Great products don’t just happen by accident. Simply having a great idea for a product isn’t enough to make it a success.
It takes a dedicated, passionate team, aligned to a shared goal and purpose, to ensure the direction of travel is clear and there is a shared understanding of why they’re doing what they’re doing. And it takes a clearly defined vision to help guide the team to make the right decisions.
The product vision is the glue that binds the various roles and functions of a team together, keeping stakeholders in alignment. It should inspire and motivate, helping to shape feature decisions and the product strategy.
Product vision and product strategy
When thinking about product vision, it’s important to understand how it relates to the product strategy and roadmap, illustrated here in the product strategy pyramid.
The vision acts as the long term aspiration for the product. The strategy explains how it will be achieved. The roadmap lays out the initiatives that will happen in order to realise the product vision.
Because the three are inter-related, it’s much harder to know how to create an effective strategy, and even harder to define the features of the product, without a clear vision.
Consider this well known excerpt from Alice in Wonderland. Alice asks: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” The Cheshire Cat answers, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” When Alice answers back that she “doesn’t much care where,” the Cheshire Cat simply replies, “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go!”
The point here is that without the vision acting as a North Star, it’s hard to seek alignment and direction.
"The product vision is the overarching goal you are aiming for, the reason for creating the product. It provides a constant purpose in an ever-changing world, acts as the product’s true north, provides motivation when the going gets tough, and facilitates effective collaboration."
Roman Pichler, Product Consultant
Here’s six things to keep in mind when defining your product vision.
Define the mission
Firstly, let’s start with ‘why’. Why does the company exist and what is the end state that you’re shooting for?
To do this, you need to understand and have defined the mission of the company. It could be that the company is the product, but nonetheless, if you don’t know why you’re doing something, it will be almost impossible to craft a solid vision.
A mission statement defines the company’s business, its objectives and its approach to reach those objectives. A vision statement describes the desired future position of the company. The two terms are often used interchangeably, but elements of both combine to provide a statement of the company’s purposes, goals and values.
Take Google’s mission statement as an example: “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”.
It’s broad enough to ensure that everyone is guided in the right direction, inspirational enough as to not constrain thinking, and serves a higher purpose than that of any individual product or service.
It’s clear and easy to see how a number of products can be created that align to this mission, yet it doesn’t get lost in the detail discussing individual features. It simply nails the ‘why’. It leaves enough head room to explore different solutions – i.e., products – to complete the mission.
Make it big and keep it short
Secondly, the vision needs to be short, so that it’s easy to remember and recite. Anyone involved in the product should be able to easily recall the vision on the spot.
At the same time, it needs to be big enough to inspire and motivate the team and any wider stakeholders.
It’s important to think beyond the product itself. This vision for Google Maps is, “Explore and navigate your world.” It works because it doesn’t restrict development to a single app or platform; it’s simple and concise, but wide enough to encompass the multiple solutions, products or channels that might contribute to achieving the goal.
Understand the challenge
Next up, you need to understand the challenge that the product is trying to solve. Or, to put it another way, define the problem that the product is aiming to solve, not the solution to it.
It’s about thinking in outcomes over outputs. When we’re output driven, we can focus too much on the technology, the features, or the solution. Over time this will restrict movement and mean that the vision can quickly become outdated.
By framing the vision to be aligned with the outcome, it allows movement as priorities change, ensuring that value creation is the key measure of success.
"Outcomes are the changes in the customer, user or employee behaviour that lead to good things for your company, your organisation, or whoever is the focus of your work."
Separate vision from strategy
The product vision is the motivation for the developing the product. The product itself is merely a means of achieving the vision. Be sure to keep those two things separate.
Vision is a destination - a fixed point to which we focus all effort. Strategy is a route - an adaptable path to get us where we want to go.
Let’s take Netflix’s vision statement as an example: become the best global entertainment distribution service
This vision is great, because it doesn’t tie Netflix to a particular set of features or technology stack. It remains true as consumption trends and habits change and technology improves.
Over time, we can see that Netflix has gone through a number of fundamental changes to their product strategy, but they all align back to the same vision. What’s more interesting is that, as we see the competition increase around streaming platforms, Netflix still has the space to create original content and remain true to that vision.
"The company vision is unlikely to change much. Pivoting a company or product doesn’t necessarily mean changing the vision. If described correctly, a vision will be timeless and not connected to technology or trends."
Richard Banfield, Martin Eriksson and Nate Walkingshaw, Product Leadership
Use it as a guide
When set correctly, the vision can be used as a guide to making decisions further down the line. It won’t necessarily be able to answer every question, but can act as guide rails, giving the team a lens through which to look and base strategic decisions on.
"We are stubborn on vision. We are flexible on details."
Be clear on really answering one simple question; does this initiative get us closer to our vision? If it doesn’t, or it can’t be clearly justified, then maybe that feature or change in strategy isn’t quite right.
Communication is key
We’ve discussed how the vision is important in bringing a product to life, and how it relates to strategy. Equally important is being able to describe those two things.
There’s a great tool we use to help with this – the product vision board, created by Roman Pichler.
The product vision board captures assumptions about the users and the customers of the new tool, the needs the product should address, the key product features, and the value the product should create for the business.
"If you are working on something exciting that you really care about, you don’t have to be pushed. The vision pulls you."
Interested in getting a second pair of eyes on your product vision? Book in a 30m chat with me, totally free of charge. No sales pitch, just a friendly ear and a sounding board to talk through your product strategy, your proposition, or your roadmap.
We’re making a few appointments available each week – get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us what’s on your mind to book yours in.