Ideas of March; a shared vision

This blog post is inspired by friend and colleague, Chris Shiflett and his ‘Ideas of March‘. Chris suggests that we blog a little bit more than normal this month. Simply to remind us why blogs are so great. I’m reminded that blogs are great for sharing ideas that are incubating, formed or final. By sharing ideas, we start discussions and come together as a community. I’m putting an idea out there earlier than I normally would. In the hope that people see value in the idea. Come together and we solve the problem raised, as a community.

Shared vision

A shared vision is something that successful companies have in common. Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ stated their vision for the iPod was – “to make it so simple that people would actually use it”.

You’ll notice that this statement is different from statements we’re used to from companies. That’s because this is not a mission statement. It’s an Experience Vision. An all too seldom used User Experience Design (UX) technique. Simply, it’s a clear statement defining the experience people will have with the site or product. Experience visions are the guiding force behind sites and products we love. They help sites stay on track, avoid feature creep and remain user focused. They have the added benefit of bringing people working on the site together.

The iPod experience vision works because it’s all these things:

  1. Simple – short and easy to understand
  2. Achievable – within reach in the near future
  3. Measurable – against decisions to be made
  4. Transferable – easy to get across to others, even when you’re not there
  5. Memorable – sticks in people’s mind
  6. General – so as to be relevant to everyone
  7. User focused – talks from the users, not the companies point of view
  8. Informed – based on an understanding of what’s important to users
  9. Motivational – rather than aspirational or even inspirational
  10. Clear – using common language, not business speak

Here are other experience visions:

  • Kodak – “You click, we do the rest”
  • – “Wake up happy”
  • Death cab for cutie – ‘To write songs that make people feel the thing that makes them want to hear it again’
  • Virgin Media TV service – “Simple, stable and fast”

Why is an experience vision important?

Visions are nothing new. Theater, religion, business and the military have used them successfully for centuries. A good experience vision is the guiding force behind many of the sites we love. As designers, they give us a target to aim for. A clear definition of the experience people will have with the site, keep us focused on what’s important, the people who use the site. I was reminded of the importance of focus by Aral Balkan’s in his excellent talk ‘Beyond Usability on Mobile’ at The Big M conference. Aral said that common sense is dangerous and what’s needed is focus on the user. An experience vision brings that focus. They’re also important in the design of sites because:

  • They help bring the project team together, no matter how dispersed people are
  • Are the glue in an Agile process
  • Keep people focused on who’s important – the users
  • Enable design to be tangential not linear
  • Help manage complexity and make choices
  • Aid collaboration with colleagues, other companies and clients
  • Bring a consistent experience across platforms

A vision keeps us on target













A shared lack of vision

So, why are many sites suffering from a shared lack of vision? Why is this technique under utilised and how, as UX professionals, can we breath life back into it? There are four fundamental reasons why experience visions are under utilised. All four the responsibility of UX community to solve together:

  1. It’s unclear what they are or are called – what
  2. The benefits are not clearly articulated – why
  3. Designing them isn’t easy and how to apply them is unclear – how
  4. They’re not built into the design process, so it’s unclear when to use them – when

As part of ‘Ideas of March‘ I’d like to breath life back into the experience vision as a valuable technique. Starting by blogging to raise awareness of the technique and the issues it faces. Hopefully, in turn starting a discussion in the UX community. Working together, we can then solve the issues facing the experience vision. Helping this technique take pride of place in the tool kit of UX professionals. As it already does in my and other designer’s tool kits. We can learn from others. Our counterparts working in the area of brand have been successfully envisioning brands for decades, for example.

Apart from a lack of clarity on what an experience vision is and an industry standard, there are other reasons why sites suffer from a shared lack of vision. Creating a good vision isn’t easy. If something isn’t envisioned, then how is it going to happen? Great sites don’t just happen, they’re planned. Starting with an idea. Followed by a vision. Brought to life through a detailed plan for how the vision will be delivered.

Here are some other reason why sites lack an experience vision:

  • Expressing the core in a vision isn’t easy, simplicity is never the easiest
  • Complexity clouds focus
  • Over time, even the best sites can lose focus
  • Lack of insight of the people who use the site
  • Site focused on other things, like technology

Got one in mind

If you think you haven’t got an experience vision for your project or site, look closer. Everyone has an idea of the experience they want people to have on a site. It may not have been synthesised and expressed yet. Talking to people about their projects, I often hear that they don’t have an experience vision. Then I hear the same words or concepts being repeated to explain how they imagine people using the site. There you have it. A sometimes rough, other times polished version of the experience vision.

