Defining a Vision: Making Sure Your Work Matters

When an architect designs a structure, he or she can be fairly sure the work will endure for decades, maybe even centuries. Here on the web, we’re not so lucky. You’ve probably seen organizations spend the equivalent of many buildings’ worth of capital constructing digital assets that will be razed within a couple years. Knowing how temporary digital creations can be, how can we ensure our work matters?

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As a digital experience designer, I’ve found that a great way to confirm the importance, fit, and purpose of a project is to help clearly define the organization’s vision. This isn’t just about solidifying a mission statement; it’s about challenging stakeholders to construct a detailed story of their future success—defining what interacting with their company will be like in one, three, or even more than five years.

At my company, we’ve turned our clients’ vision stories into everything from presentation decks to comic books. However you format it, the vision should include the long-term goals you’re trying to reach, as well as smaller goals along the way. For example, a bank might set a vision that includes universal access to its services, with supporting points related to increasing the portability of the bank’s data, launching multi-device experiences, and expanding customer service hours.

But the vision isn’t just a list of goals; it’s a narrative that shows the organization’s future from the customer’s perspective. You’ve probably already seen vision stories that do this—like Apple’s “Knowledge Navigator” video from the late ’80s, or more recently Corning’s “A Day Made of Glass” and Microsoft’s “Productivity Future Vision.” In our bank example, we might depict a customer opening an account over the phone, then accessing it from multiple devices over the course of her day, demonstrating our future goals at each step.

Narratives like these serve as a compass for the company and its customers, creating both a story that can be shared liberally throughout the organization and a benchmark that can be used to evaluate the strategic importance of every project.

“We already know what the vision is. Why do all this?”#section2

We hear this pretty often, and sure, a vision may exist on some level (even if it’s only in the heads of a precious few individuals). However, having led these exercises many times for organizations of all shapes and sizes, I’ve yet to come across a group of business stakeholders fully aligned on the vision.

Pre-existing visions are often incomplete or weak because they’re:

  1. created by a homogenous group of people who don’t adequately represent the functions and interests of the entire organization;
  2. communicated via bubble charts in PowerPoint decks with lots of jargon and technical language, requiring an interpreter in order to share;
  3. comprised of broad generalizations (like “increase sales”) that don’t translate into actionable strategy.

Making the case for a visioning exercise prior to jumping into design is very similar to making the case for doing up-front user research, and the two conversations almost always go hand in hand. However, vision should precede project-specific user research, because a well-articulated vision will provide focus for the research effort—and therefore keep its scope in check.

Laying the foundation#section3

A well-rounded vision is built on four foundational pieces:

1. The subjective/emotional component#section4

We want to know what people will be saying and feeling about the products and services in an idealized future state. What will their gut-level, uncensored commentary be when talking to friends or colleagues?

A great way to get at this is to have stakeholders think about visiting their favorite supermarket, and ask them to write down a brand-name product for which they will accept no substitute. If it’s not in stock, they won’t buy another brand, and might even drive to another store for it. You can also ask them to do the same for favorite websites, TV shows, or something related to their particular industry.

Then, ask them to look back over that list and find one word that embodies each example, to qualify why they’ll accept no substitute. Once you’ve collected the responses, you can generate a compelling word cloud on the spot.

The “a-ha” comes when you present this back to them and say, “These are the reasons why we’ll accept no substitute for these things that we invest our money and time into. What must we do in the future for our customers to use these kinds of words to describe us? For them to accept no substitute for us?”

2. The objective data (market research)#section5

Objective data is critical to balance out the subjective and emotional input you’ll be getting. If at all possible, you should try to conduct some of your own market research beforehand, and of course collect any existing materials from past studies or research conducted internally. Distill research down to key points that can be quickly presented and easily referenced when constructing (and challenging) the vision.

Whether or not you have the luxury of arming yourself with data ahead of time, you can help meet this need by asking questions like:

  • What have our customers told us they want from us (and companies like us) via formal and informal channels?
  • Do we know why they currently choose us? Do they have other options? What currently makes us a better choice? Why?
  • While we’re at it, who exactly are our customers? Will they look the same in the future? How might our demographic change?

To drive objectivity, facilitate with probing questions like, “How do you know that?” and, “What evidence have you seen of that?” This can also highlight assumptions going into the vision that might need further research validation.

3. Current state: What’s working, what’s not#section6

Sometimes stakeholders get wigged out about the potential for people from across the organization to candidly and “publicly” weigh in on what works and what doesn’t, but doing so is absolutely crucial to success—or else the vision you construct will be biased and have major gaps. My clients even tend to be glad we did it afterward. It’s always a lively discussion and typically more unifying than not.

To write a story about the future that will resonate with us in the present, we need to answer these questions:

  • What do we do very well now that should absolutely be present (maybe even in some evolved form) in the future?
  • What are we not so good at? Should we stop doing those things altogether, or should they be present in a more ideal, course-corrected state?

Organize small group discussions around whiteboards, adding comments to “What’s Working” or “What’s Not” buckets. Many things will have elements of both. Let conversation flow organically, facilitating to keep it on task. Probe to get the group thinking across different aspects of the business: technical infrastructure, operational process, internal structure, marketing, and any other areas that seem relevant.

