"But what's our product vision?," they insisted.
I didn't freeze. Ten times worse, I stammered. There it was, the creeping sensation that I had not made a good impression on this CEO. Product, I understood well. Vision, yes! But strung together? Was this in the job description?
So like any competent leader, I Googled it.
When you search product vision today, 2 million results pop up. A million more than that search years ago, but these still make you go, "huh?" The best article links to a few example videos, like what you'd see in a TV commercial. One from John Deere pans behind a farmer starting his early morning by setting a large coffee mug onto a mahogany desk. This activates a futuristic dashboard of weather patterns, floating in space at a 45 degree angle to his weathered face. A voice not unlike Siri alerts, "Irrigation system initiated!"
As the Head of Product at a startup selling literal potatoes, I didn't think we could afford actors. Maybe CGI? What I could afford was a storyboard: the 2D origin story of every great cinema. A few product veterans suggested this to me as a substitute for the more esteemed video shoot. But after producing two multi-year product visions, I am here to persuade you that no other format will communicate better than the humble storyboard. But first...
A product vision, that is not!
What is product vision? More often that not, it's confused with product roadmap and company vision.
A casual poll of 5 out of 10 CTO and CPOs described their product vision as: "Could be better. We have a roadmap." Product roadmaps often stand in for product vision because both deal with the future. But following a roadmap with no product vision is like going on a road trip and picking the first highway you see on the rental car map. You'll start driving. You'll even make progress. But you may not like where you end up! There's lots of features on a roadmap, but a strong product vision will steer you towards the right features.
Founders will sometimes conflate product vision with company vision. These two visions complement each other but serve different purposes. The company vision often goes by another name: mission statement. This intentionally broad statement declares what the company wants to be in 10+ years, who it serves, and why it will be the best. A product vision tells the story of how.
Product vision is 100% imagination and storytelling. It describes in rich detail what life in the future gets to be like for the customer when your product exists. There's main characters, place setting, maybe even a hero's journey. The product vision stakes an opinionated bet for the next 3-5 years (1-2 if early-stage) on which future will have the greatest impact while realizing the company's vision. There are many, many futures that could satisfy the company's vision - your job as the product leader is to pick one.
What does a product vision do for you?
A compelling product vision rallies and inspires. It also proves you've done some homework and know where you're going, which is a must-have for strategy. It does wonders for hiring and retention. An engineer once told me, "I don’t think I would have stayed through the year if not for what you brought to the table." They were referring to product vision, and how the subsequent product strategy finally made sense. Tell me a story! Make me care.
Why a storyboard?
Modern companies for the most part have employed three formats to effectively communicate a product vision. All of them have pictures and a plot:
- The pretend-it's-a-Superbowl-commercial video, like this John Deere one here.
- The "visiontype," like this Asana one here [5:21]. A riff on "prototype," the visiontype uses fake design mockups cleverly animated to evoke a realistic future, often shown with a fictional character and/or narrated with voiceover.
- Then there's the storyboard...
A storyboard fits into most budgets, even when you're an early-stage startup. And unlike the visiontype, no one is going to mistake a tiny illustration as canon for what UX design to go build. A storyboard's fidelity, with its sketchy lines and dabs of color, forces just the right level of decision-making without wasting time on finer details.
It's easy to tweak a storyboard. When the story doesn't flow, move the panels around and try a different sequence. Want to focus on families? If you just nudge that stick figure there, you can make room to draw in two kiddos.
Assuming you've done the homework to envision that better future in your head...
- Rapid sketch: grab a pencil and just start drawing, this version is for your eyes only. Use stick figures and post-its (I cut index cards in half). Write a 3-5 word caption for each cell. You don't need to be an artist. Go fast and loose to outrace your inner critic. Timebox to 2-3 hours, for 10-20 panels.
- Edit: Once you've culled and rearranged into a story you like, take some time to clean up or redraw the panels more carefully. It still doesn't need to be a masterpiece, just clear enough that someone else can see what's happening when aided by your caption.
- Feedback on content: Show your sketchy storyboard to a few trusted allies in leadership. As Head of Product, this circle should include your counterparts in Engineering and Design. Tell them you're working on the product vision, but don't send it in advance - this needs narration. Use a 1:1 meeting to verbally share why you're prioritizing this, remind them of the key customer insights that led to this vision, then walk through the storyboard. Do they agree with the strategic decisions you've made?
- Feedback on clarity: Once you've incorporated a few rounds of feedback and gotten buy-in from your fellow leaders, it's time to check your messaging for clarity with the people responsible for delivering. You've told your story a handful of times now. It resonated with the c-suite, but does it make sense to engineers and product managers? Share with just a select 2-4 leads as a litmus test, remember that these stick figures are not ready for prime time yet.
- Hire a pro: Once you've nailed the story, it's time to hire a pro. Turning your stick figures into a professionally illustrated storyboard will equip you to present your product vision convincingly at All Hands meetings and beyond. This puppy will get a lot of airtime, so make it good. And if you're not Walt Disney, now's your chance to work with the Artist to fill in any details that you weren't able to draw yourself.
Advice out there will tell you to recruit your lead designer to create the product vision. This works well when creating mockup-driven visiontypes, but it does not work for product vision storyboards. While you should absolutely co-create the product vision with input from your CEO, Design, and Engineering leaders, please leave the drawing to someone who illustrates people and plot for a living. Translating your imagination onto paper is an inexact process, and your Artist will have to incorporate changes quickly after they rough out an initial sketch. Experience, communication, and responsiveness all matter. You can find great illustrators on platforms like Upwork - look for Storyboard Artists who typically work on TV commercials for ad agencies. Or if you're Airbnb, you can hire someone from Pixar!:
There's one downside to a storyboard: it doesn't share well externally, which is why you see so few examples in the wild. It works better for aligning within your organization than it does for mass marketing. However, if you're big enough to afford a fancy TV commercial, you've already got a head start.
Still have questions? Next up we'll cover two more aspects of nailing that product vision: stay tuned and subscribe!
- Pre-requisite: the customer insights you need for Product Vision
- What now? How to obtain and sustain buy-in for your Product Vision