If you have a vision and it’s not working for you, then consider the attributes of the Apple vision and how they apply to yours. Here are some other reason why your vision may be failing:

  • Fiction not fact
  • Set too early in the project, when not enough is known
  • Tries to be perfect, lets face it, perfection is not always achievable
  • Uses business speak and not natural language
  • Not shared across the people on the project
  • Lacks buy in from other key people
  • No one to bang the drum, every vision needs a champion
  • Focus on technical innovation rather than the experience for the end user

Join the discussion

These are thoughts from an article soon to be published titled ‘A shared lack of vision’. This article will explain what a vision is in more detail. It will offer a practical guide to finding, expressing and communicating a good experience vision. I’ve used experience visions successfully for many years, for companies big and small. The Virgin Media example ‘Simple, stable, fast’ is one I used to great effect back in 2005. My hope is that, working together, we can standardise this technique. That other UX professionals and designers see its value. Spread the word and share the vision.

Ideas of March

Why not share your thoughts as part of Ideas of March. Join Chris, Drew, Jon, Sean and others that already have.

If you’re still not convinced, read Vitaly Friedman’s excellent piece ‘Dear Web Design Community, Where Have You Gone?‘.


Image: Target bullseye art high school crush from category 2009-05-15/grunge-and-urban-studies


Johnny Holland ‘What is an Experience Strategy

Cindy Chastain Experience Themes – How a storytelling method can help unify teams and create better products. [Slideshare]

Further reading

Making Meaning – Steve Diller, Nathan Shedroff, Darrel Rhea. ISBN 0-321-37409-6

Start with Why – Simon Sinek. ISBN 978-1-59184-280-4

Made to Stick – Chip and Dan Heath. ISNB 978-1-905-21157-9

Posted Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011 under design, User Experience Design, UX.


  1. Great post. Lots to unpack and discuss. I think the key phrase you’ve used is “expressing the core in a vision isn’t easy” (it’s probably an understatement). It’s hard to chip away at all the things you could say to end up with the thing you must say (and that sets you apart). It’s also hard to communicate that vision in a way that teams can understand and focus on. I look forward to the future post on these.

    There’s another side to this that needs discussing also. Holding a vision requires leadership. More than that, a single-minded leadership that measures and checks all ideas against a vision.

    So I’m interested in not just the development of better experience visions, but also the development of better UX leaders within organisations.

  2. True Focus says:

    Beyond “users” in “user experience”, companies should take one more step back in the abstraction and think about “customers”. There’s a whole relationship between companies and customers that becomes embodied in the UX. Your iPod example is indicative of a bigger picture at Apple – they bake the experience into everything (e.g., in the Apple stores, their ads, etc.). It’s not easy to list companies that get it at this level, but I suspect we’ll be seeing a growing number of businesses that are more conscientious of the entire experience (hint: those customers become fanboys, just like they do at Apple). The book “Thank You Economy” by Gary Vaynerchuck explains how customers are regaining control of the conversation through vehicles like Twitter and blogs. So it becomes a powerful sales tool to nail ALL the touchpoints, from the adverts to the website to the customer service hotline.

    Great post – it certainly sparks the imagination and gives insight into a useful framework.

  3. alancolville says:

    Hi Richard! Nice work cutting to the heart of the matter. Indeed the core is most difficult to express. I believe there are techniques, from brand, brainstorming and ux to name a few, we can use to help ‘chip away’ as you nicely put it. This is certainly an area where we, as UX professionals, can share the methods we use. Cindy Chastain {} suggests we start by listing the feelings we wish to evoke. Then listing attributes of these feelings. This list can be reduced by removing system attributes. From there, it’s a matter of priority and order, which is where our IA skills are handy. I’ve used this at times successfully. I’m interested in what works for other people.

    In communicating the vision, having the right folk involved in the creation of the vision is key to buy in. A champion is essential, until the vision is in common use, then less so. In spreading the vision, I think we need to be creative. I used an A4 laser printed poster, with the vision and a screen shot of the site. I put the poster up in the call centres, handling calls about the site. I did this prior to any training of the agents about the site. This worked really well to spread the vision. I believe, the poorer the vision, the harder it is to communicate.