4. Industry best practices and challenges#section7

Organizations spend a lot of time looking at direct competitors for insight into industry best practices, and so should you. But you should also look for analogs where organizations from outside industries have overcome challenges that, on the surface, don’t look similar to theirs, but echo them on a more fundamental level.

For example, Netflix is frequently applauded for its current streaming model and groundbreaking UI designs—but it wasn’t a fluke. The business challenge it initially faced was not unique to the movie rental industry: it needed to figure out how to stand out, add value, and rise to the top in an over-saturated marketplace.

Netflix’s calculated response was to team up with the United States Postal Service, create a simple, iconic brand (the red envelope), offer unmatched selection and convenience, and eliminate late fees—a critical customer pain point that none of the competition would touch.

These strategic principles—addressing controversial pain points and establishing unlikely alliances—aren’t confined to a specific industry, and case studies like this can be used to spark creative thought.

From foundation to story#section8

At this point, stakeholders typically are excited to craft their own vision story. A great way to start this is to have teams of three or four people work independently while your own crew:

  • Asks them to define the timeframe for the story, assemble basic “plot” elements, and collect vignettes they’d want to depict—essentially, a loose outline.
  • Guides them through any present-day stumbling blocks that cause them to say, “That could never happen”—like legal/regulatory constraints, technology constraints, or internal structure. We have to assume we’ll be able to solve for those constraints; if we don’t know what we want things to look like in the future, then we won’t know what we’re solving for.
  • And most importantly, continues to challenge and probe ideas based on the foundational work:
    • Will our depiction result in our customers accepting no substitute for us? What will that look like in practice? What will they be saying about us, and to whom?
    • Are we delivering what the market is asking for? Are we showing why we’ll be selected over our competitors? Are we adequately addressing the wants and needs of everyone in our expected target audience?
    • Are we still giving customers what they want from us now? How will we make that even better in the future? Have we addressed current pain points (for ourselves and for our customers)? Does our business model look any different? Have we eliminated things that aren’t currently working?
    • Have we been innovative in terms of partnerships, strategy, and approach?

Once each group has created a rough outline, the goal is to organize it into more of a sequenced story flow, flesh out the details, and present it back to the group.

Now, I’m as leery as anyone when it comes to the effectiveness of the breakout group song and dance, but I can tell you that in this instance, it works. I’ve seen people get emotional. I’ve seen them act out segments or whip up impromptu slide decks with images of their characters and locations. In the end, it can be incredibly powerful, cathartic, and galvanizing for a team to go through this together.

Beyond the narrative#section9

So, now you’ve got a collection of rich, insightful vision stories from the people who know their business best. How do you translate that into something that will endure when the afterglow of a positive team-building experience wears off?

Typically we try to reconcile elements from the different visions into a single story, with the multiple sets of ideas and details rolling up into a well-rounded whole. Without those huge video budgets, we’ve presented the stories back as written pieces or even in comic-book style (a big crowd-pleaser) so it can be easily shared with little additional explanation required.

At this point you have a collective vision of the future that can be used as a benchmark for strategy decisions. Use this when discussing the other projects on the table. With the right people in the room and the vision in front of you, ask: did we really mean it when we said the future should look like this? Does the project we’re about to begin support this vision? Should it be altered in any way because of it? What might we need to do beforehand? In parallel? What should come next?

The vision story can also be an effective tool to hold up against scope-changing enhancement requests and planned subsequent versions. I’ve seen projects get some awesome enhancements that wouldn’t have even been considered beforehand, and other suggestions tabled. Without the vision, those would have been highly subjective conversations with no validated source for guidance.

By taking clients through this process in detail and providing them with solid supporting materials, you’ve taught them a valuable skill—and have also set yourself up for future work as a reliable consultant. Many clients will not only revisit the vision on a yearly basis to assess what has changed (or what needs to), but will continue to shake it and see what projects fall out. They already know you understand their vision. Get ready to be the first person they ask for proposals.

About the Author

Russ Starke

Russ Starke is an experience designer from Philadelphia, PA, with an origin story that takes place on Long Island, NY, and has an idiosyncratic and challenging soundtrack. He was the first employee at Think Brownstone and currently serves as executive vice president.

3 Reader Comments

  1. The formalized version of “3. CURRENT STATE: WHAT’S WORKING, WHAT’S NOT” would be comparable to a SWOT analysis, no?

  2. Without question, and clients who haven’t been all SWOT-ted out by consulting firms over the years (the reason why we gave it a softer and more conversational bend) will call that out from time to time; we’re happy to bust out the classic quadrants for that segment if SWOT is familiar for them. Absolutely gets to the same purpose—thanks for calling that out!

  3. Hi Russ!

    I can’t agree with you more. A vision is more about the narrative, a deep meaningful story, that sets up a business for the future. It’s not just for the sole purpose of distinguishing yourself from competitors, based from the customer’s perspective, but it’s also important for the team to believe in and work towards that. In the end, it’s not only about selling a product, but more about the story behind the product. It’s why successful brands like Apple and Starbucks are where they are today. They have created a product that people have emotionally have grown attached to. It has become a huge emotional influence in their lives. In the end, brands that have a vision live on, not businesses with no end goal.

    By the way, Russ, I’d love to talk more with you about brand identity as I’m learning more indepth into it. I tried to find a way to reach you, but I guess this works just as well. Right now, I blog at and would love to learn from someone with great experience.

    Thanks for sharing your amazing article too!

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