Where are we heading? What’s the future going to look like for our product?
Let’s pause here. There is a sad truth. Most companies don’t answer these questions in a meaningful way.
Being fortunate to meet many diverse companies in the world, the top struggle is direction. Commonly, talking to individual contributors, managers, and senior leaders, they have difficulty articulating a coherent aspirational story of their future course.
The reality is that most companies have some sort of a product vision, somewhere. It’s typically found in a presentation. It features big words, but – a big but – the story is not tangible and doesn’t spark excitement.
So the question is: what does this lead to?
Misalignment. Teams are neither bought into or understand the leadership’s view of the future. As a result, teams make up their own stories of what’s important. In essence, they run in different directions.
That’s a problem, a significant one.
If we’re not aligned to a shared tangible story of the future, we lack unity and engagement.
As a leader reading this, how could you tackle this uncomfortable situation?
The answer lies in crafting a narrative of the many years to come, together. Painting the picture of what an inspiring destination could look like.
“- Alright…makes sense… but how would this work in reality?”, you might say.
By doing the same thing that always works: put smart people in a room, give them a clear objective and time box their efforts.
For almost 10 years, as the role of the facilitator, I’ve used the Design Sprint methodology to foster such collaboration. It’s an incredibly useful method to foster innovation and alignment. Over time, I have iterated my own personal sprint toolkit and I have applied a multitude of different Product Discovery techniques.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been helping companies craft Product Visions using the Design Sprint methodology, and in this article, you’ll find a how-to guide on how to facilitate one yourself.
First off, what is a Product Vision Sprint?
A Product Vision Sprint, just like a Design Sprint, is a week. You gather a diverse group of team members. You have a clear problem to solve. The end result is a prototype or prototypes and accompanying narrative that have been validated by customers.
A Product Vision Sprint is focused on the story of the future of your product, three to five years from now. In a Product Vision Sprint, you are painting the broad strokes, and not the finer details. During the week, you are asking yourself powerful questions about the future:
- What customers or users do we want to service in the future? What are their fundamental problems and needs? How do we make them rave about our product and share it with their peers? How do we create “delight”?
- What are the technological trends that could positively affect our business model?
- How do we create sustainable competitive advantage? Where and how do we play to win?
The outcome of the week is that you created a prototype and a story of what the customer experience could look like in 3-5 years when interacting with your company’s products and services.
The prototype and narrative can be shared over and over to create alignment. You’ll clearly articulate the answer to the question: Where are we heading?
Who do I need to invite?
You need to recruit a diverse team, a team that looks at many aspects from different angles. Here’s an example:
- 1 facilitator
- 2 x product designers
- 1 x person with a business perspective, e.g. head of product
- 1 x person with a technical background, e.g. a senior architect
- 1 x person with deep insights on customers, e.g. a senior sales executive
What do I need to prepare?
- Book a dedicated conference room from Monday to Friday where the sprint will be held
- Book and carry out stakeholder interviews (e.g. board of directors, sales, marketing, customer service, etc.)
- Book and carry out interviews with existing customers and users (at least 5)
- Conduct market research (global, and local competitors, and what trends you are seeing in the market)
- Define a “problem statement” for the sprint – i.e. what problem should we solve by the end of the sprint? Articulate in one or two sentences
- Send invitations for Monday & Tuesday (whole team) and the pitch for a wider audience at 3 pm on Friday
- Book customer interviews on Friday morning, 3 x 30 min
- Buy materials for the sprint
- Post Its, preferably “Super Sticky” (various colors)
- Sketch pens
- A3 & A4 paper
- Good whiteboard pens
- Magic Charts or flip-charts
What’s the schedule?
|Monday||Alignment, problem statement, insights, vision definition|
|Tuesday||Reflection, focus areas, feature prioritization, story map|
|Wednesday & Thursday||Prototyping, narrative development|
|Friday||Customer interviews, demo, celebration|
On Monday, the aim is to foster alignment among all the participants by engaging in activities that involve sharing insights, discussions, and collaborative synthesis, with the goal of shaping an inspiring collective vision for the future.
