When an opportunity has been identified or a new proposition is put forward, the potential wrapped up in it can be hard to comprehend, especially if it’s moving the organisation in new directions. It’s common for leadership teams to reject a new opportunity simply because they can’t invest in something they don’t fully understand.
Vision visuals are created to bring key characteristics of a service’s vision to life. Each visual, prototype or animatic is used to communicate a different aspect of the vision by weighting the presentation of those characteristics in different ways.
Vision visuals are a discreet component of our design process whose role is to overcome that uncertainty by bringing strategic concepts to life in the form of visualisations and illustrative prototypes. Their role is to help define and communicate the new proposition realistically to key audiences, long before any detailed requirements, user stories or delivery specifications are defined.
They require a very specific approach to the design process and a design role that doesn’t fit into any of the traditional boxes (more on that another time).
Visualising the future.
Vision visuals are simply illustrative representations of the future state of a new service proposition — a future state that could be months or years away. Think of them as visualisations of strategic intent. They enable the team to show what their thinking will mean in practice.
As a result, we need to tackle them as a discreet type of design activity. The aim, unlike at latter stages of the process, is not to create an optimal solution; it’s to tell a story by visualising key ideas and core components of the proposition in a realistic form.
We typically end up with a small set of high-fidelity screens and scenarios that capture the core characteristics of the service strategy. We ‘nod’ to key features, manipulate layouts to accentuate key ideas or strategic components, accentuate areas that help to tell the service’s story and downplay or remove those that don’t.
It’s all about doing enough to get ideas across and build common understanding. The process is rapid and the outputs look ‘real’. The example above is for a new machine-intelligence powered story verification service that we conceived for Associated Press: the visualisations were used to help successfully gain Google DNI funding and inform the technology selection and specification process.
The importance of being visual.
Traditionally, new ideas were presented to an organisation’s leadership in the form of business cases, analyses and financial models. We still use (albeit more modern versions of) these in service innovation programmes today. Commercial substance and rationale remain critically important parts of putting any initiative forward for investment — but if you want genuine enthusiasm and commitment to back up the logic, they’re not enough.
People get excited when they can see what the future could look like, and they’ll invest more confidently if they can see others excited about it too.
We typically talk about four key benefits to vision visuals in our work:
1. They get stakeholders on the same page.
A lack of understanding and alignment will stall a brilliant initiative faster than any lack of detail ever will.
Vision visuals ensure that stakeholders, often with diverse experiences, roles and mental models, can quickly build common understanding of the strategic intent of a new proposition, make valuable contributions to it, and, crucially, want to see it progress.
2. They make strategic ambition evident to everyone.
A common challenge for organisations going through digital transformation or innovation programmes is to be able to demonstrate what the new version of good looks like.
By capturing the future ambition in visual form, everyone across an organisation can see and understand why the organisation is doing all the hard work it’s doing to change and adapt. It allows them to invest fully in the process and contribute positively to achieving its objectives. It can make a statement about future brand ambition, how a new positioning will become real, and how current investments will pay off.
3. They help to move past legacy.
Leaving legacy behind is hard. It’s incredibly difficult to get people to let go of the past until they can see a way to achieve something better.
Vision visuals, more than any other storytelling tool we have available to us, empower people to relinquish their hold on the status quo. Being able to easily place themselves in the future experience allows people to let go of what until then was an essential part of their current version of the world.
4. It helps to mitigate risk.
This is a big one. Risks emerge when there is a lack of cohesion across multi-functional teams. When there is no common vision or ambition, things go wrong.
Vision visuals play a key role in communicating the ‘why?’ and ‘what?’ of any new initiative, alongside other key strategic materials. They become a thing that everyone can point to to ask “will this help us achieve that?”. That simple frame of reference enables better planning and prioritisation, reducing risk at every stage.
A sacrificial step in the design process.
It’s not unknown for key stakeholders to fall in love with this visualised future state, and while gaining leadership support and commitment is a key reason to create them, it also demands a little expectation management. We frame them as an illustration of the vision: a design target that should never be reached exactly — because as any new concept moves into detailed design and delivery many practical decisions need to be made, and further learnings from customers incorporated.
In fact, one of the most important aspects of visualising a vision is a recognition that this work will not be progressed directly into the eventual service or product experience. Take the example above — part of the original digital visioning work we did for the NHS. It illustrates a future state NHS website as an anchor for a broader explanation of the strategy (including features that are designed to fuel debate) — but would never be taken to market in that form.
It’s a critical mindset to adopt when undertaking the work: try too hard to solve the problem or tackle too much detail and the designer will fail at achieving the aims of the work in hand.
If we’ve done our job well, the influences from this work will be evident in the final experience, but it should always be considered a specific output — a sacrificial one — that helps the broader process succeed.
This is a challenging and highly creative part of the broader design process. The design team is tasked with converting early — and often quite challenging — thinking into realistic outputs. It demands the confident application of a broad range of skills, from brand language to UI design, with an underlying appreciation of what’s possible and what’s likely to resonate with target audiences.
Much of my own work involves the creation of vision visuals and we’ve worked hard for many years to build the skills in our team to make the process of creating them a core part of our work. On many occasions I’ve seen them deliver the ‘aha!’ moment when the full potential of the concept is understood by a broader business or leadership team.
In my next article I’ll discuss the new type of design role this has created and why it’s so different from many traditional areas of brand/UX/UI design.