Learning about creating a good product vision

Over the past few weeks I have been learning a lot about ‘product vision’, creating a mission statement for a product or an overarching vision for a product portfolio. It made me wonder. Is a product vision always a future, pie-in-the-sky idea of where one expects a product to be? Are you allowed to make a product vision more tangible, more concrete? How can one best tie in a product vision with the overall objectives of a company? And finally, how does a product vision differ from a business strategy or a mission statement?

Digital giants like Google and Apple all have great sounding vision statements that seem to underpin every aspect of their products. The late Apple founder Steve Jobs is often seen as product vision genius, someone who could envision us using products like the iPhone and the iPad long before we did. In my day job at 7digital, I manage the life cycles of both B2C and infrastructural products and I always find it very helpful to establish a product vision early on in the process, which can then evolve along with the product.

I guess the main question that I have been asking myself is: “What makes a good product vision?”

  1. It should answer a question or solve a problem – At the most basic level, I believe each product manager or designer should start by asking the question: What user problem is the product trying to solve? Is this product providing something that consumers will find valuable?
  2. Does is it translate into a set of beliefs that can be tested? – Does a product vison need to have some foundation in the sense of underlying assumptions about consumer needs or behaviour? I think it’s really important to have some initial assumptions which can be tested, validated and adjusted if necessary. This approach prevents businesses from launching products that no one has asked for and helps one to adjust the overall direction of a product based on consumer feedback and data. People like Eric Ries and Steve Blank spend a lot of time advocating this ‘lean’ approach to product development.
  3. Does the product vision fit in with the company values? A good product statement does tie in with the overall direction or product strategy of a business. The related company or brand values provide a framework within which one can create and adjust a product vision.
  4. Let it evolve – Don’t be afraid if the initial product vision sounds a bit vague at first, it will evolve and crystallise sooner than you think! I learnt from product people like Andrew Levy and Joseph Puopolo that a product vision will almost adjust itself as you launch a product and you learn about how the public engages with it. Data and direct consumer feedback are in my view absolutely crucial in this respect. Some of the bigger, more corporate organisations use ‘values’ or ‘principles’ to help guide the direction of a product or a product strategy (eBay’s and Firefox “values” are good examples in this respect).
  5. Where do you envisage the product to be in 3 years’ time? – I spoke to a senior product manager at Google who describes himself as a “storyteller” and explained his ability to tell a story of a product. “What problem(s) will the product solve?” “What will the product look like in a year from now, two years from now?” I agree with him that it’s good to at least have a vague idea of where you envisage a product to be in the foreseeable future, which forms a good starting point for more concrete release planning.
  6. Don’t forget that it’s about the consumer! – Sometimes I see product visions which solely concentrate on the commercial gains for the company, completely ignoring the intended benefits for the customer. UX consultant Leisa Reichelt describes this consumer-centric approach as “designing consumer experiences.” The user experience or journey thus forms the start and end point for a business or product strategy.

Main learning point: one could argue that a product vision is only a guide, some sort of strategic direction for a production and that one’s main focus should be on the execution. However, I do believe in spending some time to work out a clear product vision that stipulates what a product aims to achieve for the customer. Especially if the vision has been drafted in such a way that the underlying values or beliefs can be tested in real-time, then the product vision can be a very useful tool for on product manager, designer or business exec.

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