From Visual Design to Vision Design: The role of Product Designers in shaping product direction

Knowledge / Inspiration

From Visual Design to Vision Design: The role of Product Designers in shaping product direction

Product Direction

Designers spend the first few years fine-tuning their craft, earning their stripes. One of the challenges a team faces is the need to figure out what to build that goes beyond execution.

In this session, Emmet will discuss the changing role of design and how it can change as your company scales and your career grows, the product vision which used to come from the top to a point where the long-term strategy and vision falls on the product team. Emmet will discuss how to best prepare for this new skillset and design for longer term vision over immediate execution.

Emmet Connolly

Emmet Connolly, VP of Product Design,Intercom

To start with, I'm going to describe four big forces or trends that I see that I think are changing the role of product design. And the reason I want to start there is because I think that they're pointing towards this major new opportunity for designers in terms of what they can actually do. So these are the four things that I'll go through.

First of all, as a discipline within the industry, I think product design has gone through lots of changes over the last couple of decades. And that kind of came from the influence of big tech companies, but now is also being very influenced by this imperative that we're getting to have some kind of business impact and think about that role of design in that.

Secondly, if we look ahead to the future, I think changes in technology are set to change quite dramatically the nature of the hands-on work that we do. I'll explain what that is.

Third, I hear designers quite keen to take on more of a strategic role, which is brilliant. But I don't hear a lot of talk about what that actually means in practice. So that's worth unpacking a bit.

And then finally, I think designers have a very specific set of skills that makes them really ideally, ideally suited to meet some critical needs in modern tech orgs. And I want to join those dots together.

So yeah, I'm going to start by going through each of these. But if you take it that these are true, and hopefully I'll convince you of that in a minute, I think it now is the time for us to start talking about what it means for the role of product designers and what this new, different, valuable work that they should be taking on actually is.

This is the spoiler for the talk. My thesis here is that I think the product designers should be taking a central role, or a much more central role, in shaping the overall high-level direction of the product over the medium to long term, what you might call the product vision.

So yeah, as I said, I'll cover it in two parts. First, I'll look at those industry trends over time, what actually happened, why I think they happened. And then I will get into this new responsibility of a designer of actually shaping the product vision. I'll explain what a product vision is, and some tips on how to go about creating one.

So as I said, design's role within tech orgs has actually changed a lot over the last 20 years. Design, I think it's fair to say, garnered a lot of attention initially with Apple's insane success in the 2000s. Lots of companies saw what they perceived to be driving Apple's success, and they wanted some of that sweet, sweet design magic for themselves. And so they spun up their own in-house teams. And then in the 2010s, design really scaled up along with tech companies. And so you saw larger companies like Google and Facebook building out these massive, mature, and quite effective teams. And some of the work that those teams was really good, top notch, inspirational, and it actually ended up being very influential, I think, in hindsight on the rest of the industry.

Lots of designers who worked in these bigger teams, I was one of them, worked there, and they took what they learned elsewhere. And so, yeah, I think it's fair to say these very large teams helped, to a certain extent, define a lot of the standards, practices, processes, mindset that we see in design teams across the industry. So they were highly influential. But what came of this influence that they had on the rest of the industry? Where are we today? Well, design is now definitely a core role at tech companies of all sizes, really. And after 20 odd years of agitating for it, design, finally, finally, like the dog that caught the car it was chasing all that time, has its much thought after it sees at the table.

But if we look around at the other folks at the table, there's PMs and engineers, and there's also, even outside of that, people from sales and marketing and finance and biz ops. And I think it's worth looking around now that we have that season saying, what do these other folks want from designers? Is it the exact same ideas that we've inherited from these other teams? And I would say, partially it is, but there's more to it than that as well. And for most of us, I would actually argue that it's a pretty big mistake to continue to just model how we work on the influence of these larger companies, the Googles and Facebooks and so on.

