Building a Vision of Design Success

Posted by

“Alone, the pain that triggers a redesign is not enough of a guide to build something useful to the company. You have to build a shared vision.”


In the last year I’ve been at Yahoo!, I’ve had the pleasure of participating in three redesigns. They have all gone rather well, though through conversations with colleagues, I’ve come to understand this is not always common. Redesigns are as often crucibles of group anguish as they are opportunities for invention and rebirth. In the entirety of my career, I’ve definitely seen both. So what is the difference that allows one redesign to work and another to turn into months of tail chasing? Fortunately I’ve been part of several post-mortems as well, and I think the key difference is vision.

A redesign has some built-in advantages over everyday maintenance; the most useful being focus. And focus is the loam that allows a shared vision to grow. A group chooses to redesign typically because the site is no longer working, and the pain of the site not working is greater than the pain of stopping business as usual and entering into an expensive and emotional project. But once committed, you have to move the project from reactive (something is broken) to proactive (we’re going to build something great). Alone, the pain that triggers a redesign is not enough of a guide to build something useful to the company. You have to build a shared vision.

Shared Vision

A common view of vision is that it’s something handed down by a leader to the troops. When a redesign goes awry, the troops complain, “There was no vision.” Sometimes there was a vision, but the leader didn’t communicate it, or more commonly, no one bought into it. Then the leader complains the troops didn’t obey. But the problem goes deeper than either scenario; the problem is that there was no shared vision. A shared vision is born of collaborative conversations, articulated in a form that is digestible and memorable, and then internalized and personalized by every member of the team. The power of the shared vision is that it is shared—it is held within every member of the team (or organization) and thus needs no leader to carry it forward; every action of the team helps make the vision real.

Success, all starts in the way the vision is birthed. A vision can come initially from one of two places: the leader can create it or recognize it. It’s another fallacy that folks think leaders must be the source of all ideas—they don’t. A great leader should be just as capable of recognizing an idea as well as dreaming one up—in fact, more the first, which is more scalable. So: a leader has either come up with an idea (the current site doesn’t allow us to realize a new business model; we need to redo it) or may recognize one (our usage numbers are in decline—marketing says people think we don’t have what they want; user research says it’s hard to find anything on the site, I just read this article on findability—hmm, I wonder if there is something there). This germ of a vision is the proto-vision. To get the proto-vision to a vision, the leader needs to feel comfortable shopping around the proto-vision. When you shop around the proto-vision, you have numerous one-on-one or small-group conversations about the proto-vision with as many people with different viewpoints as is feasible. Again, this is often hard for new leaders, who think they have to be the single resource of all wisdom. More seasoned leaders are eager to do this, as the act of shopping around the vision sets the foundation for a shared vision. It also makes the vision stronger, as it roots out biases arising from a single point of view.

Finally, the initial vocalized reason for the redesign is often not a good vision. Let’s say you redesign because your navigation system isn’t scalable. That’s the pain-point that kicks off the work, but is that a guiding force to lead you to a great product? You’ll need to deconstruct “our navigation isn’t scalable” into “we offer the greatest collection of independent movies in the world, easy to find, easy to watch, easy to share” (for example).

Look both ways

Let’s assume, for whatever reason, you will be shaping the shared vision. Maybe you are the leader, or maybe the leader hasn’t provided enough of a vision to make you confident in your project, and you are going to lend a hand shaping the vision. To shape the proto-vision into a vision, you’ll need to do some interviewing. I usually select the people who will help me shape a vision using a few criteria: domain expertise, intelligence, system thinkers and open-mindedness. I always do these in one-on-one discussions. This avoids group think, and I find I can help people speak more honestly if there isn’t any sort of audience. The conversation covers three topics: looking backward, looking forward, and finally, the protovision.

To look backward, I find it useful to use Peter Senge’s Five Why’s. This is a very simple technique in which you ask why, and when you get a response, you ask why again. It helps you move from specific issues to uncovering larger underlying problems.

For example, let’s say you are the head of user research:
Me: Why do you think we should do a redesign?
You: Because people can’t find anything.
Me: Why can’t they find anything?
You: The navigation isn’t intuitive.
Me: Why isn’t it intuitive?
You: We didn’t do any user research when we designed it, just usability after.
Me: Why is that?
You: Well, our budget was cut…
Me: Oh? (which is what I say when I’m tired of “why”…)
You: Well, the company doesn’t seem to value getting user feedback.

