What is a Product Vision?
Often mentioned, rarely understood
One of the trickiest concepts to grasp in product development is that of a product vision. I have written about the topic before. My conclusions in that article was that a product vision should describe the customer benefits and the world you are trying to achieve. However, that never sat quite right with me. When someone asks you for a product vision, they are expecting something more concrete.
I have yet to find a good, specific definition for the term product vision that addressed those concerns. Therefore, here is my attempt at defining what a product vision is:
A product vision describes the product being built and its customer benefits at a sufficient level of abstraction to be valid for 2–5 years (software) or 5–10 years (hardware), but with enough detail to derive key product and technical decisions.
I will discuss important aspects of a good product vision in further detail in the remainder of this article.
Product vision ≠ company vision and mission
One of the most confusing aspects of the term “product vision” is that it sounds similar and related to “company vision”. The term “company vision” or “vision statement” is often used in conjunction with the company’s mission and purpose, as per this definition by management consultancy Bain & Co.:
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. Elements of Mission and Vision Statements are often combined to provide a statement of the company’s purposes, goals and values. However, sometimes the two terms are used interchangeably.
A good product vision, however, is very different to a good company vision — even for a one-product company. A company vision mostly needs to be inspiring and durable. A company vision is a tool to rally the company around a common purpose. That purpose is necessarily abstract and elevated so that employees and stakeholders can identify with it. It also needs to be stable for a long period, otherwise it loses its purpose of forming the core of the identity of the company. A company vision therefore is usually aspirational and can never be fully achieved. For example, IKEA’s vision is “to create a better everyday life for the many people — for customers, but also for our co-workers and the people who work at our suppliers”. This vision could remain unchanged for decades and IKEA would always be able to continue creating a “better everyday life”.
In contrast, a product vision needs to be more concrete and achievable. It covers a time span of years, not decades. It should actually describe what the company is producing. The IKEA vision above doesn’t even talk about furniture at all. A product vision would need to not only do that, but also make it clear what is special about IKEA furniture.
An example that fits this definition of a product vision might be Tesla’s famous “Master Plan”. Tesla’s mission is “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy” — aspirational, abstract, durable. Its “master plan”, published in 2006, is much more concrete, achievable, and with a limited time horizon:
1. Build sports car
2. Use that money to build an affordable car
3. Use that money to build an even more affordable car
4. While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options
This master plan, which can be interpreted as a product vision, is still at a fairly high level of abstraction, of course. It is much more specific than the mission, though, and limits the scope and objectives of the company’s product development efforts: cars and zero emission electric power generation, with the objective of making them more affordable.
Different levels of specificity
Product visions may have differing levels of specificity, depending on the maturity of the product and market. As a completely new product in a new market, a one-liner might be enough. For Varda Space Industries, “factories in space” might be enough of an initial product vision (though it would likely get more specific soon). For a new fitness app, “a mobile fitness app” isn’t going to cut it, though. How is your app going to be different from the competition? How are you going to deliver unique value to a market that has the choice between a myriad offerings?
When you already have an established product, the product vision needs to get even more specific, because it has to describe how the product should evolve, what will be different about tomorrow’s product in comparison to today’s product. For that purpose, often a one-line description won’t be enough — you will want descriptions of use cases, scenarios how the product might be used, even mockups of screens. The most elaborate product visions could even be full-fledged prototypes or elaborate video productions showcasing how the product is envisioned to be solving customer problems.
What is most important, though, isn’t the exact level of specificity of the product vision. What matters most is that it can both inspire and drive decisions.
Inspiring by means of customer benefits
A product vision should be inspiring by showcasing how the product can make a difference in customers lives. The key phrase here is “Imagine if” or “Imagine a world in which”. For the early Airbnb product, for example, one might have said “imagine if instead of staying in a faceless hotel room, you could stay in the guest bedroom of a tastefully furnished apartment, and your host would share tips about the best neighborhood restaurants with you.” This kind of phrase makes it clear how the product might be beneficial to its users and customers, how it might solve their problems and address their needs.
This framing is both inspirational, since it provides a larger purpose to the work of the team, and it focuses everyone on the customer perspective.
Any good product vision is therefore always grounded in customer benefits. It doesn’t have to literally contain the above phrases, but they provide a helpful tool for distilling the envisioned benefits.
Driving key decisions
Inspiration alone is not sufficient if it is unclear how that purpose might be achieved, how the imagined benefits might be realized. This is what sets a product vision apart from a company mission. Most importantly, the product vision should be one of the main drivers of the product strategy. The product vision outlines the end goal you want to achieve; the product strategy describes how you will get there.
Additionally, the product vision should be written in a way that it can drive the highest level decisions in terms of technical architecture and team setup. For example, one of the earliest product visions of the enterprise social network Yammer was a set of wireframes that showed a Twitter-like feed of messages written by a company’s employees. From the set of wireframes, it would have been easy to derive some general concepts that the product’s technical architecture would have to fulfill (and that would still hold years later).
In terms of the team setup, the product vision won’t be able to tell you how large the team should be or the exact balance between the different functions. You should, however, be able to derive some fundamentals from the vision — for example, for B2B SaaS, the product vision should cover whether the product is bottom-up, driven by end-user adoption, or top-down, driven by a sales motion. These two different approaches will yield very different products and require very different teams.
Directional, not binding in the details
An interesting aspect of product visions is that the more specific they are, the less they should be understood as binding. Especially if you look at some of the more elaborately produced visions, it is evident that not all of these will be built exactly like depicted in the vision. The same is true for vision prototypes. The overall direction and customer benefits that the product aims to achieve should be interpreted as non-negotiable, but any details contained in the vision artifact itself are only illustrative.
It is generally a good idea to be very explicit about this in the vision itself. Otherwise, you run the risk of stakeholders misunderstanding the vision to be a prescriptive roadmap — customers might inquire when certain features shown in the vision will be available, or teams might implement aspects of the vision without validating that they actually provide customer benefits.
I hope I was able to shed a bit more light on what a product vision should achieve and how it might look like for various stages of product and market. Crafting a good product vision is more art than science — after all, one of its key purposes is to inspire. However, I also think that it is better to have a product vision than to have no vision at all. As long as you take into account the points mentioned in this article, even just a paragraph of text, perhaps along with a few sketches, can be very beneficial to align the team on the overall direction and drive the highest-level product decisions.
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