Of course, for a North Star to be successful you must communicate your vision and operationalize a plan. More specifically, a North Star is “a visual output (commonly a video, although it can also be a storyboard, a series of hi-fidelity designs, etc.) that explains the high-level narrative of why an idea or concept will improve peoples’ lives,” writes Julie Zhuo in Design’s North Star. It frequently includes a futuristic yet believable demo of the product experience, with details of important hero features that demonstrate innovation while connecting back to the most critical customer needs. A North Star guides a team’s roadmap by providing a vision of the future to work toward, though the final product may look quite different.

Business Model Canvas

Illustration by Kelly Arce

A framework for defining your product strategy.

Julie goes on to say: A North Star is not a spec, roadmap or detailed set of mocks. In fact, even if everybody is sold on a particular North Star vision, it’s dangerous to jump straight into working backwards to build the exact thing as presented. Instead, a better idea is to start from where things are now and work forwards towards the North Star by mapping out a detailed execution plan that seeks to validate the most controversial parts of the vision first. The North Star is only meant to be a guidepost; what eventually ends up being built and launched may not look or function exactly like the original vision, which is fine because things like executional details (which aren’t the focus of a North Star) clearly need to be thoroughly explored at some point in the actual building of the product. If done correctly, however, the final output will have retained the spiritual soul of the original North Star, and will have successfully delivered upon its promise of improving people’s lives.

A step-by-step guide

  1. Form the team
  2. Understand the context
  3. Identify segments of opportunity
  4. Generate ideas
  5. Develop a prototype
  6. Test and iterate
  7. Form the narrative and socialize

Form the team

The first step is to assemble a cast of characters who will help form the narrative. Consider those who think differently than you—people with a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds, which will help foster innovation. Consider how you’ll seek opinions outside of your own thinking to ensure the best results.

Be intentional. This is an opportunity to create allies in other functions and groups to secure buy-in of the end result.

Once you have your team in place, make sure everyone is aligned on the purpose, goals, values, roles, and norms that you’ll adhere to throughout the project. This supports stronger collaboration and can guide the team through rough spots.

ResourcesTeam Values Toolkit, Health Monitors, and Team Charter Canvas are three tools you can use to map out how you’ll work together.

Understand the context

Before you begin imagining the future product experience, it’s important that you fully understand and appreciate the context you’re operating in, along with the associated constraints. For the most part, this means internalizing the specifics of the business strategy that the product is designed to support. The relationship is often reciprocal: The business strategy is the foundation for a North Star vision, and the North Star product experience can end up informing and refining that same business strategy.

Business strategy

Illustration by Kelly Arce

A good business strategy has many parts, usually backed by loads of evidence. Front-loading all of this information can take a serious amount of time, but don’t skimp here. It’s critical that your North Star experience be in lockstep with the business strategy.

Set up a series of share-outs with the appropriate subject-matter experts. You can’t possibly off-load everything they know on the topic, so ask them to spend time up front to frame the points that are most important, in a way that everyone can quickly understand.

Identify segments of opportunity

Once you’re informed of business constraints, identify the opportunity ahead. Articulating the segments of opportunity means you’ve made decisions about which specific customer needs are most important to solve, as well as which types of customers within the target market have the most acute need.

These aren’t the only needs your product will ultimately solve for, but starting here will ensure that you have a solid foundation, as the customer needs you’ve chosen to focus on will form the core of your differentiation strategy.

Pro tip: Choosing three unmet needs at this point (as a guideline, not a hard rule) is manageable and feeds well into the next step’s ideation activities.

The ways we evaluate customer satisfaction and the importance of different needs are not always the same. Using methods such as factor analysis can help you determine a segmentation strategy that identifies the characteristics of an underserved segment. As a benchmark, an underserved segment will have needs with high opportunity scores. Learn about these concepts in the links below.

Resources → Read about how to quantify your customer’s unmet needs and how to identify true segments of opportunity.

Underserved Segment

Illustration by Kelly Arce

Plotting opportunity scores without segmentation.
Two-segment opportunity

Illustration by Kelly Arce

A two-segment plotting of opportunity scores.

Generate ideas

With clear segments of opportunity in mind, it’s time to start generating innovative ideas for those previously mentioned hero features. A GV-style design sprint is a great tool for this step. Rapid prototyping enables your team to test and learn from their design explorations. Grab your team and go!

Resource → Read how the Jobs to Be Done framework can fit into your sprint.

