Creating Visual Product Visions

Visuals and stories can help people connect with, see and feel the future.

Creating Visual Product Visions

Meta owns Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, among other products and services. Meta is also strategically investing into the metaverse

How do you create a compelling Product Vision?

Great visions should get people excited. That's really the reason why we create visions. They are things we want people to believe about the future. For example, the Metaverse is of course still very, very early and it's abstract and there are still a lot of things that haven't been defined. When Mark Zuckerberg was talking to people about the metaverse in last year's Facebook Connect he was able to show people what the Metaverse can look like. And he didn't just tell us, he showed us prototypes, he showed videos, he showed how things can work in the Metaverse.

An image showing the metaverse

That kind of a realistic representation of the future was very exciting. I personally have seen visual storytelling play a very key role in making sure the visions are well received and also get buy-ins and get excitement from the team. Internally at Meta, I heard so many other people saying, after seeing Facebook Connect, let's change teams, let's go work for the Metaverse. And that's what I did.

Visions evoke emotions. So they help people to connect with the future. And oftentimes people don't remember the exact features that are being presented, but they will remember how the visions make people feel.

Another example, in 2016, when Brian Chesky, the CEO of Airbnb, talked about the Airbnb trips to everyone, I still remember he showed a video of a lonely traveller going on a trip and how Airbnb trips helped him to transform what the trip would be. And I remember the music, the visuals, the story. I don't remember the exact features or whatever they were trying to promote. I remember how it made me feel. So feelings stick to people.

A presentation from the founder of Arbnb

And when presenting visions, I think focusing on the feelings over the features is very helpful. So then people connect and they remember.

Visuals and stories can help people connect, can help people to see and help people to feel the future.

How can stories help us with the overall vision of a product?

We talk about how stories will ground your vision. Humans are story animals. When we are younger, as kids, we like when adults tell us stories. That's why there are so many bedtime stories. And then now as adults, we think, we walk around, we read things, we write and stuff. In our mind, we're always making up stories. And that's how we make sense of what's happening around us. And also when we talk to people at work, at home, anytime really, we are telling each other stories. Again, that's how we process, how we make sense of how things work around us.

But oftentimes I see visions are presented as feature lists instead of stories. And that makes it hard to understand.

Below on the left, you can see how sometimes visions are structured. You have a vision statement, you have some themes, and within each of the themes, you have different features. That is kind of like a realistic or reasonable structure. But after you present it to other people, oftentimes what they remember is only a couple parts and pieces. They may forget a theme, they may forget some of the features. So their takeaway becomes a couple of different features and some themes.

A graph of vision structure

As the person who's creating the vision, you may think, isn't it clear? It's an elephant. It's a whole big picture. Because you're so close to the vision. But then for the people who are viewing the vision, they may only remember or see or digest only parts of it. Is there a wall? Is there a snake? Is there a tree? That's their interpretation. And that's not great. They don't see it as an elephant like you do.

A image of how things connect

What can we do? Instead of showing visions as feature lists, show them as a story. So instead of going through each of the features by theme, which is a reasonable baseline, and change them into a story. Do a summary. And then talk about who's a user.

Start by introducing a customer, for instance Jay. Then talk about what are the challenges and pain points Jay has. When Jay is doing this and that, these are the problems. And then you go into the vision talking about now, when Jay does the same thing, the experience is so much better. As you go through the narrative, it becomes so much more humanised.

Have your audience feel the pain. And when you show the vision, they can actually feel the joy. So get them to feel that way. People understand where you're coming from, what are the pain points, and also how the vision can make it so much better. It becomes a narrative. But you may say, well, people are still going to forget things. They are still not going to remember the whole story. That is okay. What we are going to do is to try to really focus on the emotions instead of the details. And their takeaway after vision would be, oh, I remember that it's solving the problem. That's what they should be remembering. And that's what they should be excited about. They may not, they still may not be able to remember all the features, all the details, but that's okay.

That's the user story itself. But when we show it to other people, there are still other things that we should cover. This is kind of a vision presentation or a slide or a story type of structure that we often use at Meta. I've seen it work across different teams, different visions.

First of all, go through the vision background. Why are we even doing this? What are the existing insights, problems that you already know? Then do a summary of the vision. This is why the story is important. Call out key features, call out key things, principles, statements and stuff. And then you go into the user story. Here is where people go into the details and really go through the whole narrative. And when they get to this point, even though they may not read through everything, they know you've gone through the process of understanding the user, understanding the problems and making sure your story, your vision actually fits the problem, actually solves it. Last, you can talk about execution plans, the strategy, what are the next steps, the metrics and things.

How vision presentation structure works

What are some of the challenges with creating holistic user stories?

“But we don't have enough insights to create a whole story”

We all know for any product vision or really building a product in general, we have to understand first. We know user insights are important, but I would say sometimes when teams try to move fast, there are times we don't have enough insights. And in those cases, if you do have time, spend the time, do the research. Otherwise we'll end up building products for ourselves, which is never good. But there are also other times, especially in large companies, you just don't have the time to do the research.

Leadership says we need a vision and you have to do it. And then what do you do? There must be some insights you can leverage and then make best guesses, but make it super clear after you create this first round of vision, it needs to be validated, it needs to be tested. There are hypotheses that you're putting down and it needs to be proved with real user insights. That needs to be made clear. By this stage, you can make best guesses just to make sure the conversations are moving forward.