And the reason I say that is the mindset of those design teams in this last decade, golden era, mega company place that it came from had a significant blind spot. And that blind spot was that they were only focusing on users and not at all on the business side of things. I worked on the design team at Google for eight years. And broadly speaking, I will say we weren't focused on the business at all. And that was OK and understandable. We were looking and responding to what the company's number one philosophical tenet was telling us to look at. Focus on the user, it said, and all else will follow. And it's no surprise that this caught on and caught on more broadly. This is an extremely seductive message to hear if you're a designer. And it certainly did a number on me, I would say. Who would not like to be told that they were special, that they are unique, that they should block off any other outside influences?

Because they're going to be distractions. And that is one way that this can be interpreted. You can think those other folks, they don't get it. People are talking to me about churn rate or customer acquisition. But that's just because they're not designers. They don't get it. They don't have our single-minded devotion to the user. And they don't understand if we just focus on that all else, which is probably some super boring business stuff anyway. All else will follow, right? And we even had it in our job title. We were told we were user experience designers. And so again, this is no major surprise. And I will say being user-focused is a great thing. But the problem, I think, is that it's overly reductive in that design that does not consider the bigger context in which it's being done is probably fundamentally not fantastic design.

And anyway, the context that most of us here are operating in is very, very different from this super small number of super big companies that happen to have some kind of money printing machine in some part of the business that nobody else really thinks about. As a side note, even if you do have a money printing machine and you're designing, I think you should think about the bigger context and how that money printing machine works and so on. But that's beside the point, perhaps. Again, anyway, many of us work for companies where the business performance and the influence of our work on how the business performs is a real thing. And it matters. And I think for a lot of folks, as we look around the industry, that has been brought home. We've seen like layoffs due to declining business growth across the industry in recent months. And that sucks.

So the last thing I'll say here is I think it also matters that the work that we do has longevity, that it doesn't just burn out quickly. And a key part to your product work having longevity is that there's some element of market success to it as well. So it's important to avoid this reductive definition of product design as being just about the user. And this imperative is coming to us from the outside as well, from all these other folks who are starting to ask us to think about the business impact of design. And by the way, this is not a new point I'm coming up with. Lots of people are already thinking about this and doing a great job at it.

Growth design, for what it's worth, is an interesting sub-discipline of product design that's really emerging and at the forefront of this. And the other thing I'll say is I don't think this is a massive change in how we work. Rather, it's like a shift.

For example, I think this is how a lot of product gets created. You identify a customer problem or opportunity. We design a solution to that. And then really, often as an afterthought, you kind of try and figure out what the business impact that that might be able to drive. This is natural. This is how humans were keyed to think in terms of solutions. Designers are creative problem solvers by nature. And this is still a very valid way of doing things. But an additional way of doing things is to identify some big, obvious gap in the business and the business performance. Then use your designer brain and skills to figure out, what are the obvious customer pain points that are driving or leading to this underperformance? And then figuring out a solution. So it's just a reordering. And it's also, by the way, still a way of providing direct value to users.

So it's still user-centric. But you're just starting from a different starting point that doesn't just relegate or leave the business impact part to be shoehorned in as something of an afterthought. And of course, it's possible to overcorrect in either direction. The trick is to get the balancing act right. But to even get to that point, you have to realize there's a balancing act in the first place.

So either way, I think anyway, if we step back and look at the past couple of decades, there's this broad shift happening from thinking about the user in isolation to thinking more holistically about user impact and business impact together. And I see lots of the more mature design orgs really starting to think about these things as a balance. So this brings us up to the present date, maybe some of the changes that have happened so far, and our first driver of the changing nature of design. The role of design is broadening from just user focus to also encompass this business focus.

