How to write and communicate an effective product vision
Sometimes when we’re really excited about something, we perhaps become a bit prone to flights of grandiosity. And while having a grand vision for our company or product can be a powerful motivator, plans tend to go awry.
Paul Graham once said: “If you have some kind of big visionary plan, you’re probably Webvan.”
It’s best not to think of a product vision like some pie-in-the-sky goal. It needs to be realistic, while at the same time being enough of a stretch to get your team gets excited about building the product.
Your product strategy needs to be realistic, while at the same time being enough of a stretch to get your team gets excited about building the product.
Hitting both of those points can be difficult, but it’s easier to do when you have a deep understanding of the purpose of your product vision statement.
What is a product vision statement?
You can think of a product vision as the mission statement for your product. It’s a long-term goal that answers the question: In X years, what do you want your product to be? When crafting your product vision, make sure it’s a stretch, but still realistic.
To keep your vision grounded in reality, imagine yourself reading reviews about your product in five years. What would you expect those reviews to say?
There’s no set length for product vision statements. They can be short like this one from Wildbit:
We make it easy to reliably deliver time-sensitive messages to our customers’ users.
It’s very clear. Even if you don’t have a clue what Wildbit actually does, you can still figure out the point of their product just from that statement. You might expect to find “easy” and “reliable” in reviews of Wildbit.
They can also be long and specific, like this one from Joel Spolsky:
For a mid-sized company’s marketing and sales departments who need basic CRM functionality, the CRM-Innovator is a Web-based service that provides sales tracking, lead generation, and sales representative support features that improve customer relationships at critical touch points. Unlike other services or package software products, our product provides very capable services at a moderate cost.
Joel’s example is very realistic. It doesn’t say that they’re creating the best tool in the world at the lowest cost. It says that CRM-Innovator is going to be an affordable tool for what’s needed.
4 principles of a great product vision statement
Regardless of which direction you go with your vision, there are five pieces that every product vision statement needs to have. All of these help focus your product vision, ensuring its clarity.
All product visions should:
Be customer-focused: Your customers are the whole reason for your product. If you don’t reference them in your product vision, you need to rework it.
Be a bit of a stretch, but not unrealistic: Your vision needs to be attainable. If it’s too much of a stretch, you’ll have a hard time rallying your team around the vision. And don’t say “be the best.” That’s lame. Get to the root of what you mean when you say that you want to be “the best.”
Show differentiation: Something in your vision should explain why your product is different from your competitors.
Look X years down the road: In five years, you want people to say ___ about your product.
Your product vision doesn’t need to state each one of these parts explicitly, but it should imply them to some degree.
Putting the Principles to the test
You can take a look and see how these work for the above two examples.
Customer-focused? Yes, they both include the customer in the statement.
A stretch, but not unrealistic? While neither of these seems to be screaming something overly bold, one of them is committed to maintaining ease of use and other is committed to a price point in a CRM industry dominated by giants. Both seem realistic.
Different from competitors? Yes, one focuses on ease of use in a specific customer segment while the other competes on price.
Looking to the future? Neither of these really focus on the future. They provide great guidance, but perhaps there is room to provide an exciting look at the future if those teams felt it necessary. We’ll take a look at another one down below that provides a more provocative look at the future.
Product vision ≠ company vision
An important thing to understand about your product vision is that the majority of the time it will be different from your company vision. Company visions are often too broad to be good product visions. Company visions are also usually meant to be customer-facing marketing messages, while product visions are internal messages that align your team.
For example, Amazon’s company vision is:
To be earth’s most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.
That’s a compelling vision for Amazon as a company, and you could argue is relevant for the Kindle. It is a device where you can buy any book you want online and begin reading it immediately.
While the Kindle’s vision isn’t publicly available, there is a great interview with some of its leaders from a few years ago. In it, they say, “paper is … the inspiration for the Kindle of the future: a weightless object that lasts more or less forever and is readable in any light. “Paper is the gold standard.”
This is a specific vision for what they think the vision of the experience using the Kindle should be. It definitely hits all four principles. You might argue realism but understand they’re stating it as a metaphorical goal. They’re not saying they’re going to replicate e-ink on a piece of digital paper.
The product vision is NOT the product strategy
Product vision and product strategy are closely related, but they’re different things. Your vision should focus on where you want your product to be. Your product strategy will explain how you will get there.
Think about when you build IKEA furniture. The outside of the box has a picture of your product — that’s your product vision. When you open the box, there are step-by-step instructions inside of how to build it — that’s your product strategy.
Your product vision fits in between your company vision and your product strategy. Think of it as three layers. Company vision helps guide your company, product vision helps guide your product, and product strategy is the step-by-step directions to build your product.
How to craft the vision
How you create and communicate your vision to your team can affect if people buy into it or not.
When your brand new product vision is ready to go, you should hold a big meeting and unveil it like an Apple product announcement, right? No. That’s the exact wrong way to develop and present your vision.
That way fails because stakeholders will have been in the dark throughout the whole process. When it’s unveiled, they might have different expectations, different thoughts, different approaches. That will lead to push back. Push back might lead to arguments and result in people not buying in. Or worse, they might ignore your vision altogether and do whatever they think is best for the product.
If that happens, you’ll probably have to go back to the drawing board and start the process of creating a product vision all over again.
A better way is to workshop your vision throughout the process of creating it. Invite different stakeholders into the process of crafting your product vision.
This is the approach TransferWise took. They started by having a product vision meeting with several stakeholders and asked everyone to answer the question, “What do customers consider when they select TransferWise?”
Stakeholders’ answers ranged from “price” to “trustworthiness” to “speed.” TransferWise then refined those answers by digging deeper. They asked the group, what would make our product the most trustworthy? The fastest? The cheapest?
At the end of their product vision meeting, they had the basis for the product vision and worked to refine it into something that everyone could buy into.
Workshopping the product vision statement gives people input along the way. They’ll feel heard, and you’ll likely change your vision based on incremental feedback throughout. That way, when you present the finalized vision, it won’t be such a shock to stakeholders. They’ll have been involved and know what to expect.
This approach to building your product vision will improve buy-in from company leaders, who will then help rally the team around the vision.
Crafting a product vision takes time
Product visions might seem like a simple sentence, but creating a product vision that people buy into isn’t an overnight process. If you take a few hours over a week to write it, refine it, and share it with stakeholders, it will end up being a powerful statement.
A flawed vision statement could cause all sorts of planning and execution problems. That’s why it’s important to not only understand the point of your product vision but also spend time carefully crafting it.