Introduction (15 mins, the facilitator)
- Set the expectation for the week
- Talk about the day-to-day schedule
- Explain how to capture notes as “How might we…”
Outcome: The team feels at ease with what should be accomplished during the week
Presentation of the “problem statement” (5 mins, the sponsor)
- The sponsor presents the core objective of the week, for example, “Tangibly depict and tell the story of what our product experience will look like by 20XX”
Outcome: The team understands the main goal of the week
Speed dating (≈20 mins)
- Give the assignment to the room that they should speed date each other for two minutes and answer the question: “How do we win in the future with this product?”
- The team gets to know each other
- They also start the creative process of talking about the future of the product
Lightning talks of insights (10-15 mins per presentation)
- Prior to the sprint, you have asked some participants to prepare lightning talks on various topics such as:
- Core customer insights
- Technology trends
- Competitor landscape and business insights
- As each presenter shares their insights you ask the participants in the room to capture notes as “How might we…”
Customer or end-user interviews (30 mins x 3)
This is optional, but a really powerful part of the sprint. Prior to the sprint, you have invited customers and/or end-users to talk to. These interviews are scheduled ideally after lunch. Before the interviews, you huddle with the team to ask: What are key questions we need to ask our customers relating to the future of our product? Brainstorm freely in the room and pick 1 or 2 questions to pose during each interview. One person from the group will take the lead to interview and another should be responsible for taking notes. The other ones in the room can join via Teams or Zoom to listen in.
After each interview, you debrief for a few minutes to discuss if other questions should be asked.
Outcome: Build empathy for the customers/end-user
Stakeholder interviews (30 mins x 3)
Similarly to customer interviews, stakeholder interviews provide valuable insights from an internal perspective. Ideally, each stakeholder you engage with should offer a unique business focused view.
Recommended stakeholders are:
- Head of Sales
- Head of Customer Service
Before the interviews, brainstorm on what would be the most valuable questions to ask.
Outcome: Build empathy for key stakeholders/business functions
“How might we…” affinity mapping (30 mins)
To sum up the collective intelligence of the room, you ask participants to put up all their “How might we…” notes on the whiteboard. As a next step, you ask everyone to cluster the stickies based on specific categories. Additionally, you can also give the group an opportunity to write more HMWs.
Outcome: Everyone in the room will start to see common patterns on how the product can “win” in the future.
Futurespective (30 mins)
You probably know what a retrospective is, an exercise where you look back, retrospect, on what has happened. A futurespective is the opposite, you look into the future. You ask participants to imagine a date in the future and ask them to describe what is happening. The exercise has a psychological effect, because it gives you the opportunity to think, and perhaps dream, without any constraints. From experience, the task creates a positive and aspirational feeling in the room.
Some examples of futurespectives:
- A future date: You tell the group to imagine a date in the future, let’s say January 2027. The same group will meet again. You ask the participants to write down things that people say and do in the meeting, what you experience, and what has led up to the event.
- A publication: You explain that the group’s objective is to write a headline and story that has been published about the company in the future. You ask participants to pick a publication and a date. You divide up into groups of 2-3 people. By the end of the exercise, each group will share their aspirational news stories.
Outcome: a positive joint aspiration of the future of the product and the company
Check-in (5 mins)
The first thing you do in the morning is to have a quick check-in with everyone to discuss reflections from yesterday and to explain the focus of the day.
Delight in hard-to-copy, margin-enhancing ways (40 mins)
“How will your product delight customers, in hard-to-copy, margin-enhancing ways?“Gibson Biddle
Gibson Biddle, the former VP of Product at Netflix, introduced the DHM model. He argues that to create a winning product strategy, you need to delight customers in hard-to-copy margin-enhancing ways. It’s a balancing act because it forces you to come up with ideas that create customer and business value, at the same time.
Over the years, I’ve found Gibson’s model to be eye-opening for workshop participants. You are typically not accustomed to thinking about “delight” or “hard-to-copy” advantages in a product setting.