What about what might be coming next and future trends that are going to influence things? Here, I necessarily have to engage in some speculation so you can kind of make up your own mind, and we will see. But I think a lot of us are looking at the frankly incredible rate of change in things like text to image, machine learning models. And it's not that difficult to extrapolate and think, hmm, design tools are actually going to change a lot in the next decade, aren't they? It's hard to look at things like Dali or stable diffusion or DPC3 and not imagine that in fairly short order, perhaps, we will see some kind of GitHub co-pilot for Figma type functionality that is going to give us the ability to offload a lot of the UI creation heavy lifting. And this will, for better or for worse, commodify UI design to an extent. There's a possibility that that's going to happen. If the creation costs of interfaces gets driven close to zero, I think we've seen this story before. Like a lot of the early disruption with the internet was that distribution of information, the cost of that went close to zero. And so if that's going to happen for the creation of design artifacts, we may see UI design get napstered. That is both scary and exciting. It's certainly fascinating, again, looking at these types of early experiments that are pointing in that direction.

And by the way, I would say, don't freak out too much, I suspect, and hope, that the UI layer won't become obsolete. By any means, we will get better tools to better explore and more quickly create user interfaces. And it'll still be part of the job that requires taste and creativity and smarts and all that kind of stuff. But I, for one, cautiously welcome our new UI designing overlords. I think it's what technology does. It takes a lot of the lower level, more frustrating work, makes it easier, makes it more enjoyable, and critically, it opens up possibilities for us to do new things, to take on new things as part of our role.

So there's a question. What does that mean in a practical sense? And I can only imagine designers starting to move up the layers of abstraction in terms of what it means to do design, start to tackle design problems at a slightly higher level, and start to take a more strategic slant on what it is to do design. So that's our second driver of change. Again, it's an additive one. Designers going from being solely execution-focused a lot of the time to also being increasingly more strategy focused.

And as I also said, this change is somewhat coming from designers themselves. I see a lot of folks starting to think that doing this slightly different type of strategic design is appealing, a natural part of career growth and career progression. I hear more and more designers saying, I would like to work more on strategy, even if they don't exactly know what that looks or feels like in practice, which in itself is interesting. Designers saying they want to do something without having a good sense of what it's actually going to be. Especially you hear this from more senior folks. And so I think it's worth, as a quick aside, thinking, what does that mean for the role of designers? Why are designers started thinking this way? And I have some theories. Part of it might be people are just keen to move on to try something new and learn something new. Executional design can at times be exceptionally hard, sometimes tankless work. And I do see people start to feel burned out on it after many, many years and look for something different and a new challenge.

I suspect that career ladders might have something to do with this and the general broad understanding of them. Lots of companies share their career ladders. These are ours. You can go to and check them out. And what's interesting is if you look at lots of these career ladders and look across them, you see this team of strategy emerging, in particular at the kind of senior to staff level. There's a real consistency. And so lots of designers naturally and correctly are rational, self-interested actors. They're pretty ambitious. They want to get promoted. And they're like, yeah, if taking a shot at this strategy stuff is what I need to do, then I'm definitely going to take that challenge on.

Another factor influencing design mindset here, I think, is that as companies scale, they face pretty big coordination headwinds. So think about if you're a small company. You have a very clear maybe product direction and vision from the co-founders or the leadership team. And your limiting factor is bandwidth to execute. Having enough time to write the code, to create the mockups, you're trying to move as fast as you can through the execution of work. But as companies scale and more and more people get involved, the limiting factor, I think, way more than execution is alignment. It's getting everyone on the same page. It's getting a broad set of perspective. It's just making decisions. It's moving fast and getting things done. It's hard. You have to fight hard against this natural gravity towards complexity as you scale. I think designers see that. I think lots of people see that. But designers see it. And they think, hmm, maybe just some kind of nice high-level plan, like a strategy, would help make a lot of this coordination headwinds, would reduce that. Or maybe it just sounds cool and interesting and more important or whatever, and people are attracted to that too.

The primary reason, I think, honestly, is that designers are keen to lean in and have more of this strategic impact. It's just simply that they are smart, curious, ambitious, impact-oriented people. They're looking at a combination of all of these things. And they want to have a go. I will say, it's kind of a hard chasm to cross. You spend the first decade of your career like aligning rectangles. And then you're supposed to align people. And it's a very different problem space, much more squishy. What is a strategy, actually? What does one look like? I don't know if I've ever even seen one. I've definitely never created one. Do I have to become more like a PM? Will any of the skills that I have transfer across? Or will I even enjoy this new work? Will I be any good at it? This is where people are like, oh, god, I should just quit tech and go work in a coffee shop or something. It would be so much simpler.

