Solid Vision: A Critical Element to UX Design

Jared Spool

November 14th, 2005

As we continue our research into what separates those organizations successful at user experience design from those that struggle, we’ve found that a critical element lacking in the struggling organizations is vision.

A vision is a unified understanding of the direction the organization is going with their design efforts. It can manifest itself in many ways, from stories to vision documents to videos. (The most famous of which is Apple’s 1987 Knowledge Navigator, which came out in the days before portable and network computing was a reality. See Jon Udell’s nice writeup of it.) These manifestations are important, but not as important as the vision itself. It doesn’t matter what’s in the video if it’s not a coherent direction for the group.

Apple's 1987 Knowledge Navigator video

A vision is basically a stick in the sand, a long ways away. Some visions we’ve seen only go out 6 months. Others go out 10 years. It seems it doesn’t matter. (Shorter time frames just mean you spend a lot more time updating the vision, but that could be necessary if you’re in a very reactive marketplace.)

The purpose of a stick in the sand is that you can tell if any decision you make is bringing you closer or taking you farther away. When you add a new feature or conceive a new application, are you getting yourself closer to your vision, even if it’s a baby step? As the old saying goes, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” Groups with a solid vision know where they are going and it limits the roads, thereby giving solid direction on the choices they should make.

An essential element of a solid vision is having a good way to communicate it. One common thing we’ve seen with the successful organizations we’ve studied is every member of the team can accurately describe the vision. They all live it. They understand it. They believe it. It seems an invisible, inaccessible vision is just as bad as no vision. (This seems to be a huge contributor to why Sun’s attempt at a similar vision, called Starfire, didn’t capture the imagination at Sun like Apple’s vision did.)

Sun's Starfire Vision

Not having a vision seems quite paralyzing to many teams. They struggle with decisions and often delay making choices because they have no easy way to determine if it will result in a good use of resources.

I think one could really look at Apple’s success today and tie a big piece of that into the Knowledge Navigator vision that they created. Many of the subsequent decisions Apple made with the Newton, the original Powerbook, their processor and networking strategies, and their investment in software can be seenis visible in that early video. Imagine having something that clear for your organization to work with.

Where is your team at? Do you have a solid vision for what you’re trying to design? How far out does it go?

One Response to “Solid Vision: A Critical Element to UX Design”

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