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Creating A Digital Product Vision That Doesn’t Suck

Creating a digital product vision that doesn’t suck

“You see that in Instagram. It’s not a technology triumph. It’s a design and psychology triumph.” – Clifford Nass

Instagram started with an uninspiring product vision, one that likely would have weighed it down and kept it from achieving mass success. In March of 2010, the co-founders of Burbn (the original name of their project) decided their vision for the product wouldn’t work because it was too close to Foursquare. They needed to pivot.

After seeing the amazing photo quality of the iPhone 4 and paying close attention to what users were doing. Sawyer noticed that users were “posting and sharing photos like crazy” while the rest of the app was largely unused. This was the pivot point; they knew what they needed to do. Burbn became Instagram and it would be the platform for taking, sharing, and organizing photos from your smartphone. This product vision was compelling, inspiring, and definitely didn’t suck.

We all know how Instagram’s story ends. But, the more important question is what digital product owners can learn from it?

What is a digital product vision?

A product vision contains the problem or need that you’re going to solve for humans. The core of a product vision has less to do with your solution and more to do with the problem you want to solve, and what your target market will be able to do when you solve it. By comparison, a product strategy is the way you’re going to win at solving that problem.

Once you’ve identified this problem, there’s a critical ideation step. As a product team, you need to identify viable solutions to the problem you plan to solve, test low-fidelity versions of these solutions, and choose an initial concept that’s likely to work. Having this potential solution is the other component of your product vision and its role is critical in fully defining what you’re going to do.

With the problem you’re solving as your basis and a potential solution in mind, you can start to flesh out the product vision by answering a few questions:

  • What could the product trajectory look like over the next 3-5 years?
  • How can we start to achieve the product vision today (even if it’s just in a small way)?
  • What steps do we need to take tactically to achieve our product vision?
  • How can we inspire our team, partners, and customers to innovate on the product vision?

Why is it so important to answer these questions? Think of your product vision as an architect’s rendering. This rendering is made to help everyone imagine how the building will look once it’s done, but the rendering isn’t a blueprint and it won’t help you make the building a reality. You need to turn it into plans and blueprints.

Similarly, a product vision won’t help you build anything. Instead, it will give direction to your digital product roadmap and will ensure that you don’t build the wrong thing. Because, building the wrong thing is the true risk in digital product development.

Setting the right vision for your digital product


Sophia logo, with large capital letters and a rainbow floral design.


A good product vision is inspiring, exciting, and difficult, but not impossible. At its core, every product vision should meet these requirements. What does this look like in practice?

In 2009, we created a startup called Sophia that was later acquired by Capella Education 3 years later. The vision for this product was really straightforward. It was simply: “What if there were 30 teachers for every student instead of 30 students for every teacher?”

Of course, a product vision needs to go a little bit deeper. You need to be sure that you’re pursuing a viable opportunity. You can verify this by asking yourself these three questions:

  1. Is the problem worth solving?
  2. Are we the right people to solve it?
  3. What are we willing to do to solve it?

An uninspiring product vision will make itself obvious. It won’t give people the belief that they need to solve the problem no matter what. An uninspiring vision will be rooted in the solution, not the problem you’re solving.

Why you need to start thinking about your product vision now

Instagram quickly realized that it was building the wrong solution and adjusted its product vision. This pivot allowed Instagram to create alignment around the product for its team, its investors, and its users. When you start on your product vision early, it ensures alignment across your organization and prevents you from building the wrong solution. Within hours relaunching after their pivot, they had acquired more users than they had in their entire first year.

Establishing a product vision will improve your chances of turning your vision into a fully-formed product and ensure that the right ideas are used. This helps your team connect new ideas with the right vision instead of seeing them as a threat to your core business.

A great product vision not only ensures alignment, it ensures commitment. This is a commitment to help, to believe in, fund, and design; a great product vision compels people to commit. It takes inspiration for this to happen and this inspiration is key in any fast-growing business.

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