The team was happy to be together. Forty-six folks from eight different offices, traveling from all over the world, had come together for their annual meeting.

They were excited to be there. It was good to see faces of people who were often just an email address or voice on a conference call. It was nice to reflect on all the great things they’d accomplished.

Over the past 3 years, the team worked diligently on server reliability, eliminating dead links, and consistent navigation and branding across all 200 of the sub-sites. They’d installed a new enterprise-wide content management system, a better process for editorial work, and new application tools to help their franchise owners sell more high-margin products. By all measures, the web site had become a critical element in their multi-national business.

Yet there was still an unsettled tone amongst the group. Given all the progress they’d made, they felt they still had a long way to go. They weren’t sure what the next step was.

Overcoming Lip Service to Users

"Users are our first priority," is the executive team’s battle cry. Yet, when the priorities came down from above, they seemed to focus on business unit needs and technology solutions. Somewhere, in all those priorities, the first priority got lost.

It wasn’t that the team wanted to ignore the users. It’s just the demands of the business units they served and the constraints from IT made serving the users take a back seat. In the day-to-day hustle-and-bustle, the long-term perspective gets lost.

When the long-term perspective vanishes, it becomes difficult to feel like you’ve made any significant progress. Sure, you’ll have checked many items off the ever-growing to-do list, but have you really improved how the business serves its customers?

To solve this, many teams are turning to an old tool: creating an experience vision.

The Flag in the Sand

When you create an experience vision, you try to picture mentally what the experience of using your design will be like at some point in the future. As we conduct our research exploring best practices for experience design, we’ve discovered that nearly every successful team has actively created an experience vision that they frequently refer to. Often their visions are for experiences five or ten years in the future.

These visions act like a flag stuck into the sand somewhere on the horizon. The team can clearly see the flag, yet it’s far enough away that they won’t reach it any time soon. Because the flag is clearly visible, the team knows if every step they take brings them closer or farther away. If the flag weren’t visible, the team wouldn’t know and could wander off in an undesirable direction.

Having a clear vision helps the team understand if changes are moving them in the right direction or not. Occasionally, due to pressing business needs, a design change is going to move the team away from the vision. However, if everyone understands the vision, they’ll know when this is happening and can act to correct it. More often, choices are available and the team can choose the option which best serves the experience vision.

The experience visions of the successful teams all have the following qualities:

Step 1: Focus on Research

A few of the organizations we’ve studied have one or two people at the top of the organization that just know what the vision should be. One company that immediately comes to mind is Apple, who has Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive as their visionaries. Apple’s success with the new generation of Macs and the iPod (and possibly the iPhone) comes directly from the visions that Steve and Jonathan have handed down.

However, most organizations don’t have a visionary at the top of the organization. These organizations need to get their inspiration from someplace else.

When no visionary is present, most teams find their inspiration from in-depth research of latent user needs and desires. Latent needs are things users can’t elaborate on their own, because they don’t know what’s possible. For example, few people would’ve told researchers they wanted home-delivered DVDs. However, through careful research, the team at Netflix saw how miserable many people were with the video store experience and created a solution that would catapult their business to the head of video rental industry.

Research techniques, such as field studies, give us the foundations on what the current experience is like. We can see what’s working and where people’s experiences are less than desirable.

The techniques also show the latent needs and desires. We can compile the latent needs and desires into an ideal experience. The best ideal experience eliminates frustration and instills delight. This becomes the foundation of our vision.

The space between the current experience and the ideal experience is where the insights come from. Innovation happens here.

Step 2: Focus on Experience

A common trap is to focus only on technological innovation, but this would be a mistake, since technology changes over time. Predicting new technology five years out will be near impossible.

The best teams ensure they focus on the experience of the user, divorced from the underlying technology. The vision talks about how users experience the product or service. Experiences don’t change quickly and make for a better long-term target.

Because the team is focusing on experience, it goes beyond the pure technology touch points. A vision for an online book community, for example, would go beyond the specific online activities and must include reading the book and offline discussions about the books. A high-quality vision integrates all the instances when the elements of the designs are part of the user’s experience, not just when they’re interacting with the specific product or service.

Step 3: Share the Vision

Having the vision exist only in the head of one or two people doesn’t help the team know how to make important decisions. The vision must be shared throughout the organization.

The successful teams make sure everyone making decisions is aware of the vision. Not only does this include the primary design agents, such as designers and developers, but also the indirect design agents, such as customer service, manufacturing, and even the legal team. Since some of the user’s experience happens when they are away from the design, other organization entities will have an impact. The indirect design agents are forming elements of the experience often as much as the design does.

There are many techniques for sharing the vision. We’ve seen everything from video re-enactments to comic strips. They all have two things in common:

  1. The technology is downplayed keeping the focus on what the user is experiencing, and
  2. The team shares the vision frequently, not relying on a single presentation or document to make it permanently sink in.

Validating Activities Against the Vision

Once the vision is shared throughout the team, a culture needs to evolve where the team is constantly validating all their activities against it. This is where they tell if the steps are leading towards the flag or away from it.

Visions are reached through baby steps — the hundreds or thousands of little, incremental changes to the design. As the team takes on each change, they need to ask, "Is this getting us closer to our vision?" Often, the discussion that follows this inquiry is as informative as the original vision discussion. You can learn a lot by testing each project this way.

If a particular change is taking away from the vision, the team needs to decide if they should go ahead anyway. Sometimes, you have to take a step backwards to eventually make leaps forward.

In other instances, you may discover the vision isn’t quite right and needs adjusting. Remember, we stuck the flag in the sand because it would be easy to move, if we had to do it. If you need to change your vision, just remember to make sure everyone knows about it (and why.)

If you don’t know where you’re trying to get to, the odds of getting there are slim. Having a solid vision that everyone shares will help you feel that you’re working towards something important, even with the busiest of organizations.

Read more on experience vision with Jared's article, 3 Qs for Great Experience Design

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