achieve the long-term vision. Knowing where you’re going in the future helps you prioritize what you need to do today.
  • It helps personal design process: visioning is individually useful when you’re struggling to innovate within your current constraints or trying to discover new potential direction(s) to explore.
  • It brings teams of all sizes and types together: visioning gives everyone from engineers, marketers, analysts, researchers and content strategists a way to participate in the design process.

My path to visioning

I started doing visioning work when I worked at MySpace in 2007 (I know!) and then later at Sony Music in 2010. I wasn’t calling it visioning then. At the time I was doing a lot of reactive problem solving, but I kept wondering what things might look like beyond solving the immediate problem at hand.

It was mostly an exercise in my own curiosity, and I started carving out small chunks of time to research and explore how features and flows might look someday.

It wasn’t until later that I’d realize that visioning could be a powerful tool and make a big impact on team process, company culture and the product itself.

Visioning work for a Sony Music commerce platform that could scale and be skinned to adapt to any artist type — from a brand new artist with just one single, to a legacy artist.

Later in 2011 I was working at YouTube leading a redesign of the browse and watch experience. Our team did some informal visioning in just a few days to show the entire company how the future experience for a viewer could work where a viewer builds a subscription library and tunes their homepage feed over time. It seems like such an obvious model now, but at the time there wasn’t a successful precedent for what we were doing. We had lots of divergent ideas, not much alignment between teams, and endless debates.

The visioning narrative was presented across the company and helped align teams, focus our debates, and within months we were building and executing on a new strategy. The redesign was a success and years later the experiences we designed and built are largely unchanged.

A few years later we were lucky enough to have the resources to create a full-fledged visioning team, which I was proud to be a founding member of and co-lead (more ideas in the next articles on how to make visioning a priority without having a dedicated visioning team).

What does design visioning look like?

Screens from our first visioning Thumbtack visioning sprint in December 2016. We intentionally deviated from the current brand to get the teams thinking outside of current constraints.

Design visioning can take many forms. It can range from quick and scrappy sketches to a professionally shot video. The fidelity of the output isn’t the important thing to focus on, it’s more important to find a medium that will help your teams and company grok the underlying story.

A slide from a low-fidelity wireframe story we created in the summer of 2017 that showed how a Thumbtack Pro could setup and manage their job service categories easily. A few months later we built and launched the Services tab on the Thumbtack Pro app as a result of this visioning.

Based on my experience, here are a few formats that have worked well (stay tuned for some case studies in the next article).

  • Hand-sketched storyboards: for many projects I’ve pinned up quick sketches on boards in a design studio or work area and used them to walk teams through in person informally to socialize future ideas.
  • User stories with low-fidelity wireframes: one of the more common formats I’ve used — often times the story is shared in a deck to make it easy to share and get feedback on. The viewer can go through the slides and read the story on their own. Lo-fi wires assist the storytelling without distracting with detailed UI.
  • User stories with key hi-fi product screens: often times this will also be a deck or a document where the story is written out in paragraph form or bulleted, with a few specific high-fidelity screens peppered throughout the story to help guide and inspire the viewer.
  • Video: ultimately this is the most effective way of communicating a vision. The audience can just sit back and empathize — no reading or having to page through a deck or doc. A video does require more effort to create, but it can still be really quick and scrappy. I’ve created videos with my teams that were shot and edited on our smartphones, using very little or virtually no UI (more tips and tricks on this later). For more important initiatives we’ve also invested in more produced videos, complete with a camera crew, actors, professional editing, and motion graphics.
A still from a recent visioning video we produced internally. We hired a Thumbtack pro to run camera and edit, but everything else we did internally — story, script, UI and visual design, motion graphics, with team members as crew and actors.
Behind the scenes at a Thumbtack vision video shoot at my home, with team members as crew and actors.
Editing a recentvisioning video in the Thumbtack design studio.

The unifying theme to all of these formats is that it’s is easy for anyone at your company to consume and understand, especially when told from a user’s perspective. No complex internal terminology. No mention of product metrics or revenue goals. No mention of eng constraints. It’s pure storytelling. A litmus test I’ve used in the past is that the vision should be easy to understand for a friend or family member who doesn’t have any knowledge of your day-to-day work.

What’s next?

In the next installments of this article I’ll cover:

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your questions and thoughts. And if you’re interested in learning more about how we do design visioning at Thumbtack, you can find me at jsassoon@thumbtack.com. Oh, and we’re hiring!