Experience always is. Whether you design for it or not. So, it seems wise to choose to design for it, right? But in order to design for a consistent and engaging experience it is not enough to implement a bunch of ideas. These ideas need a cohesive that makes sense. A that brings a consistent concept to life. That narrates a story. For customers and employees alike.

Dream-catcher, source: www.cbc.ca

For years I’ve been trying to figure out how the projects are born in commercial settings. If often seems like they just spawn out of nowhere. Today I am realizing that they typically start with a promise made to a boss. A promise that got an expiry date and needs to be materialized right away. This promise is typically formed as a description of a solution: a product, an offering, a technology. Does it have much to do with all the other solutions the company previously built? Not so much. Because the goal of this new idea is usually to leverage the position of its creator and not to deliver a consistent eco-system of services for the customers.

Thus far it was a problem but not a problem which important people would loose much sleep over. However, with the growing complexity of the services around us and with the expanding technological debt more and more leaders realize that such ad hoc product development decisions are probably not the smartest way to go.

The thing is though that the design profession is not much trained in starting the design efforts form forming a vision. In that sense it is similar to engineering, where it is more important to sit and make something work than to spend hours figuring what to do in the first place. I would like to clarify that I am not promoting the return of waterfall with fat books full of contradictory requirements. But I can also see that fashionable today processes such as agile and Design Thinking help us to run faster but they not necessarily give us the overarching perspective of where we are running and, what’s even more important, what are we running for. In other words, many design efforts of today miss a vision.

Design vision as a framework of an ideal future state

A few years back I was doing a project for a university. We were supposed to define the functional concept for a new academic building of 35 000 square meters. To make things more complicated 1/3 of this building already existed at the time of the project, so many expectations and interests have already surfaced. How do you bring the stakeholders of such a place together and ask them to think beyond their particular goals and objectives? Just to be clear about the challenge there: n the original plan the building was equipped with 12 mini-libraries. It was clearly a waste of space but the librarians saw it as a personal attack on their jobs and they were defending this idea to the last breath. So, the only way to get them to think beyond today, was to ask them to create a future vision for this building.

This is what the design vision is in the first place: it is a framework of an ideal future state. I would like to underline the word: framework. The vision sets the boundaries of what the future state includes and excludes but it is not a detailed description of a set of solutions. It is not a plan of action. It is an alignment mechanism. In so many ways it is the dream that gets a shape that can be described yet remains fluid. Like the NLS demo by Doug Engelbart back from 1968. Or the Apple Knowledge Navigator future vision from 1987 that decades later led to the creation of Siri. It helps us to see the shape of the end goal without marking one specific path to get there.

Design vision as a way of defining the right design

Some weeks ago I wrote about the two phases of the design process: the investigatory phase of defining the right design and the innovatory one where the design is made right. I followed the words of Bill Buxton from his book “Sketching User Experiences” but it seems that already William Deming said a similar thing:

“It is not enough to do your best; you must know what to do and then do your best”.

Defining the direction of the change is the second goal of the design vision. It is getting to understand what change we are trying to make without thinking of the specific solutions just yet. It is about emotions we hope to provoke, the engagement we would like to build and the memory we hope to formulate in the heads of our customers. The memory that would, eventually, be turned into the word-of-mouth about us.

Envisioning the emotions, engagement and memories is mandatory in the entertainment world (games, movies, theater) where customer participation is voluntary. In other spheres of the design world though, where the user has no choice but to select one of the options available on the market, somehow we tend to forget about defining all that before we sit to design specific solutions.

Design vision as a narrative

Many years ago, I was trying to convince my boss back at Oce Technolgies to sponsor a project we created together with a student team from Eindhoven University of Technology that aimed to help the employees to stay aware about what’s going on at their company. This project was built on an observation that many efforts are duplicated and triplicated simply because people don’t know what is going on in the room next door.

We had a quite compelling idea but my boss was not convinced (probably because we asked for quite a substantial budget to build the whole thing). So, we turned our vision into a conceptual movie explaining to him our vision while not implementing a single line of code. To cut a long story short: we got a budget. We got a budget that exceeded our initial one by 50%. No questions asked. No demands. Because the vision worked. Because above all, the vision created a narrative: both external towards the customers and internal towards the management and the other team-members. Because a vision is something that puts all of us on the same page. Builds a common ground, a joint understanding of what we are striving for.

Vista concept video

Design vision as a hypothesis

Academic researchers always start with a vision. Their vision constitutes two elements: their interest and their hypotheses. What is it for? Who is it for? What is the problem? The change to strive for? What are the boundaries? Daniel Ruston in his post about design vision also asks: — “What innovation are you striving towards, and why?

Creating the space to define the design vision offers the team the time to consider their interests and to state their premises. It creates the basis for user research and for prototyping. It allows to open up for the different paths to achieve the goal you dream about. It forces the team to explicate their assumptions and ideas allowing for very early verification.

Design vision as a dream-catcher

Finally, a design vision is, on the most basic level, a dream-catcher. Today we hang dream-catchers as simple decoration but their origin reaches the First Nations and the Ojibwe tribe where they were hanged over the beds of children to stop the bad dreams and let through the good ones. Dream-catchers were also seen as charms deflecting the evil eye. A design vision has a similar role: it helps us to select good ideas from bad ones and is a talisman that pumps the fuel into the people who are responsible for its realization.

The “why” of the design vision

There is one crucial thing to understand here: the vision is not going to guarantee business success. It is the means to consolidate your efforts. And to help you reduce the level of uncertainty with respect to where you are going. This is why the vision is necessary. Otherwise you will never know whether the solutions you are putting out there lead to anything whatsoever. Whether you are on a right path. Whether you are on a path at all.

