May 5, 2021

Look Where You Want To Go: Designing A Vision For The Future

Spring time. I’m stand­ing in a park­ing lot on a sat­ur­day morn­ing, sur­round­ed by strangers suit­ed up in bik­er gear, and motor­cy­cle hel­mets. We’re here because we want to learn how to ride a motor­cy­cle. The instruc­tor is stand­ing in front of us, guid­ing us through the next exer­cise we’ll do on the bikes.

When you start off on a motor­cy­cle, the first thing you learn is to bal­ance, and to feel the weight of the bike shift as you move. 

The next thing you learn is to look where you want to go. Look­ing where you want to go is absolute­ly cru­cial when doing any­thing more advanced than going in a straight line, at slow speed.

In WWII bombers would take off, fly to their des­ti­na­tion, aim for their tar­get, drop their bomb pay­load, hit the tar­get, and fly home. After a while they real­ized the last three steps some­times weren’t hap­pen­ing. Instead of drop­ping their pay­load, they found out some pilots were fly­ing direct­ly into their tar­get. Even­tu­al­ly researchers found out what was hap­pen­ing: the pilots were so focused on their drop tar­get that it inad­ver­tent­ly became their flight path tar­get. They named it tar­get fixation.

Tar­get fix­a­tion applies to motor­cy­cling too. Take cor­ner­ing for exam­ple, on a motor­cy­cle, which can be scary even at slow speed. Won­der­ing “Am I going to be able to turn tight enough to make the cor­ner?”. As soon as you let that fear creep in, instead of focus­ing on where you want to go, you begin to focus on where you don’t want to go — the edge of the road where the cor­ner is tight­est — and that becomes your target.

Focus­ing on the right thing — the objec­tive, the pos­i­tive out­come you want to achieve is impor­tant to get to where you want to go.

When it comes to design, tar­get fix­a­tion is just as applic­a­ble and impor­tant. By fix­at­ing on small incre­men­tal changes, you can nev­er inno­vate and cre­ate large leaps. In order to cre­ate tru­ly inno­v­a­tive change, you must look where you want to go.

Defin­ing a vision takes expe­ri­ence and insight, which does take time to gath­er. It is not a quick, or sim­ple task, but it can be extreme­ly reward­ing. In order for a vision to be suc­cess­ful­ly adopt­ed, it must: align with how the busi­ness oper­ates and thinks, solve a real prob­lem that users face, be com­mu­ni­cat­ed clear­ly, and come at the right time.

Design­ers are in a unique posi­tion when it comes to com­mu­ni­cat­ing a vision. We have the abil­i­ty to see the future, show how it could work, and anchor the feed­back in some­thing tan­gi­ble. To cre­ate a vision takes courage, you are putting some­thing out there that is a leap of faith, and it might not work out, but it’s absolute­ly worth it.

Step One: Gath­er Con­text, and decide on a direction

  1. What does your com­pa­ny val­ue? By under­stand­ing the high lev­el val­ues of your com­pa­ny, it can pro­vide direc­tion into what kinds of prob­lems and solu­tions could be a good fit.
  2. What are the prob­lems that users are vocal about, but are not on the com­pa­ny roadmap? Under­stand­ing user needs is impor­tant to make sure that this vision is solv­ing real prob­lems. Do some dig­ging to under­stand why these prob­lems haven’t been solved? Are they mis­aligned with the com­pa­ny val­ues? What’s pre­vent­ing them from being solved? Is it ambi­gu­i­ty? The scope and dif­fi­cul­ty of the problem?
  3. Ask your team­mates, your boss, your direc­tors, what are the prob­lems and chal­lenges that keep com­ing up with them?
  4. What is the CEO pas­sion­ate about? How do they think, and approach prob­lems? How are they ori­ent­ed? What are their objec­tives: Grow­ing the busi­ness? Grow­ing the mar­ket size? Increas­ing life­time cus­tomer val­ue? Cre­at­ing new fea­tures? Cre­at­ing a long-term plat­form approach?
  5. After gath­er­ing this infor­ma­tion, what are the oppor­tu­ni­ties you see? 

