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How We Write a Product Vision

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Every software project we work with is started from a Product Vision document. We create it during our Thinking phase. Even though the document is as short as two pages of English text, its development is the most painstaking task in the whole project.

There are a few tricks and recommendations which I'd like to share.

We usually design a Product Vision in four sections: product statement, stakeholders and needs, features, and quality requirements.

Product Statement

Product Statement is a one-paragraph declaration of intent, explaining to an absolute stranger what this product is about and what it is for. It is very similar to an elevator pitch. The Statement must answer these questions, preferably in this specific order:

  1. Who is the customer?
  2. What does she want?
  3. What is the market offering now?
  4. What is wrong with existing offers?
  5. How will our product fix this?

You should answer all these questions in less than 60 words altogether. If you need more words, something is wrong with your understanding of the product under development. If you can answer them in 20 words, your product will conquer the world.

By the way, don't confuse a Product Statement with a Mission, which is a much broader declaration of an overall goal of your business. You may have a hundred products but only a single mission. For example, Disney says that its mission is: "to make people happy". They've got hundreds of products that help them accomplish this mission. And each product has its own Product Statement.

I find these articles helpful: The Product Vision, Agile Artifacts: The Product Vision Statement, The Art of Agile Development: Vision.

Stakeholders and Needs

This section must list everybody whose life will be affected by the product (positively or negatively). Your list of stakeholders may include: sponsors, developers, users, competitors, government, banks, web hosting providers, Apple Store, hackers, etc.

It is very important to list both positive and negative stakeholders. If your product is going to automate some routine manual operations, don't forget that someone will be made redundant because of it. No matter how "good" your product is, there is always an "evil" side. The invention of the iPhone made millions of people happy, but also caused a lot of trouble for Nokia and Blackberry. An eventual invention of a cancer vaccine will make millions of people healthier, but will also make thousands of oncologists jobless. My point is that any project has both positive and negative stakeholders.

Each stakeholder must have a list of needs. They have to be simple and straight forward, like "earn money", "increase profit", "share photos", or "host a website".

I would recommend defining one or two needs for each stakeholder. If there are more than three, think again—do you really understand what your stakeholders need?

Your project will be considered successful if you satisfy all the needs of all your positive stakeholders and neutralize negative ones.

This Stakeholder Needs and Requirements article from SEBOK will be helpful.

Actors and Features

In this section we list actors (entities communicating with the product) and the key functionalities they use. This is the most abstract definition of functional requirements of the product. It doesn't need to be detailed. Instead, it has to be very high-level and abstract. For example, this is how our interaction with a well-known product may be described in two lines:

User can post tweets, read tweets of his friends,
  follow new friends and re-tweet their tweets.

Is it clear for a stranger what we're talking about here? Absolutely not—what is a "tweet", what does it mean to "follow" and what is a "re-tweet"? These questions have no answers in the Product Vision document, but it's clear that a user will have four main features available. All other features will be similar to those.

Twitter is a multi-billion dollar business with a multi-million dollar product. However, we managed to explain its key features in just two lines of text. You should do the same with your product. If you can't fit all its features into just two-three lines, reconsider your understanding of the product you're going to develop. Also, read about "feature bloat dilemma".

Each actor must have at least three and at most six features. If there are more, you should group them somehow. If there are less, break them into smaller and more detailed features.

Quality Requirements

This section lists all important non-functional requirements. Any product may have hundreds of quality requirements, as well as hundreds of features. However, a Product Vision document must be focused on the most important ones. Consider some examples:

Any web page must open in less than 300ms.
Total cost of ownership must be less than $5000/mo.
Mobile app must be tailored for 10+ popular screen sizes.
Mean time to recover must be less than 2 hours.
DB must be scalable up to 5Tb without cost increases.

It is also very important to keep requirements measurable (like each of these examples). Every line in this section is a message to product developers. They will read this document in order to understand what is most important to the sponsor of the project. For example, these quality requirements are useless: "user interface must be attractive", "web site must be fast" or "the system must be stable". They are not measurable or testable. All they do is distract developers. If you can't make a strict and measurable statement about your quality objectives, don't write anything. It's better to say nothing than set false or ambiguous goals here.

Try to keep this section short. There should be six quality requirements, at most.

Remove Noise

Every section must be no more than twenty lines in length. Even if you're developing a Google killer with a $50 million dollar budget, your Vision document must be as short as two pages.

For most of my clients this is a very complex and brain damaging task. They usually come to us with a 50-page document explaining their business ideas with all the important details. From this document, we should only extract information that really makes a difference.

The Product Vision document must keep its reader on the highest level of abstraction. The document must take less than a minute to read, from start to finish.

If you can't keep it short—you don't understand your product well enough.

Example

Here is an example of a very simple Product Vision for a Facebook killer:

Statement
  Facebook doesn't allow users to purchase "likes",
  our social network will have this.

Stakeholders and Needs
  Sponsor: to raise investments.
  Developer: to earn money by programming.
  Users: to share photos and purchase popularity.
  Bank: to make commission on every purchase.
  Government: to protect society against abusive content.
  Competitors: to wipe us off the market.

Actors and Features
  User can create account, upload photos, share photos,
    send personal messages, like other photos, purchase likes.
  Admin can ban user accounts, view summary reports, authorize
    credit card transactions, configure system parameters,
    monitor server resource usage.
  Bank can process credit card transactions.

Quality Requirements
  Any page must open in less than 300ms.
  User interface must be attractive and simple.
  Availability must be over 99.999%.
  Test coverage must be over 80%.
  Development pipeline must be fully automated.
  Interfaces must include web site and iOS/Android app.

Diplomacy

We follow all these recommendations in our projects, in teamed.io. You can use them in your projects as well, but keep in mind that the process of defining a Product Vision could be very painful. You may sometimes offend a client by over-simplifying their "great" business idea. "Really? I am ready to pay $250,000 for something awesome and you're telling me that you've only got ten lines for it? Huh?"

To work around this situation, split the client's documentation into two parts. The first part will fit into the Product Vision document; the second one will be called "supplementary documentation" and will contain all that valuable information you've got from the client. You may use that documentation later, during the course of product development.

But don't cut corners. Don't allow your client (or anyone else) to force you to bloat the Product Vision. The document has to be very short and explicit.

No lyrics, only statements.

PS. On top of all this we place a Glossary.