In spite of all of these existential questions, you still see designers wanting to have a go and shift their role. And so that's another driver of this change. Ambitious designers are seeking out more of a foothold in the strategy space. And then the final driver, I think, is that we see a strong fit between skills that designers provide and organizational needs. It is fairly clear that there is this strategic role that designers are ideally suited to play, probably better than any other discipline in the company. And that is this product vision work that I'm talking about. So it might be useful to pause just for some quick definitions. These words, strategy, vision, mean a lot of things I realize in a lot of different contexts or companies or whatever.

For the purposes of this talk, let's just say the strategy roughly means what we want to achieve and how we're going to go about it. So this type of strategy can get deep into things like competitive analysis, addressable markets, differentiators, success metrics, stuff like that.

So a super simple example of a strategy, let's say if you're a project management SaaS app, your strategy might be, we are going to win in the enterprise market by having the best set of integrations with other apps out there. That's our strategy. And it's a perfectly fine strategy. It's a simple, clear one. And in fact, again, for the purposes of this talk, let's assume it is the best possible strategy that this company could possibly have. Even then, one big problem still exists. And that is, how the hell do you go about executing against that strategy? There are loads of unanswered product questions before we can really get started. What apps should we integrate with? How do integrations work? What do they do? How do they show up in the workflows? The product stuff.

And so therefore, if we want this strategy to succeed, we have to overcome this gap that exists of how do I get to adding stuff to the roadmap and actually executing? And so there's this big gap between strategy and execution. And that's a problem that this product vision work can solve. A product vision describes what we will build at a simple high level. It is specific product direction that will allow us to move into this execution mode. It's like the strategy brought to life in more concrete terms.

And what's more, it also fills this hole that kind of exists between strategy and execution. And if you look at it, it's kind of a designer-shaped hole. Many of the skills that designers have built up over their careers can be applied to building out a compelling product vision. Skills like understanding customers, understanding business, facilitating lots of people, having input, and distilling that down, creating lots of ideas, creativity to do that, but the intuition to know which ones to pursue, just exploring ideas, diverging and converging, the ability to tell a compelling story, to build a narrative around all of this that makes sense, the ability to bring ideas to life visually, to show and not just tell people what these ideas are. These are all design skills.

And so they're all the skills that designers have that are necessary to creating a compelling product vision. And that's why that's the fourth driver that I'm talking about. Organizations need what designers can do, which is bring the strategy to life with a product vision.

So if we take all these four things together, you start to build up the sense that there's this clear, compelling, momentum-generating vision work that designers can do. It might even become increasingly a core part of designers' roles in the future. So maybe you're with me so far, but you're like, how do we actually go about doing this work? How do we go about creating this work? Sadly, there is no one-size-fits-all, out-of-the-box process, at least that I have found yet, that you can just apply. Even within Intercom and the work and the many projects that we do that take on this type of work, we see many different shapes and sizes of this type of thing, depending on the context and the underlying strategy and so on. But I still want to give some practical pointers and tips that give you just a sense of some of the approaches that we've taken.

First of all, let's frame what you're trying to achieve and with this work. One big one thing that you're trying to achieve is what we just assessed, what we just talked about, bridging strategy and execution. But product vision can also be a leadership tool. It's a way to get everyone on the same page, get everyone understanding what we're doing. Alignment is super important. It allows teams to move fast. It creates momentum. Momentum leads to energy and positivity. And if everyone feels like they're aligned and together as a team on one momentum-generating shared goal, it's an amazing sense of purpose. And all of those things are super important to high-performing teams.