Step Two: Cre­ate a pro­to­type that clear­ly shows the val­ue of this approach

  1. Brain­storm ways that this prob­lem could be solved. Try to gen­er­ate as many ideas as you can in five min­utes. After gen­er­at­ing a bunch of ideas, take the promis­ing ones, and gen­er­ate five more ideas based on each of them, adding depth.
  2. Cre­ate low fideli­ty pro­toypes: Sketch out some of the ideas, and share with team mem­bers who have high con­text on what you are shar­ing. Incor­po­rate their feedback.
  3. Cre­ate a high fideli­ty pro­to­type: Cre­ate a pro­to­type which clear­ly (the key word) shows the val­ue of the approach to those with low con­text. Think of this pro­to­type as some­thing a user/customer would stum­ble upon, and with no addi­tion­al context/documentation need to under­stand. The more focused the pro­to­type is on show­cas­ing the val­ue of the oppor­tu­ni­ty, the less chance of peo­ple get­ting bogged down in irrel­e­vant details, which could con­fuse them.

Step Three: Share Wide­ly, and gath­er feedback

Get in front of peo­ple, and cap­ture their feed­back. Try and get it in front of the peo­ple who would care about this oppor­tu­ni­ty, such as the peo­ple you asked in step 3 of stage 

Step Four: Next Steps

You’ve done the hard work of gath­er­ing infor­ma­tion, cre­at­ing the pro­to­type, and shar­ing it with those team mem­bers and stake­hold­ers who it could mat­ter to. So what hap­pens if it’s not clear what to do next? Here are a cou­ple dif­fer­ent ways to trou­bleshoot some of the prob­lems that might come up, based on the feed­back you receive.

If the Feed­back Is:

  • This isn’t where we want to go: Use it as a jump­ing off point to learn more about how this approach is mis­aligned with the com­pa­ny direc­tion. After gath­er­ing the infor­ma­tion, share what you’ve learned. Is it worth a change in direction?
  • This is great, but we are too busy with anoth­er project to do this: It’s impor­tant that any team bal­ance short/long term pri­or­i­ties. Ask your­self: Do we have a bal­ance of short and long term pri­or­i­ties? Are we spend­ing too much time on one side or the oth­er? If all your efforts are short term, make a case for the ben­e­fits of a long term approach. If after doing that it’s still not work­ing, give it a break and revis­it in a cou­ple months, or when it becomes rel­e­vant in conversation.
  • I love this, it’d be great if it also did XYZ: Ideas that are addi­tive can be a bless­ing and a curse. On one side they show great inter­est, and spark poten­tial improve­ments. It’s also a risk for the vision to lose it’s focus, and become crowd­ed and lost in a sea of ideas. It’s impor­tant to sep­a­rate feed­back from ideas. The goal of feed­back is to iden­ti­fy what works and what does­n’t, not to jump to solu­tions. The creator(s) of the vision owns tak­ing feed­back and decid­ing what to do with it.
  • I get it, but I don’t under­stand why it mat­ters: The con­cept may not show­case the val­ue clear­ly enough. The con­cept might be too much change all at once. Those giv­ing feed­back might need more con­text to under­stand the non-visu­al com­po­nents of the prob­lem (data, a write up, men­tal mod­el dia­grams). You might not have the right audi­ence to help you cham­pi­on this project. Keep shar­ing, and you might find anoth­er team/teammate that this project and solu­tion could be huge­ly impact­ful to.

No mat­ter what hap­pens next, you’ve done some­thing great. You’ve put your­self into pas­sion­ate work that has the poten­tial to cre­ate mean­ing­ful change.

By clear­ly envi­sion­ing the long term tar­get, it makes the steps to get their clear, auto­mat­ic, and instinctive.

The tar­get is for you to decide. Where do you want to go?