Times and conditions change so rapidly that we must keep our aim constantly focused on the future.
Walt Disney

I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of a visiontype, but also wouldn’t be surprised if you have. It’s a thing that’s been around for some time now. I’m not sure of the exact origins, so don’t quote me, but the earliest signs that I can think of were in Marty Cagan’s product manager’s manifesto Inspired approximately a decade ago.

However, despite their relatively long existence, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s new to you. And, even if it isn’t, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is some confusion and misconceptions about them. In this post I hope to clarify what they are, why you might need one, how future looking they should be, and what success looks like for a visiontype.

What is a visiontype?

There’s something about seeing the user experience that turns the light on…aha, I get it.

Jeff Middlesworth, Chief Product Officer at Emma

You may be thinking, a visiontype is self-explanatory. It’s simply a merging of the words vision and prototype, right? That’s technically correct. And, yes it is simple. But, it’s worthy of some elaboration.

A visiontype paints a picture of a product’s idealized future. It doesn’t get into the minutiae of functional details and consequently does not act as a design specification. They’re typically high fidelity, so it’s natural to assume that the entire design has been considered. But, that is not the purpose of a visiontype.

To give you a frame of reference that shows how visiontypes compare to other common product design efforts, I’ve constructed a 2×2 grid pictured here. On one spectrum is feasibility from near term to future. On the other spectrum is the kind of outcome from tactical, or low-hanging fruit to strategic, or long-term goals. As you can see in the diagram, a visiontype sits in the upper right of the grid.

A visiontype aligns and excites engineers, sales, and marketing. It creates a mission that inspires the people implementing the strategy to bring it to life.

Why create a visiontype?

If any one, or combination of the following five scenarios are true for your company, then you should highly consider creating a visiontype.

  1. You’re a start-up looking to get investment and need to show investors and board members a vision of the product.
  2. Your product(s) is(are) stagnant indicated by things like “maintenance mode” releases, flattening of new customer acquisitions, and poor product team morale.
  3. The competitive landscape is changing, and your company needs to identify what might disrupt your product(s) before another company does.
  4. Your company is exploring an expansion into a brand new market, and need to envision how your product(s) might evolve to serve it while continuing to retain your current customers.
  5. Your company has acquired or merged with a company with additional products, and you need to envision how the experience can harmoniously merge in the future.

The above scenarios assume an observation based on some level of research, input, or feedback. More likely than not, the observation aligns to, or influences your company’s business goals. Additionally, you’ll want to make considerations like desired timing for implementing and marketing a new direction to address the observed issue(s). These will help scope how far into the future to envision, and how you form your strategy after the visiontype.

How vision-y should a visiontype be?

A visiontype is inspiration within reach.

With your business goals in mind you can determine how far in the future your visiontype exists. We aren’t trying to predict the distant future, but we do want to paint a picture of a future beyond what might be possible today. The general range to achieve this balance is three to five years in the future.

If you look shorter than three years, then you may not be thinking boldly enough. Often times current constraints play a large factor when looking ahead to the next year, or two. And, rather than driving a larger strategy, you may end up creating a prototype of your next big release. That’s a fine tactic if the next big release is the goal, but this will fall short of the goals I described earlier.

Anything longer than five years, and it will struggle to be rooted in reality and won’t gain traction with the product team and other stakeholders at your company. In other words, a visiontype is NOT science fiction. While going too far may inspire some, it will also hit a wall of doubt and disregard with others. A visiontype is inspiration within reach.

To that point, part of your visiontype’s research is to define a valuable scope of reality for your company. To avoid a sci-fi vision that somehow comes to the conclusion that flying cars play a key role in your visiontype, utilize The Futures Cone model. Target the preferable zone between probable and plausible. Unless you’re Elon Musk, then flying cars may very well be in that zone.

In any case, I’ve included a model that depicts the visiontype zone relationship in the cone of futures.

The scope of probability contains grounding factors like your company’s industry, mission, values, and business goals. Use factors like those to tether your vision to something that is valid, valuable, and relatable for your product, the people working on it, and your company.

Notice that I didn’t mention your company’s current technologies and resources. This is where you want to push into the zone of plausibility. Consider technologies that exist, and might have a major impact on your industry and company in the years to come. Your company may not have these capabilities yet, but a vision of how they can shape your future product might set a strategy in motion to obtain them. As of this writing, technologies like AI, ML, blockchain, VR/AR/MR, and conversational interaction come to mind.

Go crazy, but not too crazy. Tether your vision to your company’s grounding factors.

What is a successful visiontype?

To close things out I want to summarize what I described above by contrasting how an unsuccessful visiontype compares to a successful one. As of this moment, I can think of six:

  1. The unsuccessful visiontype takes short-cuts and utilizes a “genius design” approach. The successful visiontype understands real user goals and is built off of a complete (though sometimes compacted) design process from feed-forward research and concept testing to design refinement.
  2. The unsuccessful visiontype is a closely guarded secret that will never be shared. The successful visiontype is a tool that stimulates feedback from the product team, stakeholders, and in some cases users.
  3. The unsuccessful visiontype attempts to predict the future, and verges on science fiction. The successful visiontype thinks creatively about grounding factors and real technology creating an exciting and inspiring north star that’s just within reach.
  4. The unsuccessful visiontype is restricted to your company’s current technical limitations, and generates user stories that can be implemented right away. The successful visiontype drives a long term product strategy that will take time to realize. But, see the next point.
  5. The unsuccessful visiontype creates a product strategy that’s set in stone. The successful visiontype will be the right goal today, but it should be revisited and refreshed to reflect new realities.
  6. The unsuccessful visiontype is something no one knows what to do with. The successful visiontype energizes internal staff and provides clarity in how their work today will feed into the vision of tomorrow.

To get an idea of what a visiontype looks like take a look at the award winning work we did with InsideSales to reimagine sales acceleration.