Product Leadership Marty Cagan

The Power of Visiontypes

Recently I was invited by my friends at DesignMap to discuss the topic of product vision, and one of the more popular ways of communicating a product vision, which is to use a visiontype (a prototype of a product vision).

If you would like to watch the webinar (about 60 min), you can find the recording here.

The topic of product vision has always generated a lot of questions, mainly because the term is used very loosely by many people in different contexts.  A while ago I published a Product Vision FAQ that tries to address many of the most common questions.

A couple of days after recording that webinar, I met someone that tried to argue to me that Apple was “an extremely successful company even though they didn’t know how to innovate.”

I wasn’t sure I was hearing this correctly.  The person went on to point out how in the early days of Apple, Steve Jobs got a demo at Xerox PARC (the renown Palo Alto Research Center) of an early desktop computer with a graphical user interface, and he “just copied that.”

Let me just say that anyone that thinks someone can see a demo of a prototype, and then “just copy that” on an entirely different computer and ecosystem, into an actual viable product, has likely never tried to build a product before.  But I realized that this confusion could be a good teachable moment.

What I do believe happened, is that the PARC demo inspired Steve Jobs’ product vision for what a desktop computer could be.  

The power of a compelling visiontype is that it helps you to imagine a future that could be, if only you could discover how to make that vision a reality.

I was working as an engineer at HP Laboratories during this time (we were a short walk from PARC), and our team also received demos from PARC engineers (and likewise we showed our prototypes to them).

The PARC visits inspired our team as well (along with other impressive experimental prototypes from MIT’s Media Lab, the University of Utah Graphics Lab, and Brown University, among others), and not too long afterwards our lab director / product leader announced a new product vision which he termed “the domesticated computer.”

I was one of many working on that product vision for several years, and I absolutely believed we were working on something truly important and worthy.  

As it turns out, we had bet on early AI technology that we realized too late was not nearly ready for productization (very big understatement), while Apple made much better choices on their enabling technology.  Falling in love with an enabling technology rather than the problem to solve was one of my early and painful lessons on product.

But the point is that the number of true innovations, both large and small, required to convert that product vision into product reality would take entire books to describe.

Moreover, while there’s a bit of problem discovery that goes into a strong product vision, the vast majority of the product discovery work and hence innovation comes after the product vision, and is mainly solution discovery and of course product delivery.

The researchers at PARC did create an impressive and inspiring visiontype, but Xerox never had the company leadership skills, or the product leadership skills, to productize that research.

Apple was the first to discover and deliver this vision as an actual product.  And providing value to your customers and your company is what innovation is all about.  

This example also serves to highlight both the advantages and the risks of publicly sharing your product vision.  If you are trying to recruit employees and partners to join you in your pursuit of your product vision, then there are real benefits to sharing your vision.

But if you don’t have the ability to discover and deliver the actual products, then don’t be surprised if someone else ends up being the one that delivers on your product vision.  There is a long history of this happening in our industry.

If you’re interested, courtesy of the Computer History Museum, you can watch a demo of (a restored) Xerox Alto, where you’ll see what Steve Jobs and others saw in 1979: a very early desktop computer, with a mouse, a graphical user interface, local area networking, and even an early WYSIWYG editor and email application.  

For its time, the Alto was a powerful example of a compelling and inspiring vision of what the future could be.