It also acts as something of a north star, something to aim for and orient ourselves against. Early on in a project, that's more about, hey, everyone, let's get on the same page. This is where we're going. It's going to be an epic mission. Let's build this shared sense of ownership and belief in what we're trying to do. That's going to fuel us in the journey ahead. But also, on an ongoing basis, it's not something that ends at the start. Because when you're deep in, months in sometimes, to a project, you're deep down in the weeds, you can get bogged down in lots of small and nitty-gritty little arguments. It's very useful to have something clarifying to look up at and say, actually, remember, that's the most fundamental thing that we're aiming for. And it allows you to keep re-steering yourself as you go along and to sense check.

When you're creating a product vision, I think it's important to have some guardrails, some parameters. Often, it's about getting the balance right between competing priorities of what you're trying to achieve. So some tips I would suggest is talk to the people around you about the zoom level or the fidelity level that you want to work at. You really have to avoid the trap here of trying to design the entire product upfront. This is not like big design upfront waterfall. And a good rule of thumb here is, I think, to try and create your vision at the lowest fidelity possible that will allow you to do this unblocking, generate the alignment with the folks around you. Don't go too detailed. It is totally fine to have open product questions that are not answered by the vision. It doesn't have to tell you how everything is going to work. We're going to get into it and design the product in time. What you're really looking to do is make sure none of these open questions are potential showstoppers that are going to bring everything grinding to a halt.

It's not science fiction. You're not trying to describe some unrealistic future that doesn't exist or that relies on tech that doesn't exist yet. You want to strike the balance again between something that is real enough to be achievable, but that is ambitious enough and not just incremental. And a good way to do this, I think, is to pick a time frame and talk about what's the time frame for the thing that we're pursuing here. And I would suggest that generally, anything from six months to two years is good to keep you within those boundary points.

Like a lot of design work, you're going to need to really push yourself to refine it down to something clear and focused and not broad and shallow. It can't be a grab bag of features. It has to add up to something coherent and cohesive. Ultimately, whatever your big idea is, you are going to have to explain it to customers in a series of short, sharp, no-nonsense, plain English sentences that speak to the value that they're looking for. And so to really boil it down like that, this needs to be something of an editing process as well as a generative process.

And like my namesake here, don't go it alone. Lean on other designers. Lean on leaders. Lean on folks from other functions. Include them as early as you can. Bring them in. The sooner and more deeply you can involve everybody else around you, the better. So this is not some lone wolf activity. You are not heading off into the desert alone on a vision quest to come back with some perfect picture of the future. This should be highly collaborative and especially early on.

And then finally, don't forget to fold in that commercial focus that I was talking about. How does this actually achieve our strategic goals? It's not just a cool idea. How does it help us drive that ultimate business impact? And yes, it definitely helps if other designers and product nerds think that your ideas are like dope as hell. That's cool. But remember that the overall goal here is to create differentiated product power that customers are going to be willing to pay money for. And that is where real success and longevity is ultimately going to come from.

OK, as I said, there's no single process that we found. But I want to give an example, which this is just to make this a bit more tangible and actionable for you. Earlier on this year, we launched a completely different redesigned intercom inbox. And this is a video of the resulting product. And this was very much a product that was driven internally by one of these product vision exercises. And so I'm going to actually share the specific approach that Gustavs, our lead designer on the project, that he took. And I think it's a decent outline, or at least a set of practical examples of the types of steps you could take.

Start. Form a working group. Define a DASI, like drivers, approvers, consulted, and informed. Who's doing what? And just get the group together. Set up working sessions. Again, establish it as a group endeavor from the beginning. Align on what you're all trying to achieve here. Is everyone clear about it? What is the scope that I was talking about, the timeline? How are we going to actually put this to work? Start collecting ideas from a broad group right away and use them as inputs later on. Everyone has product ideas. Get them to dump them into a doc. Have coffee, chats with people. Start thinking about, OK, from what we know are our key problems and opportunities, you probably have tons of research. You can create your own research. You can look at all that stuff and start to group into themes. Maybe rank the problems and, again, do this with everybody to building a shared understanding of these things.

