The product vision board is a simple yet powerful tool to capture the product vision and the product strategy. Despite its simplicity, effectively using it can be challenging. I have seen many boards over the years that suffered from a number of shortcomings including a poorly defined target group, an unconvincing value proposition, and business goals that weren’t measurable. This article helps you recognise and rectify common product vision board mistakes, thereby maximising the chances of creating an inspiring vision and a winning product strategy.
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A Brief Guide to this Article
This article assumes that you are familiar with the product vision board or the key elements of a product strategy: market, value proposition, standout features, and business goals. The overall example I use to illustrate the mistakes is a healthy eating app that helps its users improve their eating habits and live more healthily.
While I wrote the article for people who work with the product vision board, I hope that it will also be useful for readers who use another product strategy tool like the value proposition canvas or the lean canvas.
If you are new to the product vision board, then you may might to read the article “The Product Vision Board” or watch the video “Introduction to the Product Vision Board“. You may also want to download the vision board template to try it out for yourself.
Vision Captures Product Idea or Business Objective
Examples: “Offer a weight loss mobile app”, “Become the number one weight loss app provider”
Problem: When you tie the vision to the product idea or a specific business objective, you lose the ability to pivot—to change the strategy but to stay grounded in the vision. Additionally, such a vision is hardly inspiring. A good vision exercises pull—it describes a future state that people want to bring about.
Cause: A confusion about what an effective product vision is.
Solution: Describe the ultimate purpose of your product, the positive change the product should bring about like “healthy eating”. Think of the vision as a big, hairy, audacious goal (BHAG) that inspires people and offers a continuity of purpose for the next five to ten years.
Target Group is (too) Big and Heterogenous
Examples: “Everyone who owns a smartphone”, “Business users and consumers”
Problem: A very big and diverse target group makes it hard to formulate a crisp, compelling value proposition and strong standout features. It can also result in a large product backlog and high development cost: The greater the number of people who should benefit from your product is, the more diverse their needs are likely to be, and the more features are usually required to address them. Trying to offer a product that pleases everybody carries the risk of not doing a good job for anyone.
Causes: A lack of understanding of users and their needs, lack of empowerment of the person in charge of the product, inappropriate growth strategy.
Solution: Successful products are not built by agreeing on the smallest common denominator or trying to please powerful stakeholders. Instead, they require tough strategic decision and clear focus. Therefore, choose a specific market segment and develop a product for the few, not the many, as Steve Blank suggested, particularly when you manage a new or young product.
After your product has reached product-market fit and has become more feature rich, consider unbundling bigger features and creating product variants to address the needs of specific groups. For example, I might decide to offer a version for middle aged men to help them reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and a version for children to help them overcome a specific eating disorder.
Additionally, strengthen your ability to guide the stakeholders and dev teams: Increase your referent power and earn people’s trust, strengthen your product management expertise, and lobby for more management support.
Many Needs but No Compelling Reason for Using the Product
Examples: “Lose weight, be more active, feel better, be fitter”
Problem: If a product does not address a clear and compelling need, it will be difficult to encourage users to use it; uptake and engagement are likely to be poor. Consequently, it will be hard to achieve the desired business benefits and monetise the product.
Causes: Lack of understanding what problems users really face and what they really need; a target group that is too large and heterogenous, as discussed above.
Solution: Focus on the main reason for people to use the product, the primary benefit that the product should offer to the users or the main problem it should address. Another approach is to identify the main goal users will want to achieve by using the product or to find the primary job the product should do for them. Carry out qualitative market research like direct observation and problem interviews in order get to know the users, empathise with the individuals, and develop a thorough understanding of their needs.
Needs are Features
Examples: “Easy to use, calorie counter, works on iOS and Android”
Problem: When features—in the sense of product capabilities—are mistaken for needs, it is not clear why people should use the product, and the offering is likely to suffer from having a poor, unconvincing value proposition. Additionally, there is too much focus on the solution (“solutionising”), which is likely to limit the development team’s ability to come up with the best possible design and architecture options.
Causes: Confusion about what a need is; a lack of understanding of the user needs.