How I explain “delight”: it’s NPS 10. You are raving about a product experience with a friend. I ask participants to reflect on past experiences that were delightful, perhaps a restaurant or hotel experience or it was a customer service experience where someone went the extra mile to solve a problem for you.
“Hard-to-copy”, on the other hand, is how you build moats around your business and how you stay ahead of the competition. Hamilton Helmer has written the book 7 Powers which gave Gibson and many others inspiration around creating hard-to-copy advantage.
At the beginning of the exercise, I write the 7 Powers on a whiteboard and explain each one.
|Scale Economies||Achieve cost efficiencies by producing more products at a lower cost per unit.||Coca Cola|
|Network Economies||Enhance the value of your service as more customers join your network.||Facebook, LinkedIn, social networks|
|Counter-Positioning||Outmaneuver competitors by introducing a superior business model or product.||Nokia vs. Apple, Netflix vs. Blockbuster|
|Switching Costs||Make it inconvenient for customers to leave your service or switch to a competitor.||Apple ecosystem, frequent flyer programs|
|Branding||Build a strong brand that communicates information, evokes positive emotions, and fosters customer trust.||Patagonia, Volvo and a brand of your choice|
|Cornered Resource||Possess unique assets or advantages that competitors lack.||Patents, proprietary technology, partnerships, unique talent|
|Process Power||Implement superior product development and manufacturing processes for a competitive edge.||Toyota TPS, Tesla Agile Manufacturing|
The exercise has two steps. First, ask the participants to generate ideas on how you can A) Delight B) Create hard-to-copy advantage C) Increase margins
Second, I group participants and ask them the question: Can we do all three at the same time? Is there a strategy for your product(s) where you can delight, create hard-to-copy advantages and at the same time increase margins? An example is Netflix’s bet on “Original content” such as House of Cards. They argued that it’s delightful, hard-to-copy and increases margins.
Capture all ideas on whiteboards, or my favorite, Magic Charts.
Outcome: The team has articulated focus areas for the product in the future.
User story mapping (60-70 mins)
By now, the group is warmed up and ready to start painting a finer picture of the future. A useful tool to do that is user story mapping, a product discovery technique created by Jeff Patton.
I’ve tailored the mapping exercise to fit the Product Vision Sprint context.
Step 1: Who and Why (5-10 mins)
Write “Who” on one sticky and “Why” on another one, then ask the group the following:
From which perspective will we tell the story of the “Visiontype”? “Who” is the ideal customer? What’s their name? What are their characteristics? This typically leads to a good conversation about a particular valuable customer. Write on the “Who” sticky.
Next, ask the question: What are the key problems to solve for that customer? What are their context and needs? Write on the “Why” sticky or stickies.
Step 2: The big picture (15 mins)
This part of the exercise is a bit tricky, it’s abstract. Therefore, you need to give an example of what “the big picture” looks like before contextualizing to your product.
How to facilitate:
Ask the question: If you are a customer wanting to buy a pair of sunglasses in an eCommerce store, what would be steps you would take to buy a perfect pair? What would be the first step?
Ask the audience to brainstorm and facilitate by writing their ideas on sticky notes, each step as a single sticky. Explain that you need to use a verb to describe the steps.
Here’s an example: Search -> Compare -> Find → Buy → Receive
Now, that you have created an example, turn the focus towards the future user journey for the Visiontype. So, you’ve nailed who the customer is and what problems/needs they have, but what steps will they take in the story? What’s the outcome they want? This will lead to a healthy debate. Capture the ideas on stickies to create a cohesive “big picture”.
Step 3: Solution ideas (10 mins)
Now, you want to create solution ideas for each step of the journey. Ask everyone to look at the HMWs and the DHM strategies and write on sticky notes their ideas on how to help the customer in the future. Ask everyone to focus on quantity not quality and to have at least one idea for each part of the journey.
Step 4: Prioritize (10 mins)
At this point, you have a lot of stickies for each part of the journey. Have a discussion with the team of what features are most important to bring to life in the Visiontype. The exercise is to move stickies up-and-down each column. The highest priority feature will be at the top of the list.