Start to create, OK, how are we going to really generate ideas? What are the things that are going to fuel our idea generation? You can look at competitors, what they're doing, what they're not doing, the way other industries or products solve similar problems. And then plan workshops. Gustav's here ran five half-day workshops, which I thought was a nice balance between overwhelming everyone, but really in the space of a week, creating a lot of outpouring of ideas and a lot of a sense of involvement.

So you've got to run those workshops. You're going to get tons of ideas. You're going to get tons of discussion. You then need to start to do that process of boiling down, of synthesizing, maybe grouping ideas together. Can you start to describe the main ideas emerging and rank them in certain ways? And some of these you can develop further. Some of them are interesting but too ambiguous, so you can start to, again, at the minimum fidelity honestly required, start to disambiguate what they actually mean and then evaluate them.

Which has the biggest potential? Which have the biggest potential to improve the product, satisfy customers, drive revenue, which are the lowest effort things or that we have highest confidence in? There's many dimensions. And then you can test what you already have with customers. You can test what you already have, put it in front of sales folks. And you will very quickly start to see which of these ideas resonate and which don't.

From here, you can start to actually form and shape, OK, what's our vision? What are the key themes, the key ideas, the key principles? How are we going to explain this? What is our hypothesis for how each of these pillars is actually going to help satisfy our strategy and help us succeed there?

And then I really like this part. Turn it into a story, into a narrative, communicate. Tell the story of going from strategy to your vision idea to the results that that's going to actually drive. Share it with folks. I've seen decks that work as a self-serve deck go mini viral within the company. And all of a sudden, things get really real. And everyone is on the same page about what that actually looks like. I don't know how meaningful this is. This is going to be a deck within a deck. Just to give you an exact taste or a feel of what these things look like, here's some of the stuff that was created for this Inbox 2 one.

And then finally, don't stop there. Don't just go, well, I created the vision. Start to push it into that execution mode. Right. What are the teams? What are the projects? How might we sequence these things? Start to break it down and actually start to build that momentum for your team. By the way, to give you a sense of timeline, our Inbox launched less than a year after this vision work was done. That's kind of a long project for us at Intercom. I still think it's exceptionally fast for a ground-up redesign and complete rebuild of the most used and one of the most complex parts of the product. And so it shows you, I think, the power of this type of work to, again, align everyone, create momentum. And when you have all of those things, things can move really fast. And the work can be a lot more fun.

It also makes go to market so much easier. If you spent time refining and shaping and clarifying your product vision upfront, you already have a very clear starting point for how to craft a marketing message. Our marketing team were actually involved very early in a lot of that early ideation. And so marketing, we're also in a position to influence product direction and vice versa. And so it's a really effective way of ensuring, hey, we're going to have to put this out into the world. And it has to resonate with people eventually in order to achieve these strategic goals that you have. So it's setting you up for success in that regard.

I hope this gives you a sense of the types of approaches you can take. I hope it kind of demystifies things a lot. As you can see, lots of kind of core UX skills on display in a slightly different context, perhaps. To me, there's clearly a ton of value that can be created with this type of work. I think designers are really, really well suited to do it. And in addition to those other kind of forces or trends that I was describing earlier, I see this type of work increasingly becoming an opportunity and a core part, perhaps, of the product designer's role.

I'm going to end with a bit of a shameless plug. If you want to see more examples of the type of output that's created by this product vision work, we have a big intercom product launch happening later today. We're launching several new products, including a big overhaul of our flagship messenger product. That was another project that was very much driven by this type of product vision work that I've been describing today.

So clearly, you should not tune in live, because it's on during the UXDX. But there'll be a replay. You should check it out if you want to see more practical examples of the outputs generated by the type of work that I've been describing here today. That's it for me. Remember, a change like this can sometimes feel scary, but it's also healthy. It can open up opportunities to designers to evolve their role that didn't exist before, just like the role has been evolving for many years now. I think this work of driving product vision can be rewarding. It can be challenging. It can be high-impact work. And so I would love to see more designers step into this type of work and take on the challenge. Thanks. Thank you."