“User stories feel so cheesy.”

In my mind, I think cheesy, but so what? It does a job, it helps to connect people, it grounds everything, it humanises the problem we're trying to solve and the products. So we can all relate. So as cheesy as it may be, it's still worthwhile to do it so that people all get the point.

“Leadership are so busy, they don't have time to read through everything anyways. Why bother?”

Yes, they may not have all the time to read through the whole thing, but again, first, like it helps to at least go through the process, even for yourself. When you're creating the ideas, you may think these things all make sense together.

But going through the process of creating the user story can really help you see where the gaps are and where some of the ideas are, actually they're not solving the problems. Go through that as much as for others as for yourself. And then for the leaders who may not have much time, summarise for them. And that's where the vision summary is so important. Summarise the key points so that they can glimpse through and then they can get the point.

“I'm not sure what exact features I should add into the story?”

What we mentioned already is focus on the emotions, focus on how you want people to feel. You want them to feel the pain, feel the joy, feel the transition. That's what you should be focusing on.

Exact features, you can figure out later. Once you have buy-in, once you have excitement, you will have more time and more resources to work on the exact things.

So once you have your user stories what would be your next step?

Visuals! I'm a designer, I'm sure a lot of designers also know visuals are very helpful to clarify things. But I do think there are different, slightly different understandings of when visuals should be used and how they should be used. And that's what I want to highlight.

As a junior designer, I used to always ask different people, what can design bring to the table? What can I contribute to product teams? And I remember a lot of senior designers used to tell me, yes, design can do pixel work. We can provide visuals, but design isn't all about visuals. So don't jump into visuals too quickly. I still agree with that. I still think we should find the right moment to jump into visuals. But at the same time, I think when creating visions, I've seen too many times when visuals were introduced so late.

So people spent a lot of time trying to use words and text to clarify, which isn't efficient. And below is an illustration of how it might work.

For example, visions always start with text, always start with words. Here's a wall of text that's written about the vision. And for the different people in the audience, you just might have different interpretations. You never know what other people might be imagining in their mind versus my own, and whether or not they are aligned. But how can it be different?

Introduce a visual, introduce a prototype. There's a lot less room for or misalignment. And the conversation would change from previously, it's about, is this what you mean? Or now, it's about, is this what we want? And that's a step forward. The old saying goes, an image is worth more than a thousand words. I would say a prototype here is worth more than 10,000 words. We can see it, we can see the future without spending all the time to try to build it. And I think this is the superpower design can bring. I would encourage designers to really use this superpower, especially in the early stage of vision creation. It may take more time, but it will help in general streamline the process and clarify for everyone in the process.

Then on the visual side, one other thing I want to talk about is the visual quality and also fidelity. So even though it's a vision, but like the quality and the fidelity matter so much, the whole point is to get people excited.

An image of the metaverse

Imagine when Mark Zuckerberg was showing us the metaverse, instead of showing these high quality, almost realistic videos, he just showed, or he just talked about it. He just showed a couple sketches or static images. Then we wouldn't get here. We wouldn't get excited. We wouldn't see the future that he believes in. But here using something that's much higher fidelity, we are able to really understand what he's talking about. And that's very important. And I think spending the extra time crafting the vision to bring the visual quality higher and also adding more fidelity is very important and also efficient in the long term, even though it may seem in the beginning, it takes longer.

What are some of the challenges that you see with creating good visuals for a story?

Does visual quality matter?

Firstly,  visual quality matters.  I've seen so many designers tend to be like, let's move fast. Let's do something just to illustrate the point and not to polish. It works sometimes if the whole team understands the visuals and the concepts are going to get better in the next step.

But oftentimes when the team is large, others don't understand. They see what they see and they think that's what you are proposing. And if it's a lower quality, they're not going to get excited. I would say if you have the time, make sure there is a crop, there is a quality that would get people to say like, this is what I want, I want it today.

And I think that there's a lot of payoff by spending that extra time in the team. In the beginning.

It seems like a lot of work to do all the illustrative marks and later on you have to redo them, redesign them anyways. Why spend this time?

I would say, it can be a lot of work, especially if you're trying to bring up the fidelity, create prototypes and things. That's a lot of time spent, but really think about your goal. If the vision is to get buy-ins, get excitement, then that's time well spent. It's probably the most impactful thing you can do at this stage. Everything else can wait.

If you don't get buy-ins, you don't get buy-ins, you don't get people excited, there's no next step. So spend the time if you have the time.

People keep asking about some details in the illustrative mocks.

Make it very clear to them, visions are not specs. I think too often, especially coming from other functions other than design, people get caught up on details. They may ask about one specific interaction or this visual, this icon even. Make it clear to them. That doesn't matter. We will change them. We will make them better. You can provide feedback, you can ask questions, but I may not have answers. And that's not a problem because that's not the point at this stage.

What benefits have you seen from investing in visual storytelling?

Great visions help people see and feel the future. Don't just tell the vision. Paint the story of the future. Show them what it can be. Then people understand that's how much better it can be and why we're doing it. The future is not here with us yet, but visions bring them closer to today and people can feel it almost now.