A practical guide to design visioning - Part 2
Tools & Techniques, and making visioning a priority in your daily process
This is the second article in a 3 part series on design visioning. In the first article I covered the basics of what design visioning is and why it’s important. This time I’ll talk about some useful visioning tools and techniques as well as how to make visioning a priority in your daily work. The final article goes over how to communicate visioning to make an impact, and I share a few case studies.
Visioning Tools & Techniques
Visioning can be an incredibly personal process, and varies widely from team-to-team. To make things more concrete and manageable, I created a framework to help break down how I typically approach visioning:
- Team sprint: (high effort, high impact) Sprints have the potential to inspire and align large teams when there’s big unanswered questions at your company. These can be formal time-boxed sprints with a team, normally a full week, like a Google Ventures design sprint.
- Solo Sprint: (high effort, high impact) If you’re a solo designer at your company, or a designer focused on a big problem on your team and you don’t have the opportunity to partner with others, you can do your own sprint, partnering with a few stakeholders to guide you along your way. In my experience these are great when you need to dive deep on a tough problem area and you have anywhere from one to a few weeks to go in-depth and do a healthy amount of research and exploration, perhaps while the engineers on your team are doing infrastructure or backend work.
- Participatory Research: (high effort, high impact) If you’re able to recruit research participants for longer than a typical 30–60 minute session, it’s a fantastic way to get help creating a vision that stems directly from the mental model of your user. Often times the results are more inspiring and innovative than anything that you come up with on your own, precisely because they come directly from your users.
- Feature Focused visioning: (medium effort, medium-high impact) Whenever you kickoff a project, think about whether you can build in a few days or even a week to go beyond the current feature requirements. At Thumbtack we try to have a high-level vision deck for each feature, illustrating what problems we think the feature solves, what we think the feature could look like far in the future, a plan for how we think we’ll get there, and finally a look at the next set of updates we intend to make. Many times we do this well before a PRD or spec has even been drafted, using it to guide our teams in the planning process.
- Lightweight daily visioning: (lower effort, medium impact) Integrating visioning into your daily design process, no matter how lightweight, can make a surprisingly big impact on your projects and team, and it really doesn’t need to take much additional time and effort. See some tips below. The trick is remembering to think forward in parallel with the current needs and constraints. It’s also a fun way to add some variety and creativity when you’re in a more tactical execution mode.
More helpful visioning process hacks
Here’s a few other ways I’ve baked visioning into my daily work:
- Create a living document for future ideas: Lots of teams keep a backlog of feature ideas they eventually want to build. Why not do the same from a design perspective, focused on future experiences you want to unlock for your users? Even a few ideas each week can build a great habit that will help bake future thinking into your work and help you question your short-term assumptions more regularly.
- Look for inspiration from all points of view internally: User research is critical to helping understand future user needs. But research doesn’t just have to be a formal process that’s only focused on your users. Make a point of meeting more internal teams you might not normally talk to. Chat with finance, legal, and operations. Setup cafe studies at lunch where you interview and gather all points of view.
- Create a space for visioning: Bring your visioning work to life in your workspace. Displaying your ideas helps engage your teammates. You also don’t have to wait to post polished designs — you can share inspirational images (think real-life Pinterest boards), sketches, explorations, or even audits. On the digital side, create an evergreen slide deck, Abstract project, Pinterest board, or even a simple Drive/Dropbox folder.
- Create your own constraints: One of the hardest parts of visioning is how open ended it can feel. True story: when I started working on visioning full-time at YouTube I almost gave up after a few months — there was no specific problem statement and it was completely unbounded. We were just supposed to invent the future. The. entire. future. of. YouTube. No big deal! We needed some constraints, so my research colleague and I created some of our own. We started by prioritizing a few specific user modes and content types to focus on. Today at Thumbtack, we often use our marketplace audiences (customer or pro) coupled with a specific problem space to focus our visioning. As the old saying goes, by trying to design for everyone, you design for no one.
- Write, then draw: I’ve always been a visual thinker, storyboarding out flows or drawing a key screen to get an idea across. And then afterward I would find a way to tell a story around my ideas. That only got me so far, though. I eventually learned that writing simples stories first was an easier way to start. Written stories can be easier to envision and don’t rely on a specific UI to communicate what might be in the future. This can also make it easier for audiences to evaluate ideas earlier and relieve you of the pressure to deliver a fully fleshed out design to get feedback.
- Show a range of ideas, starting from short to long-term: One of the easiest ways to do do lightweight visioning in your daily work is to start with the task at hand, and then gradually extend it forward. It’s fairly easy to do, doesn’t take much time, and takes away some of the pressure of coming up with only “big ideas”. Say you’re working on a feature update that needs to be finalized in a week and has a hard set of engineering constraints. While you’re doing the required work it’s easy to duplicate an artboard and quickly riff on an idea that might not be possible for a few months. By taking that quick moment to do some lightweight visioning, you’re helping evaluate your current thinking against a potential future idea.
- Use a different visual style for longer term ideas: Another fun tool that helps unblock and differentiate visioning work from day-to-day work is designing outside your style guide or design system. Use any style you want! Whether it’s a UI kit of your own invention or a kit you download from a resource site like Sketch App Resources, using a new style helps disconnect you from day-to-day constraints. It also helps your audience evaluate the work without conflating it with the current state of the product.
Making visioning a (realistic) priority
Most teams don’t think they have time for formal visioning. Not true! It’s often regarded as a “nice to have” compared to the tactical work needed to ship features. So how do you make the time and make the case for why it’s so important?
One of the biggest misconceptions about visioning is that it has to be a massive monolithic effort. But the reality is visioning can often be divided into more realistic and lightweight tasks. Not everything needs to be a sprint, nor does it necessarily need to be its own effort. Visioning can be another ingredient you add into the larger recipe for your design process.
At Thumbtack, all our product designers are generalists who have to do some amount of visioning work on each of their projects. It’s baked into what we do for almost every project. We still do plenty of sprints and deliberate visioning efforts, but we also make a point of extending our daily explorations just a little bit further into the future.
In the final article we’ll cover:
- How to communicate and make an impact with visioning
- Visioning case studies
If you haven’t read the first article you can check it out here, and the final article here. I’d also love to hear more of 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Oh, and we’re hiring!