Do You See What I See?

Now, over a year since my home became my office, so much has changed. The way we work looks different, the measure of our work and how we approach doing that work has had to adapt to new realities. All that is to say this event, Getting Ahead with Bold Vision and Strategic Thinking, feels like it could not have come at a better time for product designers.

Right away Laura Fish, co-author of The Designer’s Guide to Product Vision, and Heather Shaw, professor and department chair of Design at Lesley University talk about contextual takeaways of the book, setting the stage for the designer’s story and tools to take back into one’s own design practice. The talk is peppered with these contextual takeaways.

They start with the history of design, technology and traditional business structure, and the tension between the key players: Designers, Engineers and Business Associates. The first key takeaway Heather pulls up is this: “Without a seat at the table, designers aren’t positioned to reach their full potential.” Laura explains that design will remain an afterthought, seen as tactical resources unless we are willing to put ourselves there. 

She breaks out the “how” we put ourselves out there as:

  • Redefining design for modern times by including strategic leaders in addition to tactics
  • Harness our power as designers with vision
  • Prove a track record of success as evidence

Strategy vs. Tactics

Before we can redefine designing for modern times, let’s first define the difference between strategy and tactics. Laura describes strategy as having an overarching, high-level game plan that connects all the dots and that outlines all the major goals and objectives, whereas tactics focus on execution and output. Tactics serve the strategy. And the difference between these two terms helps us to understand two equally important design roles. A Strategic Designer is focused more on the vision of a product, and working as the bridge between engineering and business whereas the Tactical Designer is focused on creating problem-solving through visual outputs like design systems and prototypes. 

The Hero’s Journey

Laura and Heather have laid out:

the scene: companies creating products and services, 

the characters: engineering and business colleagues, designers both strategic and tactical designers, and 

the major conflict: the tension that comes when these three or four players are disconnected from one another. 

It’s here when Heather brings up the next key takeaway: “We as designers have a higher calling and that means reclaiming the discipline of design and redefining it for modern times.” Laura is apt to point out that before an adventure for a character in a story can unfold, they first need to hear that call for adventure. The hero needs to acknowledge that there is something more out there. Designers need to hear that call that reclaims and redefines design to get a seat at the table. And designers are uniquely poised to do just that. Skills cultivated in honing a creative lens and problem solving can be turned onto the product development process. With design as a bridge between engineering and business as well, they can better connect the dots between each discipline. However, as the heroes of this story, designers have a responsibility to only make change for better.

In the Business of Building Bridges 

It’s no small task to learn about engineering and business as a way to implement vision across not just a product but potentially a whole organization. Heather asks Laura “How can designers do this without getting an MBA?” She continues, “This is something I’ve thought of, maybe if I had an MBA I could be part of these bigger discussions.” The answer for Laura is to pay attention and learn from your business colleagues. Listen for the takeaways of colleagues who do have their MBA and work to develop a literacy in business terminology, especially as it relates to design and ultimately all things customer. And conversely, business and engineering folks may be going through a similar process in learning design terminology. The goal is to meet everyone halfway.

Your Career Growth Dream Team

One resounding piece of advice in the design field is to find a mentor, though advice like that isn’t very specific or actionable and often unhelpful. However, Laura is able to articulate the different kinds of people to forge relationships with to grow as a designer. These are leveraging coaches and mentors. Finding a coach is a great place to start. The coach relationship is a short-term commitment for honing a specific task. Laura talks about her own relationship with her co-author Scott Kiekbusch, who is an excellent workshop facilitator, and how he became a coach for her. Find someone who is awesome at a skill you are looking to develop. Ask them for a few weeks to shadow you and give you feedback around that specific task. 

Coaches are different from mentors. Mentors are people who are investing in your long-term growth and success. They are less likely to help with specific tasks or give you answers. Instead, they are going to ask hard questions like “why are you doing this?” or “do you want to be doing this?” Laura continues “Mentorship is rooted in friendship like you can’t just ask anyone off the street to invest in your future.” 

How to Harness Vision

Laura has been hinting at the importance of vision throughout the whole event, citing it as the key to success in gaining design a seat at the table and foundational to building trust between key engineering and business partners. To Laura, however, vision is not some metaphysical entity sprinkled liberally into a business’s mission statement, but something specific and tangible that is used to create better products and services.

Cue the next key takeaway: “Why harnessing vision is so important and how the designer can lead that effort.” The job of vision creation, as Laura defines it, is to “explain the strategy’s complex connections and express the product’s future experience.” It’s in this phase that the story of the product, its offerings and the values of the organization can be illustrated at a high level. 

Moving Toward The Vision

After the vision is created, the team then has to set off to build it, leading us to the last key takeaway: “Why design must be recognized as an equal partner to business and engineering to make that vision a reality. This process is called Visioneering, a term Laura and Scott created for the book. The execution focuses on a specific experience and not a list of features. Laura explains the suffix “eer” means “working hard, with respect to” and “ing” makes it a verb so Visioneering literally breaks down to mean “The act or process to work hard with respect of the vision.”

This process fits into a common way of working: agile development. Visioneering is developed to be iterative, transparent and accountable and it involves a process that, while prescriptive, allows for flexibility within teams. A benefit of this, Heather points out, is with a clear and articulate process stakeholders outside of design are able to better understand the steps and are more comfortable buying into the process. 

Assembling the Team

The book outlines who needs to be part of the team in order to bring the vision to reality. These members are players from before: your business partner, engineer, strategic designer, and the addition of a researcher and content strategist or “bedrock.” In the Visioneering process, this team gets together over the course of a week following a balance of meetings like standups and reviews with core working time and independent working time. 

Foundational Blocks for Vision-Led Strategy

Laura points out that the landscape of product development is unpredictable and working against a list of features outlined in one context may become out of date as technology gets better and user expectations get higher. A vision can be used as a compass with the north star of a company’s mission in order to better navigate a constantly changing industry. In defining each, Laura says “you are keeping all your products and services bound to purposeful direction.” There are five building blocks that every strategy-led vision must have to be successful, they will seem familiar:

  • Where –  Opportunity space, market and industry  
  • Who –  the person you are building for, the user, and demand
  • What –  high level look at the solution, how the offering comes together
  • When – the timing of the technology that will best execute the experience (so not today but maybe five years into the future)
  • Why –  clarifies the way this vision captures the company’s mission and purpose and achieve measurable objectives

These building blocks are not sequential, but interlocking context that the team will focus in and out of as the project moves forward.

“Where the Rubber Meets the Road”

The conversation wraps up with a call to action for companies to rethink their structure in order to include design as an equal partner, calling the combination of product, business and design as the Triad or the Power Trio. Visioneering, Laura says, is about equality across disciplines in order to create the best possible experience for the customer. This process is measurable and all partners are held accountable as the strategy comes together and then is executed on.  

You can catch the whole conversation on our Youtube channel and make sure to check out Laura and Scott Kiekbusch’s book The Designer’s Guide to Product Vision.

By Sarah Lincoln
Published May 10, 2021