    I’m glad you highlighted leadership, which is very important. Getting senior people involved in the creation of the vision is ideal but not always possible with busy diaries. One-to-one stakeholder interviews can help here. In terms of UX leadership, I suggest that the poorer the vision, the more leadership it needs. The best visions are the ones that people hear, make sense and they take on and evangelise themselves. You know a vision is successful when you hear it back to you by people you’ve not directly handed it to. I once spent six months working with developers on a project. For the first month, I spent my time evaluating their questions against the vision. The next five months, they did it themselves. The vision made my leadership redundant!

    Thanks so much for joining in the discussion!

  4. It’s interesting that some of the example visions you mention are about how users feel (I guess relating to what Cooper would call “experience goals”) and others are more functional. In a way Steve Job’s call to make the iPod simple enough to use is kind of a base line in most UX design these days, I would have thought. But wanting people to “wake up happy” is a little different. Do you think it’s important that the vision talks about how users will feel, or how they will be able to do something, or both?

  5. Your point on an easily articulated vision is important.

    Too often I hear of a vision as ‘We will be number 1 in XXX’ ‘We will be in the top 50% of FTSE companies for user experience’ Both I have heard recently. Defining a vision is about your company not about defining yourself against the competition.

  6. alancolville says:

    Great question Ben! Many variables shape the vision; purpose of the site, time, money, aspiration, capability of the people involved, ambition, processes in place to bring the vision to life, to name but a few. Whether it’s functional or feeling based can be depend on how much these factors positively influence the ability of the site to meet and even exceed the needs of the users.

    A vision, like the site, needs to be designed to meet the needs of its audience. That’s the people working on the site, as well as the people who will use it. In order for the vision to be meaningful, I find it useful to translate Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as it relates to web design. From this hierarchy, functional, reliable and, usable would constitute people’s basic needs. Once lower level needs are met, we design to people’s creative or top level needs. This can be a real help is deciding what type of vision to use. If the vision focuses on this higher level needs, without the ability to deliver the lower level needs, then the vision is unattainable and will fail. This is a common pitfall of experience visions.

    The Virgin Media example I use is functional. It needed to be. Too many of the above factors negatively affected the teams ability to deliver a feelings based, higher level vision. Hence Simple, Stable, Fast. Additionally, this vision was a direct reaction to the legacy system that was in place, which was complicated, unreliable and slow for users.

    So, I think both functional and feeling based visions are important. What’s essential is to ensure the vision is achievable. Firstly by being practical, realistic and aware of what’s possible when setting the vision. Secondly by ensuring that the vision has meaning for its intended audience. These two factors are key to informing whether the vision is functional or feelings based.

  7. alancolville says:

    Well said Joe! While this seems obvious, it’s all too often forgotten.

  8. Great post!
    A thought: “ensuring that the vision has meaning for its intended audience” is hard work but a gift to set out well.
    But what does “being practical, realistic and aware of what’s possible when setting the vision” means exactly… in my experience the Maslow’s hierarchy and meeting the user needs as the lower level abilities is a requirement of design, the basics which allways should be met.

    Or does this mean what is feasable within the organisation, is the organisation ready for a real user centered vision? Can an organisation meet the necessary requirements, like: adapting new roles, processes, ways of thinking within the organisation…? Is an organisation really ready for change?
    All to often this is not the case let alone the design concept presenting the vision can be developed as such.

    Especially nowadays with online experiences being an experience of subtle dialogues (enabled by a complex system of matching) visions arent’t easily put into practice is my experience, but I keep provoking clients to get there;-)

  9. alancolville says:

    Hi Anouschka! By being practical, I mean what is feasible within the organisation, as you correctly identify. A common pitfall of visions is that they are set too far out. So far out, that the company can’t possible reach it. Not without huge changes to the organisation being made, which are not even planned. A vision has to be attainable and feasible. In 3 Steps for Creating an Experience Vision, Jared Spool says “These visions act like a flag stuck into the sand somewhere on the horizon. The team can clearly see the flag, yet it’s far enough away that they won’t reach it any time soon. Because the flag is clearly visible, the team knows if every step they take brings them closer or farther away. If the flag weren’t visible, the team wouldn’t know and could wander off in an undesirable direction”. Reasons for the team not being able to see the flag are:
    – flag is too far away
    – obstacles in the way, like organisation, systems, process, people, service and support, to name but a few

    I hope that in the near future, as a community we can standardise this technique. Make it easier to put visions into practice and avoid any provoking 😉

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