A vision is a way to strategize your efforts rather than come up with operational tricks. It builds consistency. It allows you to choose a singular perspective and build around it. This is crucial for building an experience that makes sense to your customers. As Seth Godin says in a slightly different context but as usual straight to the point:

“If you state that force equals mass times velocity, it shouldn’t matter who is measuring the force, or whether it’s Tuesday or not. Those factors aren’t part of your rules, and they shouldn’t vary the outcome.”

This is why (as much as it may be tempting to create such a vision only among designers) it is crucial to invite others to this process: your colleagues from business, marketing, sales, engineering, finances. Perhaps even your customers (I would suggest the customers from the fringes: the innovators and the early adopters as they are most likely to bring you valuable insights into the future). They all will have their unique outlook that will enrich yours. And in such a way a design vision has a chance to become the actionable ground for the business vision for your entire company.

How to prepare yourself for creating a design vision?

There is plenty of exercises that are suggested to create such a vision. But there is one element of this process that is rarely addressed. A good vision is not something that gets done without a prior preparation. Otherwise it is like arranging your house without really thinking through what each space is for.

I am sure there is more than one trick to prepare yourself for the envisioning workshop but I am a great fan of personal diaries aka Cultural Probes. It is a technique that allows to dig deep into people’s subconsciousness by applying reflective questions about their values, thoughts and dreams. Typically it constitutes a set of exercises visualized in a physical form (cards, posters, maps, etc.) along with evocative tasks for participants to record specific events, feelings or interactions. Probes allow you to collect fragments and clues abut what is important. You can see it like a scavenger hunt for the elements of a puzzle, which once collected enable your team to create a full picture: the design vision.

Whenever I am asked to help to create a design vision I typically use a simpler version of the Cultural Probes: personal diaries. It is a visually expressive form of a diary with six to seven extensive tasks. It is given to each participant two weeks before the envisioning workshop, and its results are the basis for workshop exercises. In such a way the participants are not only sharing the thoughts and ideas that are on the top of their heads but they are able to dig into their deep reflections about your products, business and your future.

Let me give you an example of one such diary. It has been created for a client in the educational sector. I will paraphrase the exercises to obscure the exact nature of his business but I hope to give you the clue of how such a diary might look like. This particular exercise was planned for 6 days.

— in DAY 1, the idea behind the exercise was to define an ideal future state of the end-users and also the worst possible scenario for them. I call this exercise VIA POSITIVA / VIA NEGATIVA. In this particular case the customers were teachers. So, the participants were asked to remember their best and worst teacher ever and describe them according to a set of questions such as: — What qualities made him / her your favorite (and then the least favorite) teacher? How did your interactions look like? What qualities defined this person? etc. The team members were then asked to interview one person who is at school today and run the exact same exercise for them. Based on their own reflections and the reflections of their interviewee they were asked to create a table showing which teacher’s qualities are common for yesterday’s and today’s school and where the differences lay.

— in DAY 2, participants were asked to go through a set of 20 trends pertaining to education, job market, finances and technologies and choose 5 trends that, they believe, will truly impact their customers and their business. Then they had to reflect why these trends are going to influence the market and what this influence will be. In such a way they were able to consider the powers that should be taken into account as potential influences of their vision.

— in DAY 3, they had to unpack the differences between generations X, Y, Z and Alpha with respect to their attitude towards school by answering questions such as: — What was/ is the motivation to learn for each generation? What was/ is an extracurricular educational program? What was / is the relationship between parents and school? etc. It was a way to sensitize the participants to the changes happening in education and encouraging them to think how it is going to further change in the coming years.

— in DAY 4, the diary moved into the future and the team members were asked to envision an ideal candidate for a student and an employee in 2040. The goal behind this exercise was, on the one hand, to cut the links to today’s situation and enable participants to dream freely and, on the other, to provoke them to think about a vision that is truly long-term.

— in Day 5, they were asked to envision an ideal school of 2040 with respect to the educational program, a style of teaching, an attitude of teachers and students, the organizational aspects and other elements related to how schools function. Then the participants were again asked to interview someone from generation Z with the exact same set of questions and look for similarities and differences. Such a trick was aimed to help them to stop thinking only from their own perspective but see how the perception of school looks like from a point of view of someone who is going there today.

— and only in DAY 6, the team members were allowed to think about their own business. They went to redesign their offer from null state. In other words they were asked to define three new pillars of their business: pillars that have nothing to do with what they do today and explicate why such pillars could be beneficiary and what they entail.

As you can see, this is not a quick and easy exercise. But it allows the team to consider the different aspects that should influence how the design vision is formed. It is a deep empathizing exercise with themselves and with others, that makes the participants ready to discuss the future not only on the shallow level of that comes to their minds as the workshop progresses but on the depth that promises true value for your business.

The workshop scenario is drawn directly from that diary. I usually start with empathizing with the present and future customers based on the Day 1 exercise, then I go into the far future with the exercises from Day 2, 4 and 5. Next I back-cast it towards the present using the exercise 3 and 6. I typically end with the probably the most crucial question: How will you know that you have succeeded?

An exemplary set of trends used for day two exercise, author: Aga Szóstek

Does it work?

Like I said before this is not and exercise that will offer you a certainty about the future. But it certainly reduces uncertainty. It also enables everyone on your team to get aligned not on operational details but based on a powerful overarching strategic future goal. It creates a narration that can be used over time to validate any project you do. And some of my clients use it also as an introduction to their business strategy for the employees.

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