Design sprint model

Illustration by Kelly Arce

Develop a prototype

Eventually, you’ll want to work your way to a robust, clickable prototype. However, an off-brand landing page might be a better starting point at this stage. Here are a few of the advantages:

  1. Producing something off-brand helps you maintain stealth at this early stage, and ensures that your signal is not artificially amplified by the strength of your existing brand.
  2. Product landing pages are very formulaic and easy to produce. There are lots of online resources and off-the-shelf templates you can use to quickly produce a high-quality artifact.
  3. A landing page forces you to focus on the foundational pieces of the product–market fit without getting bogged down by the breadth of interaction and visual design work needed for a clickable prototype.
  4. Landing pages are a good format to run larger-scale tests in parallel with your customer interviews. You can run ads to test value-proposition statements, measure click-through rates, and recruit potential customers for future interviews. A lot of value for a light lift!

Resource → Read about how teams take a formulaic approach to designing landing pages that drive results.

A basic product landing-page structure is easy to produce, and covers the most important things to learn up front.

Illustration by Kelly Arce

A basic product landing-page structure is easy to produce, and covers the most important things to learn up front.

Test and iterate

While the team may be excited about one set of ideas, it’s important to understand how your vision and prototypes hold up with potential customers. On a regular cadence, identify the most important things you need to learn, and gather information through direct interaction with potential customers. Your week could look something like this:

  • Monday: Identify the most important thing to learn this week
  • Monday–Wednesday: Build out a prototype/test
  • Thursday: Run interviews with potential customers
  • Friday: Synthesize learnings. Run a retrospective about the week.

Pro tips: To maintain this pace, you’ll probably need to book the Thursday interviews in advance. Having a number of participants agree to return in subsequent weeks is also a good way to fill this schedule quickly. For effectiveness, just make sure you’re still adding fresh eyes as you go.

Run as many of these cycles as time allows. The more you learn, the more informed (and therefore stable) your North Star product experience will be.

Resources → Read about what it’s like to be a Product Design Scientist. For getting started with live user-feedback sessions, read how we do it during Real World Wednesdays.

Form the narrative and socialize

Figure out how you want to tell this story in a way that compels, inspires, and drives action. Michael Margolis suggests that your narrative framework can look like this:

See it

Start with the 50,000-foot overview. Tell your audience the category you’re working in, then tell them which ordinary thing you’re rethinking. Finally, tell them the possibility of how the world looks after you’ve reimagined it.

Feel it

Next, zoom in to a specific example. Introduce a user. Tell your audience what the user wants to accomplish. And then tell them the dilemma the user is facing. (At this point, you can tell them how you’re going to solve this dilemma.)

Believe it

Finally, you’re ready to show your audience the data that backs up your story. By now, you’ve primed them to be receptive to the facts. Instead of wondering how this data fits into their old mental model of the world, they’ll use it to validate the vision you’ve painted. If you’ve done this well, they might even be excited to see the facts that prove you right.

Resource → Read about the value of story vs. narrative.

What’s next?

The common pitfall of North Star vision work is that it creates a big splash up front and then quickly fizzles out. Connecting your vision to stable research gives you a solid foundation, but follow-through is equally important. Here’s what that looks like:

Create the one-year version

The North Star product experience probably has a three- to five-year time horizon. Create a prototype that shows where the experience will be one year from now. Start with the current product, account for technical and business constraints, and think about how far you can go while sprinting toward your North Star.

Build the “ideal path” roadmap

Take your one-year version and break it down into the parts you’d need for building to smaller milestones. While not every product feature will be necessary or feasible (in fact, there’s a good chance you’ll be off the mark with at least half of the features), this will give you a solid starting point for planning.

Confirm your plans through experimentation and learning

Teams should work through each meaningful feature and, with rapid experimentation, build sufficient confidence to keep moving forward. To keep the team laser-focused on solving customer problems, even through periodic pivots, you can leverage an opportunity solution tree. This tool allows you to easily explore alternative approaches when necessary.

Resources → Learn about opportunity solution trees. Read about how to run riskiest assumption tests.

Deliver and launch it! While the product launch is more like a midpoint than a finish line, it is an important milestone. Get the product in customers’ hands, and continue to learn and iterate.

We hope this glance at developing a North Star vision will help you align teams on a customer-centric approach to building impactful products. To learn more about how our team approaches product design, read here.

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