From this short conversation, I’ve learned several things. The user researcher thinks findability is a key problem, and he thinks research would help, and he feels we don’t invest in it. I can return to any of the places where I asked way, and take a different branch to find out more. I could ask “What makes you think the site isn’t intuitive” to learn more about the site problems, I could ask more about “Why you thought that usability wasn’t enough,” or could continue digging out why the company doesn’t think user research is important or I can spend another five whys finding out if user feedback is valuable and why. To be thorough, I’d probably dig through them all.

I’ll finish up the conversation by asking many of the classic pre-design questions, which allows me to look forward: why are we doing this design now? What are the opportunities? What will make this project a success? What would success look like?

Later, when I walk through my notes, I’ll be trying to find the concrete problems and positive aspirations. The concrete problems will go into my redesign plan, the positive aspirations are fuel for the vision. My sets of questions would probably lead me to moments of both: “Our site isn’t easy enough to use—our users say they want to be able to find and rent a movie quickly, because they are often doing it at work.” From here speed and ease arise. “Our users are sick of all the blockbusters they can get at the local store; they want to find movies they’ve never seen before.” From here comprehensiveness or unique collections arise as an aspiration.

As you get to your fifth and sixth conversations, you’ll find you start to have a more defined set of aspirations for your proto-vision which you can use as foil for your discussions:
Me: Do you think we need to offer access to every movie on the net?
You (business leader): No, I think we are positioning ourselves as an alternative to Netflix—it’s more critical to be comprehensive on independent movies.
Me: Hmm—can you tell me more? (another why alternative)
You: It’s an underserved market—we can build our strengths there before trying to get share from the big guys.
Me: What does it take to satisfy this market?
You: Better talk to Sally in research, if I recall right she said it’s going to take 500,000 films to appear useful.
Me: With so many films, how can anyone find anything?
You: Well, that’s your problem…
Me: But it needs solving? You think we need to make sure the site is easy to use?
You: You bet—we’ve got to satisfy this market; they influence others.

I’ve now gotten a more senior individual to voice his belief that a large selection that is easy to access, is a goal critical to the redesign. Even though his original kickoff to the redesign might have been about navigation, he has now revealed and/or bought into the larger vision to provide user satisfaction, built on ease of access and selection.

You may think this technique is a consultant’s tool, but even though I’m in-house, I still go forward asking these questions. Just because I think I know the answers doesn’t mean my answers are right. Let’s say I thought we planned to offer every movie ever made—I’d discover I was wrong. Moreover, these conversations tie us together in our inquiry, giving us an infrastructure of shared knowledge that will lead to shared vision.

These conversations can be quite delicate and require one to have a certain amount of skill in interviewing. It’s critical you do not lead the conversations with your ideas and that when you introduce elements of your proto-vision you are doing so in a way that tests the concepts and builds shared vision, rather than trying to get a quick buy-in (which will bite you in the patootie later). User researchers are excellent in subtle interviewing techniques; if you haven’t got the skills, you may want to go to a researcher for coaching, take a class or read a book (some resources listed below).

Digest, and articulate

At the end of each conversation, you have hopefully noticed some common themes. If you didn’t, you went through your notes and pulled them out. Then you took the themes to the next conversation, as you worked your way across disciplines and up and down the hierarchy. Maybe there have been three conversations, maybe there are ten, maybe they were all a tidy hour, maybe some of them were five minutes in the cafeteria…but you should now have what you need. You have a collection of critical aspirations for the site.

Now take a pass with your user base. In the past, I’ve successfully used a variation of an older technique which involves word-importance. You take a set of 100 words/two word phrases that represent qualities of products you offer and have a larger sample of users pick ten to fifteen of the ones that matter to a (mail, shopping, research) site. For each product, replace some of the words in your standard list with ones that are relevant to the product—in this case, your redesign. For example, a news site might need the word authoritative, a personals site might replace that with warm. Next you ask the users to rank them in order of importance. When you analyze this survey, you should see five words rise to the top—these will become touchstones for your work. You can also later use these words at the end of a usability evaluation (on a scale of 1-5 how authoritative was this site?) or to test visual comps in surveys. At Yahoo!, we print them and hang them in our war rooms to provide focus.