A recommendation is to role play both the customer’s, the business’ and the technical perspectives. Assign one team member to have a certain “hat on” to have a useful debate around priortization.
Step 5: Slice out the Visiontype
The objective now is to “slice out” the feature set of the Visiontype. This should be fairly straightforward given the previous step. Use a whiteboard marker to draw lines on what to focus on during the week.
Designers start doing their magic
At this stage, the real fun begins. You have articulated how you will play to win and sliced out a Visiontype. The designers are ready to start painting the finer picture. In terms of timing, it’s after lunch on Tuesday. As a facilitator your role is to coach the designers to start prototyping in an efficient and effective way.
I recommend that the designers are co-located throughout the entire week, equipped with monitors and the necessary tools in the same space.
A useful first step is for the designers to decide if they should divide and conquer or if they should “pair design”.
Wednesday and Thursday: Crafting the Visiontype
These two days the designers are hard at work putting together the prototype. Given the context of the sprint, they might also receive a lot of support from the head of product to put together an accompanying narrative for the customer interviews, as well as, the demo on Friday.
Stand-up (15 mins)
Each morning of Wednesday and Thursday, we meet up for a “stand-up”, a chance to share progress with the broader team. These quick updates keep the team in sync and foster collaboration.
Friday: The grand reveal
Finally, the moment we’ve all been eagerly anticipating arrives.
Customer interviews (3 x 30 mins)
Prior to the sprint, you have booked customer interviews to showcase the Visiontype.
This is not a usability test, it’s a value test. The fundamental idea is to validate whether the story and Visiontype are “relevant” and perceived as “new”.
The interview is straightforward. First, you set the stage and talk about the purpose of the interview. Second, you show the prototype and accompanying narrative. Finally, you pose a few powerful questions to spark discussions.
Ideally, one person conducts the interview and another person captures notes.
The finale. The pinnacle of the sprint. You have invited a wide audience to share what you have done during the week. It’s time to show your Visiontype and tell the story.
By now it’s around 4 PM. Grab a cold beverage, enjoy some snacks and celebrate with your team. You have done something amazing in just one week. You have answered the pivotal questions: “Where are we heading? What’s the future going to look like for our product?” This is no easy feat. You have created alignment towards an inspiring future.
Cheers, to you.
Best of luck in facilitating your first Product Vision Sprint.
Are you interested in learning more?
My personal website: https://mcastenfors.com/
A no-nonsense guide to creating effective products and services: https://www.holisticproductdiscovery.com/
Other useful materials
Email to Product Designers:
We have an exciting opportunity on the horizon, and we would like to invite you to be a key part of it.
We’re gearing up for a week-long Product Vision Sprint, a Design Sprint focusing on crafting an inspiring vision for the future of our product. During the sprint, you’ll collaborate with a diverse team, tackle challenging problems, and help create prototypes that will shape the next chapter of XXX’s journey.
Example of the schedule:
- Monday: Align on how we will delight customers, create hard-to-copy advantages and leverage technological advancements in XXX’s future
- Tuesday: Define the story and feature set of the Vision prototype (Visiontype)
- Wednesday & Thursday: Prototyping
- Friday morning: Customer interviews to showcase the Visiontype and receive feedback
- Friday afternoon: Demo with internal stakeholders
Would you be interested in joining the sprint? Do you have availability the week of XX-YY?
All the best,
Email to Customers/End-Users:
Your experience and insights are at the heart of XXX’s evolution. We’re about to embark on a Product Vision Sprint, a dedicated week to envision what our product will look like in the years to come. Your feedback and perspective are invaluable as we strive to ensure that our product aligns with your needs and expectations.
We would like to invite you to participate in interviews and discussions prior to and/or during the sprint, where your input will directly influence our direction. Your involvement will ensure that our product not only meets but exceeds your expectations.
If you’re interested in being a part of this exciting journey, please let us know whether you would be interested in the following, and we’ll coordinate the details:
Option A: One hour interview prior to the sprint. Week of XXX
Option B: 30 minute interview during the morning on Friday XXX to review prototypes
Please let us know if an option suits you.
All the best,