The Ultimate Guide to Product Vision

Or, what is a product vision, how to create it, how to sell it

Hello, and welcome to a new edition of Expander. I’m Abhishek, and each week I share practical ideas on doing product, working with people, and growing a business. Send me your questions and in return, I’ll humbly offer BS-free actionable advice. 🤜🤛

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If you find this post valuable, check out some of my other posts:

  1. Five factors to keep in mind while changing jobs

  2. Don’t share your ideas

  3. Four questions to ask before you decide your pricing

  4. A bad process is better than no process


Today, let’s talk about product vision. I’ll discuss what is a product vision (believe it or not, it’s misunderstood all the time), when is it necessary to have a product vision, how to create one, who should create it, and most importantly, how to sell it to all the folks in the company so that they’re all aligned. Let’s crack on!

Before we understand “product vision” let’s try to understand what “vision” looks like in general. Earlier this year, I was advising a startup on their business and strategy. It was a mobile app that connects medical service providers with patients. On the first slide of their presentation (they were raising money) the company vision read something to the effect of… To alter the delivery of medical services.

Do you see the problem here? It’s not a vision! It describes what the company would like to do in the future, but it’s not a vision.

A vision is a picture of a better place. It’s what you want the world to look like because your product exists. Building a business is altering the future. In many ways, your vision is your opinion of how the future ought to be.

A vision answers the question, “What world do you want to create?”

A potential vision for the same company could be: “A world where medical services are democratised and easily accessible to anyone.” Or perhaps: “A world where people’s time, money, and lives are saved by having on-demand, affordable access to medical services.”

Another example (more related to product): back in the day 50% of guests who tried to book an Airbnb failed. They’d found a place where they wanted to stay, but they were either rejected or ignored by the host. It was a big problem that directly affected Airbnb’s North Star: nights booked.

The team tried a variety of things: persuade hosts to accept more bookings (with reminders and incentives), give warnings if hosts weren’t responding quickly. Some of these tactics were successful, but there wasn’t any noticeable improvement.

This was when Lenny Rachitsky (then Growth PM at Airbnb) and his team flipped the script and wondered, “What if we were to work backwards from the ideal Airbnb? What would we do if we started Airbnb today?”

The ideal experience is: you find a home, you book it, and you’re done. In short, you should have a home as soon as you find it.

Airbnb’s now popular “Instant Book” feature actually existed from early on, but only 5% of hosts were using it—even those who didn’t care about approving the guests.

“So, the bet we made was to just go big on Instant Book and try to morph the entire marketplace from what it was (less than 5% Instant Book) to all Instant Book. We’re going to move everyone to instant booking. We realised that’s the future of Airbnb.”

If you’ve been following, the team’s vision was a “a future where all Airbnb guests could instantly book a home as soon as they found one.”

So, now that we understand what’s a product vision, how do we create one?

The first question you have to ask is, “If we have all the resources and virtually no constraints, what would the ideal product experience be?”

A common mistake most PMs make is declaring something like: “We’ll make our customers’ lives better by increasing speed and efficiency of the product.” This is not helpful. You need to have a concrete sense of how speed and efficiency will improve their lives.

It’s important to note that this isn’t the time to be pragmatic. To be good at visioning, you need to push aside all the constraints and reasons why things will be hard (or may not work) and figure out what the actual ideal experience should be.

Every so often, it’s as simple as removing an extra step from the user journey (Instant Book in Airbnb) and at other times it’s as hard as colonising Mars. Either way, it should excite you, otherwise it isn’t ready yet.

Here are some avenues and questions that can help you create an ideal vision:

  1. Business Objectives and Constraints: What are the business objectives and industry constraints?

  2. Customer Problems: What are the main customer problems? Are there points of frustration, and can we remove them?

  3. Insights: Do we have any critical insights that can double the impact the product makes for customers?

  4. Technology: Is there any new tech (inside or outside the company) that can open up new possibilities?

  5. Trends: What are the market trends, and where do we think the market will be in ten years?

  6. Competition: How are the expectations and habits of users changing, and does that open up new possibilities? Are our competitors catering to these changes?

  7. Go to Market: Who is not using our product? Why not? How can we reach them? What would it take to win them over?

  8. Product Process: What’s the slowest part in our product development process, and how can we make it twice, or even ten times as fast?

You don’t have to have all the details to crate a vision, and you don’t have to be sure that you’ll figure out how to realise your vision.

But it’s not enough to create a vision, you have to sell it to the stakeholders and inspire the audience that it’s worth solving these problems. You need all the help you can get from sales, customer success, growth, marketing, etc. to realise the vision. Therefore, once you have some idea about what the ideal product looks like, you’ll have to put it into a format that all the folks in the company can understand and be inspired by.

One good way is to script it as an infomercial. Start with an emotional story of how terrible things are (guests unable to book even after finding their dream home), and then describe a regular person using the ideal version of the product and how delighted they feel.

You can present this in the form of a story, a presentation, a storyboard, a talk, etc. It doesn’t really matter. Use what works best for you. The most important thing is to communicate the idea and leave people inspired.

For example, getting to 100% Instant Book is a great target, but it doesn’t create an emotional connect with the audience. “I made an image of a guy walking through a minefield, where the mines are all the little things that go wrong when a host gets an instant booking request. For example, guests booking on short notice, or planning to have a party, or bring their dog, etc. Our strategy was to defuse each of those mines. That really stuck in people’s minds,” shares Rachitsky.

There are other ways to do the same. At Amazon you write a mock press release (instead of a sketch or a presentation) where you describe (from the point of view of a journalist) what the product feels like to use, what the customers say, how the older frustrations have evaporated, etc.

Don’t forget to tally the “reality” with the press release when time comes. You may not have achieved everything, but you wouldn’t have achieved this hadn’t you done this exercise in the first place. Interestingly, this approach can be extended to any size of work—from an individual feature to a to a full product.

Having said that, you don’t need a product vision from the get-go. If you haven’t hit product/market fit, focussing on a product vision would be counter-productive. Before p/m fit your only focus is survival.

A good time to think about product vision is when you’ve been in the growth phase (after p/m fit) for some time. It falls upon the head of product, the CPO, or anyone who knows a good deal about the product, the customers, the market, and has a strong product sense (usually one of the cofounders) to define the product vision and rally the company in that direction.

“Once you have a one-year or a three-year vision, the next step is to work backward from there,” advises Aram Grigoryan, PM at Facebook (and my mentor). ”What does the product look like six months from now? What about three months from now? This helps you decide what features or improvements you should be working on today so that you can realise your vision in future.”

Do you update your product vision? Oh yes! If you have realised your vision (at least 80% of it) or if the product has gone through a major pivot (thereby rendering the vision irrelevant), it’s a good time to revisit. The vision is a place that should always lie in the future.

It might seem counterintuitive, but working backward can help teams come up with better solutions than working forward. When you work forward, you tend to be biased by what already exists, what seems easy, or what seems quick. That’s myopic!

It’s true that your idealistic vision might take years to achieve, but great companies stick around for decades. If you start taking the steps to work towards your ideal vision, you’ll be in a much better place in a few years than if you go in the wrong direction quarter after quarter.

Peace!


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Until next week,
Abhishek 👋


P.S. I also write The Sunday Wisdom, a weekly newsletter that challenges the norms and learned beliefs about how the world works. Delivered every Sunday at 6PM IST.