Once you have the words from users, and the interviews, you can see if they don’t match. God help you if they are completely different. Odds are good, though, there will be a fair amount of overlap, and a bit of nudging will ferret out a set of final qualities, valued by business thatusers also aim for. If time is an issue, you can do this at the same time you are still conducting interviews. If you don’t have access to large user numbers, I recommend skipping this exercise and using a different concept testing technique. And shocking as it may be, you may not get to have user input at all—in this case, hold as many interviews, with as many folks as you can, and include a few target users by going to the mall or asking questions on web bulletin boards. Honestly, you may even find you are forced to begin to design with the final vision unformed…it happens. But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t continue to push toward a vision: a vision coalesced halfway through a redesign is still better than no vision.

Now take the time to articulate the complex vision made up of proto-vision and the user and business knowledge you are holding in your head into a simple vision—preferably one sentence. This will be hard, it’s almost like creating a mission statement. However, it’s not a vision for a whole company, so don’t kill yourself. Just get to a simple, clear sentence or phrase that is the essence of what you are striving to accomplish. I’ve seen redesigns driven by even the simplest set of words, provided they are the right words. What is critical, is that it captures the essence of what you hope to accomplish, collectively.

Market the vision

Now that you have your vision seed, you are going to do almost the opposite of what you have been doing. So far you’ve taken as many diverse elements as possible and boiled them down to the essence. Now you have to take that essence and make it accessible for the folks who will hear your vision. You have to articulate what that vision means—for example, if fast is a part of the vision, it’s worth it to clearly articulate that you mean, fast loading (for engineers to concentrate on optimizing on the server-side and designers to avoid graphics) , the illusion of fast downloading (for your web developers, so they can look into things like progressive rendering) and fast-to-scan (for your designers, to concentrate on clarity).

Next you need to market this eloquent vision. Some potential forms for this include:

  • PowerPoint presentations: The first sentence of the vision is the first slide, and then you go on to explain what the meaning of the vision is, what the aspects of the vision are, why this is the right vision and what it takes to get to it.
  • Posters: We’ve used posters as a great tool to keep the vision in front of our eyes as we work. The poster consists of a simple strong image capturing the essence of the vision, with words or phrases elaborating the vision around it.

    Simpler than a poster, you can print out the vision statement in a large font and hang it up in every cube, in every meeting room, and in the war room.

  • Memes: These are catchy phrases that hold a single key concept. You use them while reviewing work to hold the work accountable to the vision. If an aspect of the vision is speed, embodied in a fast download, then a meme might be “Every pixel has a job to do.” A catchy phrase is a godsend for keeping everyone focused…if you’ve got someone on your team with a talent for a turn of phrase, use them. If your memes are catchy enough, they’ll be internalized and every act of creation will be in context of these simple instantiations of the vision.

Not only do these techniques communicate the vision to those who did not help create it, but also act as a reminder of a shared vision to those who did. In the hectic day-to-day madness that accompanies any large project, reminders of a shared vision are invaluable.

In praise of vision

In a redesign, a vision can be the difference between a clear, cohesive design and a hodgepodge of various stakeholders’ urges. In the worst case, it can produce a work so inferior to the original that months are lost when the work is scrapped. Or it’s launched and customers flee in droves.

In our working life, there are many things we do without a vision. And we do the work like a zombie, without our heart, or we do it passionately, but at odds with the larger goals of the company. But if we incorporate vision into our work, our work is more targeted, more effective and more meaningful. A status report becomes a tale of getting closer to a dream; a banner ad becomes a promise of delight to a customer that is fulfilled upon a website visit.

This is just a simplified version of the techniques my colleagues and I have used to capture a vision to ensure a successful design process—you are welcome to expand, embellish, reduce and streamline it for your own purposes. Just remember: the vision must be clear, meaningful and shared. A top-down vision that is not owned and internalized by all members of the team is not a vision at all, but a wish.

And if wishes were horses…


  1. Wow! First in with a comment. Well here goes…

    Cultural change:
    To make a design shift, EVERYONE needs to make a cultural shift – no matter how small. Yes it’s about sharing a vision, but it’s also about agreeing strategy between all the different internal gangs and factions. Being able to articulate the ‘what’s in it for them/us’ factor with a chameleon like temperament – that’s what is needed here. Brush up on your persuasion engineering techniques and remember, a metaphor, word or phrase are far easier to transport than a 200 page specification.

