What is Product Vision?

Product Management Mar 4, 2019

A clear product vision helps making decisions so your product ends up where you want it to be.

“Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.” — Jonathan Swift

Every product starts with a vision. Yet if you ask a Product Manager to explain the concept of ‘product vision’, it will often result in a blank stare.

The inability to answer this question is surprising. If you look at any product manager vacancy it is almost guaranteed the word vision is in there somewhere.

Some snippets from three random Product Manager vacancies:

Strong product instinct to build great product vision
Demonstrates servant leadership in driving the product vision
Creating product vision together with the stakeholders

As obvious as the need for a product vision is, what a product vision means exactly is shrouded in mystery. The world product vision is sprinkled in vacancies like some kind of spider sense that some Product Managers have and others don’t.

I define product vision as follows:

“A direction for where your product should be in the future that applies focus and helps make decisions about how to get there.”

You don’t arrive at your destination with a single step in the right direction. You consistently need to make steps in the right direction to get where you want to be. This is why having a clear direction through your product vision is important. So you can make the right product decisions each day.

A strong product vision provides focus. It empowers people to say no and make the right decisions to move towards the desired future state of the product. A strong product vision acts like a lens through which to view the world. It helps to decide what matters and what not. It makes sure each decision brings you closer to where you want to be.

A product vision also helps making decisions between departments and teams. Without a clear product vision, people will wing it. Everyone will make their own decisions about the product with the best intentions. All these different decisions with divergent reasoning will dilute your product to not end up where you want it to be.

What is important to stress, even though the product vision seems focused on the product, ultimately it’s not about the product. It’s about how your product will make the life better of the people who will use it. It’s about the users and how the product will grant progress in their lives. This is what makes the term product vision somewhat misleading.

The scientific theory that explains how and why people use a product for the first time is called Jobs-To-Be-Done (JTBD).

A quote that illustrates Jobs-To-Be-Done thinking versus product thinking really well:

Upgrade your user, not your product. Don’t build better cameras — build better photographers.
 — Kathy Sierra

I will now tell two different product stories help highlight the importance of having a strong product vision.

1. The computer mouse: a product in need of a vision.

The computer mouse was invented 20 years before it shipped in the first consumer product. It was a product without clear direction. A strong product vision turned the computer mouse in an essential product for consumers.

The Apple Lisa Mouse — Marcin Wichary

A 24 year old entrepreneur visited the Xerox PARC research facility in 1979. He was the founder of a small start-up nearby in Cupertino. His name was Steve Jobs.

Xerox PARC was the research center of Xerox and an innovation hub without any equal. In the 70s, if you wanted to get an impression what the future would look like, Xerox PARC was the place to be.

In exchange for getting a glimpse at the cool innovations and inventions being developed at Xerox PARC, Steve Jobs offered Xerox the possibility to buy a 100.000 shares of Apple for a million dollars. Xerox agreed and Steve Jobs was allowed to see many of the cool things that were developed at Xerox PARC.

During one of the demonstrations at Xerox Parc, Steve Jobs said:

‘Why aren’t you doing anything with this? This is the greatest thing. This is revolutionary!’

Steve Jobs had just received a demonstration of a Graphical User Interface being operated with a mouse.

Steve Jobs went to an engineer and told him about the mouse he saw at Xerox. He explained it would break every two weeks and costed around 300 dollars to build.

He asked the engineer to build a mouse with the following criteria:

  1. Manufacturable for less than 15 bucks.
  2. Should not fail for a couple of years.
  3. Mouse must work on Formica and on jeans.

Where Xerox saw the mouse and Graphical User Interface as something for the expert, where 300 dollars would be okay. Steve Jobs had the vision to see this technology was meant for a much bigger audience. It would need to cost less, stay working longer and be able to work on a bigger variety of surfaces.

This is what Steve Jobs said about Xerox many years later:

“ If Xerox had known what it had and had taken advantage of its real opportunities it could have been as big as I.B.M. plus Microsoft plus Xerox combined — and the largest high-technology company in the world.”

Xerox PARC did amazing research and produced beautiful prototypes, but lacked product vision to seize all the opportunities they had. There is a big chasm to cross from a prototype to a working consumer product. Steve Jobs had the product vision that enabled the mouse to cross this chasm.

2. The Palm Pilot: the first Professional Digital Assistant done right.

Jeff Hawkins, a co-founder of Palm and one of the inventors of the Palm Pilot, released a product called GriDPad. It was released 8 years before the Palm Pilot.

The product was a marvel of engineering, but a failure in the market. Consumers thought it was useful, but it was just way too big coming in at 9 x 12 x 1.4 inches and 4.5 pounds. It was slightly bigger than an A4 paper and significantly thicker.

Not wanting to make the same mistake twice, he decided the Palm Pilot should be much smaller. When asked how small, Jeff would say:”You should be able to fit it in your shirt pocket”.

Jeff Hawkins took a block of wood and made a prototype of the Palm Pilot. He would constantly carry it around and pretend to use it as a computer. If there were any discussions about features to be added, he would pull out his wooden Palm Pilot to remind people how small the device ultimately should be. “Will it still fit in my shirt pocket if we add this feature?”.

In conclusion: a product vision gives direction that provides focus and aids decision-making

A strong product vision:

  • Gives direction. What do we want our future product to be like?
  • Creates focus. If we know what our future product looks like, it allows to focus our efforts.
  • Helps making decisions. If everybody knows where we are going, then everybody can make the right decisions to get there. People will be empowered to say no and say yes to the right things.

What is important to stress, even though the product vision seems focused on the product, ultimately it’s not about the product. It’s about how your product will make the life better of the people who will use it. It’s about the users and how the product will grant progress in their lives. This is what makes the term product vision somewhat misleading.

The characteristics of a strong product vision are illustrated by the stories of Steve Jobs and Jeff Hawkins.

Steve Jobs wanted a mouse for everyone, not just for a niche of experts. That’s why the mouse needed to cost less than 15 dollars, remain working for multiple years and work on your jeans. This also was ultimately the reason why the Apple mouse came with a single button: to reduce the cognitive friction of users having to learn multiple buttons. A single button made the mouse more accessible. The product vision of Steve Jobs gave direction, provided focus and helped making decisions on how to get there.

Jeff Hawkins, after the failure of GriDPad, knew that no matter how great his product would be that it would fail it were too big. This is why he constantly walked around with a wooden prototype to remind everyone it must fit in a shirt pocket. Whatever decision people would make, it would still need to fit in the shirt pocket.

Further reading

  1. Steve Jobs and the creation of the mouse: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/05/16/creation-myth
  2. Jeff Hawkins and the creation of the Palm Pilot: http://pretotyping.blogspot.com/2010/08/one-of-my-favorite-pretotype-stories.html
  3. More background information about Jobs-To-Be-Done (JTBD): https://medium.com/swlh/jobs-to-be-done-theory-helps-you-to-create-better-products-a47f94a56214