The closing presentation at this month’s UIE Web App Masters Tour in Philadelphia was “Turning Back to the Future” by Jared Spool. In this session, Jared shared how “successful teams learn about what they should design from their future” by having a shared vision. He laid out several guidelines for crafting this vision: identify who’s involved (the “design agents”), conduct your research, craft your personas and scenarios, script and produce how the final product should appear and/or function, and, finally, impress upon the team the vision of the project itself.

One key point Jared made was that the true goal is not the product itself, which he calls the envisionment, but the overall vision of your product: a shared story and a unified perspective. You should be able to ask every member of your team about your project and have them give the same details of your project’s story: its purposes, aspirations, and triumphs. They should be able to describe the current experience of how your product or service is used, the “aspriational experience” (its next stage of evolution), and understand the research that supports both.

This concept of a shared vision, what I’ve been thinking of as a “vision quest” of sorts, has resonated with me the most since the Tour.  I’ve collected some thoughts, based both on my professional experiences and aspects of Jared’s presentation, on what a “vision quest” needs to succeed.

First, you need a knowledgeable and passionate leader. It could be a C-suite executive who serves as the sponsor of the project or the project team lead, but they must have both attributes. They have to be knowledgeable to indicate the overall direction the team needs to travel in, which milestones need to be achieved, and how to motivate the team to reach their destiny effectively and within a reasonable project schedule. They have to be passionate, so that when they rally, guide, instruct, approve, direct, or correct, they are doing so in a way that inspires the team to attack their work with gusto, learn from the challenges they experience along the way, and feel the surge of delight that accompanies a successful project launch. Oh, and they need to be honest; no buzzwords or business speak. Leaders who speak from the heart and are transparent about their efforts are far more compelling to me.

Second, you need a motivated and inspired team. As a team member for my own projects, I am far more compelled to complete a task with flair when it’s something I enjoy, believe in, and feel holds a higher purpose for the users (whoever they may be). Of course, not every facet of a project is going to be candy canes and sunbeams, but that’s where the aforementioned leader can lend their knowledge and passion to motivate and inspire. Keep rallying the team. Keep them informed of their goals. Congratulate them when they’ve achieved their milestones and counsel them through their inevitable challenges. Give each of them the opportunity to research and develop their own innovations by channeling their individual passions and strengths. Think Google and its policy of allowing their developers to pursue their own interests. By giving them the space to explore and expand their own skillsets, it gives them the ability to bring these feats back to the core project and apply their knowledge to the overall vision. Plus, it keeps them happy, which is always key.

Third, you need a clear and ambitious vision. I’m fully aware that most folks don’t think of the words “inspiration” or “destiny” when working on quarterly strategic objectives and their ilk. But they can and should. This is where the concept of a vision can be stilted or stunted. You hear about corporations issuing mission or vision statements that are supposed to outline their direction and their goals. They’re more fluff than fervor. You can say you want to a “leader” in your line of business, but that’s way too obvious. Of course you want to lead; that’s why you’re here in the first place, isn’t it? To me, it doesn’t serve any purpose to state what’s assumed; we should all strive for excellence. Think about it: you wouldn’t say, “Our mission is to never be mediocre, second-rate, or ordinary.” That’s assumed, too, but you don’t trumpet it to the world. Jared fully acknowledged this in his presentation by citing how specific, measureable goals in a vision stand a far higher chance of succeeding and inspiring the team to action than vague or generic ones. This is where the secret recipe of knowledge and passion come together to make the perfect menu. The specific goals cited in your vision should be crafted in equal parts knowledge (research, personas, etc.) and passion (the user’s experience and your envisionment). Be ambitious. Get it done, and do it right.

Jared had many other key pieces of advice and several clever examples in his presentation, but the “vision quest” is where I wanted to focus my attention with this entry. So, here’s my closing question: have you had a “vision quest” with any of your projects? What led you down the path of inspiration and brought you to victory? When have you seen just the opposite occur? Let’s share and discuss.

Update (6-20-10): Made a correction to one of my opening paragraphs to fix my paraphrasing of Jared’s vision/envisionment, which I had gotten backwards. See the comments for an excellent follow-up by Jared on how team visions can flourish and succeed at lower levels of management and in smaller chunks of an overall project lifecycle.