Solution: Focus on the why: Ask why people would want to use the product. What specific benefit will it offer, or which problem will it help solve? Carry out qualitative market research like direct observation and problem interviews. Additionally, describe the needs from the users’ perspective, for example, “help me achieve a healthy target weight” or “help me significantly reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes”.
Needs Statement is not Specific Enough
Examples: “Get fit”, “Feel better”, “Improve eating habits”
Problem: It’s perfectly fine to start out with a broad needs statement. But if you don’t refine it, it will be hard to effectively address any assumptions and risks it may contain and to choose the right validation techniques. Additionally, it will be difficult to select the right customer key performance indicators (KPIs), collect the relevant data, and understand if the product is creating enough value for the users, and if the strategy is working.
Causes: Lack of understanding of the users and their needs; needs section has not been sufficiently refined.
Solution: Carry out (additional) qualitative market research like direct observation and problem interviews in order to discover the specific reason for people to use your product. Iterate over the product vision board and refine its contents, similar to how you would refine the product backlog and break bigger items into more specific ones. For instance, if getting fit is the desired benefit, then a refined and more specific needs statement might be “be able to run 10k”.
More Information: Strategize, pp. 66.
No Convincing Standout Features
Examples: “Easy-to-use user interface, calorie intake, barcode scanner”
Problem: Standout features ensure that your product is effectively differentiated: As their name suggests, they make your product stand out from the crowd, they give people a reason to choose it over competing offerings. If the features are weak, it will not be clear to prospective users why they should favour your product over alternatives, and it will be hard to market and sell the offering.
Causes: Lack of market insight, lack of empowerment.
Solution: To address the first cause, perform competitor research and apply a tool like the Strategy Canvas or E-R-R-C grid. To resolve the second cause and mitigate the risk of making compromises and possibly creating a feature soup, a loose collection of features that tries to please the powerful stakeholders, explore how you can increase your authority and align the stakeholders.
Work on your referent power and expertise, and lobby for management support. Additionally, involve the stakeholders in creating the product vision board but do not allow individuals to dominate and force their ideas onto the group. Ask your Scrum Master to help you select the right decision rule and to facilitate joint meetings.
More Information: Make Your Product Stand Out with the Strategy Canvas, Eliminate Features to Differentiate your Product, and Strategize, pp. 68; Boost Your Product Leadership Power and How to Lead in Product Management, pp. 36.
No Clear Business Goals
Examples: “Make money, help the company grow, be the number one weight loss app”
Problem: When your product strategy lacks clear, specific business goals, it will be difficult to tell if the product creates enough value for the business, and it will be difficult to select the right financial KPIs and understand if the product strategy is working.
Causes: Business needs are not clear or understood; business goal section on the product vision board has not been sufficiently refined.
Solution: Explore why it is worthwhile for your company to invest in the product. What are the specific benefits that the product will generate for the business? And which one is the most important one? Then take the next step: Consider how the product will be monetised and explore its underlying business model. Iterate over the business goals until they become clear and specific. For instance, make the goal “be the number one weight loss app” precise by describing the desired business impact, the specific benefit the company will experience, such as increase in brand equity. Finally, make the business goals measurable. For example, state how much money you believe the product will make or by how much brand equity will increase over a specific timeframe, using a ratio or range.
More Information: Why Product People Should Care About Business Strategy, Strategize, pp. 39.
Product Vision Board is Not Testable
Examples: See the examples of the pitfalls above.
Problem: As long as the bottom sections of your product vision board contain statements that are unclear or unspecific, it will be hard to spot all leap-of-faith assumptions and key risks. Consequently, it will be difficult to test the board and mitigate the risk that the product strategy is wrong. In the worst case, you end up pursuing a clever sounding but poorly validated strategy that results in painful product failure.
Cause: The product vision board is not sufficiently refined and requires more work
Solution: Iterate over the product vision board contents until each strategy-related statement can be tested and shown to be valid or invalid. If that’s not possible, stop and carry out just enough market and user research to be able to create a testable board. Then start the validation work by choosing the biggest risk and address it, for example, by observing users or building a prototype.