    People are molecules:
    Pixel-shifters need to be skilled up beyond gaining ‘buy-in’, bean-counters need to spend time intrigued by the pixel-shifters, and big-pitch marketeers need to see all of the rainbow and not just the pot at the end. Create deliberate opportunities to mix them all up, get their DNA rubbing together, proud to talk up their part in the equation. Intensive Workshops are ideal for this and a great opportunity to design/create your people formula. You need to turn opinions into attitude – so, away from the comfort of their own gangs, try to manoeuvre folks into showing traits and interactions that are new for them.

    Match the gears:
    Designers (and re-designitects) should be aware that as their design gears are notching up to high speed torque, other areas such as technology and marketing have only just started up their engine. Avoid nasty sparks and grinding of relationships by thinking about this at all times.

    Co-create not procrastinate:
    Make sure your professional chops are up to scratch. Don’t design without rationale and be able to articulate this anytime about anything. Test, test and test. Get some statistics to reinforce your professionalism and design ethic. Document and styleguide your decisions and designs. Accurately specify time on that project plan,, and bring it when you said. Understand everybody’s part in the process from cleaner to coder. If you’re manging others, watch them – how are they bearing up?

    Share the threat:
    Finally, a strong commercial imperative such as urgent market pressure or the cost of NOT doing a project can bring out the old Blitz torn Londoner in anyone. All in it together; “…it’s not just about why we should do something, it’s about what happens if we don’t”. Spend time with the darkside then put a positive spin on to it.

    A great article – thanks.

  2. Thank you for a brief glimpse into the methodology of building consensus amongst the stakeholders. “Vision” is an easy word to loft around the board room, but, as you illustrate, there is a practical application hinging on defining the central idea guiding a project, lest the participants scurry around building components that work badly together and ultimately reinforce the status quo social structure within the enterprise while adding chaos.

    More specifically, as Brendan suggests spending some time on the dark side, here are a couple of speed bumps that may doom a project from inception. 1) Ego and 2) Panic.

    Ego refers to the inability for leaders or senior staff to accept input from the troops and often results in a facelift rather than a redesign, as much as imagination is suppressed in favor of bowing to the “ancestral” corporate mission statement from which the existing design was derived. e.g. “Add some nice graphics but don’t change the basic structure or content, for fear of dishonoring the leaders who approved it in the first place.”

    Panic refers to the tendency of organizations to come to the realization that the current design is not effective and open themselves up to trendy but useless elements in a desperate attempt to remain or become relevant. e.g. Pull any number of brochures out of last year’s trade show goody bag, throw it over the developer’s cube wall with a note that says “I want this!” regardless of suitability and cost.

    Two small notions:

    As much as any design project requires some modicum of behavioral analysis, it might be appropriate to bring the intended audience into the process earlier in the visioning cycle. A vision is most effective when it agrees with the public archetype inherent in the line of business. Do this by shopping the competition and mining each and every interaction with a customer for direct and indirect feedback. Define the ideal, then become that.


    Consider refraining from use of the term “redesign” and try to educate a client to view the project as a new invention. The result will be fresher and may stimulate a greater acceptance of change rather than a “keep-or-toss” feature inventory.

    Thank you for a stimulating article.

  3. Thanks Christina, this is a very good article that addresses the issue of aligning the effort of a team around a vision. Rare is the project now that the designer can be the benevolent dictator. The complexity of the things we need to build today require people from different disciplines to work together toward a common goal. Getting those people to work together creatively but in the same direction is a far more challenging problem than most organizations realize. I’ve used and advocated the idea of a project war-room for this purpose, to enable shared artifacts to be displayed, to help everyone keep in mind the 50,000 foot view while still working on the details.

    In addition to the resources already mentioned, one of the best articles I’ve read regarding aligning teams around concpets was this HBR article, The Power of Product Integrity by Kim B. Clark; Takahiro Fujimoto

  4. Vision is a tough snowball to pack.

    I absolutely agree with the concept of inclusion and collaboration, on all levels, to further the buy-in and traction of a project. It’s just a fine line to tow, and the line shifts daily depending on the make-up/experience of the team and/or size of the project.

    We, by default as designers, tend to lean towards working in the mode of the auteur when building/sharing vision. It’s the core response to the art of creation; whether you’re an illustrator, scultptor or graffiti artist. But if there’s a few skills a sucessful ux designer must evolve to hold, is the wisdom to: listen, give, share and play nice.

    Christina, you did a great job of explaining that in the language of adult. Now I just need to brand that reminder onto my arm.

Comments are closed.