What is a product vision? – Six important characteristics

A good product vision is so impactful. It motivates people, it focuses activities and guides decision making. Those are my top reasons for why a product vision is needed. But, what is a product vision? What should it look like? What are the features that characterize a compelling vision? These are the questions I want to answer today.

To me, there seem to be six characteristics that describe any well crafted product vision. Many more exist but the following stand out to me in describing what a compelling vision is.  I will elaborate on those and show examples where I found ones that made sense.

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1. The product vision describes the generated value

The product vision describes the purpose of the product, why it even exists. As such, it describes the core value the product should create for users, the problems it solves, or the needs it fulfills for them. 

The vision is essentially a mid to long term goal of what the product will achieve in the future. It doesn’t specify how this will be achieved. Thus, it should simply state the problems that will be solved once the vision is achieved.

Take vision for the Microsoft Surface Pro as an example of how to clearly state the value.

For the business user who needs to be productive in the office and on the go, the Surface Pro is a convertible tablet that is easy to carry and gives you full computing productivity no matter where you are. Unlike laptops, Surface Pro serves your on-the-go needs without having to carry an extra device.

2. It is concise, big, and bold (but doesn´t have to be fancy)

This was one of the misconceptions I had when first working with visions. I always thought a vision needed grandeur to inspire. Of course this helps. It also seems inauthentic to have a grand vision of changing everything in the world when most products actually serve a niche. 

Since it is a distillation of the needs the product will fulfill for the user the product vision should generally be short and crisp. It doesn’t, however, have to be fancy. Now, you do want to inspire and motivate people with the vision. So, it does have to resonate and it should to an extent be big and bold. But it has to fit your product.  

Again, it should be aspirational. However, it’s much more important that the team and the organization believes in the vision than creating one that is artificially overblown.

A great example for a short, big, and bold vision is from Zoom.

Make communication frictionless.

What more is there to say? This is as great of a vision statement you are going to get.

3. The product vision informs strategy and roadmap

The product vision is the north star for all product related activities. It is decidedly not the strategy or the roadmap. However, it is the basis for those artifacts. 

The vision is the abstract goal that we want to reach. The strategy, roadmap and the backlog are derived from it. They are the increasingly concrete manifestation of steps to be done in implementing the vision.

4. It needs to fit the overall company picture

The product vision has to fit the overall direction the company is moving towards. Thus, it has to be linked to the company vision or derived from it. This way, it becomes clear how the product contributes to the direction of the company as a whole. By extension, it explains how the teams are thus contributing to the overall company goals.

As an example, take the Microsoft Surface vision from above and compare it to Microsoft’s overall vision

Our mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.

The product vision neatly fits the overall direction of the company. 

Product and company vision can be the same. This is usually the case in companies that only have a single product. The Zoom vision is a good example of that.

5. It can be changed, in specific circumstances 

The vision is not set in stone. You can adapt it in specific circumstances, in case new, impactful information is gained. However, it shouldn’t be changed on a whim. It guides the organization. Thus, the goal it is guiding towards shouldn’t constantly be moving. 

In some cases it can make sense to ditch it and go for something completely different. This pivoting should only be done in case of learning something new that is so significant that the old vision doesn’t apply anymore. 

A good example of this pivoting is Twitter that actually started out as a podcasting and audio sharing product. Only after iTunes entered the podcasting space did the company change its overall and product vision to sharing status updates.

6.The product vision needs buy-in

If the product vision is to serve its purpose and lead the organization, you need buy-in from said organization. Thus, it greatly helps to involve the organization in the process of creating the vision. If they are not involved you need to do that much more communication work to get the buy-in. So, in my view, it’s better to involve them from the beginning. 

Who is responsible for creating a product vision?

Having now covered what a vision is and why it is needed begs the question who is responsible for creating one. The answer is straightforward. 

Ultimately, the product manager or product owner is the one that owns the vision. He or she is responsible for it. That doesn’t mean that this person should come up with the vision by him or herself. Nevertheless, he or she owns, communicates, and decides on it. As mentioned above, we do need to buy in for the product vision to be impactful. 

This buy-in is best influenced by the process of creating the vision, the how of vision creation. This, we will cover next time to wrap up the small series on the product vision.

Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash