writing a product vision for Metapolator

25 April 2014, 22:01

A week ago I kicked off my involvement with the Metapolator project as I always do: with a product vision session. Metapolator is an open project and it was the first time I did the session online, so you have the chance to see the session recording (warning: 2½ hours long), which is a rare opportunity to witness such a highly strategic meeting; normally this is top‐secret stuff.

boom boom

For those not familiar with a product vision, it is a statement that we define as ‘the heartbeat of your product, it is what you are making, reduced down to its core essence.’ A clear vision helps a project to focus, to fight off distractions and to take tough design decisions.

To get a vision on the table I moderate a session with the people who drive the product development, who I simply ask ‘what is it we are making, who is it for, and where is the value?’ The session lasts until I am satisfied with the answers. I then write up the vision statement in a few short paragraphs and fine-tune it with the session participants.

To cut to the chase, here is the product vision statement for Metapolator:

‘Metapolator is an open web tool for making many fonts. It supports working in a font design space, instead of one glyph, one face, at a time.
‘With Metapolator, “pro” font designers are able to create and edit fonts and font families much faster, with inherent consistency. They gain unique exploration possibilities and the tools to quickly adapt typefaces to different media and domains of use.
‘With Metapolator, typographers gain the possibility to change existing fonts—or even create new ones—to their needs.
‘Metapolator is extendible through plugins and custom specimens. It contains all the tools and fine control that designers need to finish a font.’

mass deconstruction

I think that makes it already quite clear what Metapolator is. However, to demonstrate what goes into writing a product vision, and to serve as a more fleshed out vision briefing, I will now discuss it sentence by sentence.

‘Metapolator is an open web tool for making many fonts.’
  • There is no standard template for writing a product vision, the structure it needs is as varied as the projects I work with. But then again it has always worked for me to lead off with a statement of identity; to start answering the question ‘what is it we are making?’ And here we have it.
  • open or libre? This was discussed during the session. At the end Simon Egli, Metapolator founder and driving force, wanted to express that we aim beyond just libre (i.e. open source code) and that ‘open’ also applies to the vibe of the tool on the user side.
  • web‑based: this is not just a statement of the technology used, of the fact that it runs in the browser. It is also a solid commitment that it runs on all desktops—mac, win and linux. And it implies that starting to use Metapolator is as easy as clicking/typing the right URL; nothing more required.
  • tool or application? The former fits better with the fact that font design and typography are master crafts (I can just see the tool in the hand of the master).
  • making or designing fonts? I have learned in the last couple of weeks that there is a font design phase where a designer concentrates on shaping eight strategic characters (for latin fonts). This is followed by a production phase where the whole character set is fleshed out, the spacing between all character pairs set, then different weights (e.g. thin and bold) are derived and maybe also narrow end extended variants. This phase is very laborious and often outsourced. ‘Making’ fonts captures both design and production phases.
  • many fonts: this is the heart of the matter. You can see from the previous point that making fonts is up to now a piecemeal activity. Metapolator is going to change that. It is dedicated to either making many different fonts in a row, or a large font family, even a collection of related families. The implication is that in the user interaction of Metapolator the focus is on making many fonts and the user needs for making many fonts take precedence in all design decisions.
‘It supports working in a font design space, instead of one glyph, one face, at a time.’
  • The first sentence said that Metapolator is going to change the world—by introducing a tool for making many fonts, something not seen before; this second one tells us how.
  • supports is not a word one uses lightly in a vision. ‘Supports XYZ’ does not mean it is just technically possible to do XYZ; it means here that this is going to be a world‐class product to do XYZ, which can only be realised with world‐class user interaction to do XYZ.
  • design space is one of these wonderful things that come up in a product vision session. Super‐user Wei Huang coined the phrase when describing working with the current version of Metapolator. It captures very nicely the working in a continuum that Metapolator supports, as contrasted with the traditional piecemeal approach, represented by ‘one glyph, one face, at a time.’ What is great for a vision is that ‘design space’ captures the vibe that working with metapolator should have, but that it is not explicit on the realisation of it. This means there is room for innovation, through technological R&D and interaction design.
‘With Metapolator, “pro” font designers are able to create and edit fonts and font families much faster, with inherent consistency.’
  • With “pro” font designers we encounter the first user group, starting to answer ‘who is it for?’ “Pro” is in quotes because it is not the earning‑a‐living part that interests us, it is the fact that these people mastered a craft.
  • create and edit balances the two activities; it is not all about creating from scratch.
  • fonts and font families balances making very different fonts with making families; it is not all about the latter.
  • much faster is the first value statement, starting to answer ‘where is the value?’ Metapolator stands for an impressive speed increase in font design and production, by abolishing the piecemeal approach.
  • inherent consistency is the second value statement. Because the work is performed by users in the font design space, where everything is connected and continuous, the conventional user overhead of keeping everything consistent disappears.
‘They gain unique exploration possibilities and the tools to quickly adapt typefaces to different media and domains of use.’
  • exploration possibilities is part feature, part value statement, part field of use and part vibe. All these four are completely different things (e.g. there is inherently zero value in a feature), captured in two words.
  • quickly adapt is a continuation of the ‘much faster’ value statement above, highlighting complementary fields of use for it.
‘With Metapolator, typographers gain the possibility to change existing fonts—or even create new ones—to their needs.’
  • And with typographers we encounter the second user group. These are people who use fonts, with a whole set of typographical skills and expertise implied.
  • possibility to change is the value statement for this user group. This is a huge deal. Normally typographers have neither the skills, nor the time, to modify a font. Metapolator will open up this world to them, with that fast speed and inherent consistency that was mentioned before.
  • create new goes one step further than the previous point. Here we have now a commitment to enable more ambitious typographers (that is what ‘even’ stands for) to create new fonts.
  • to their needs is a context we should be aware of. These typographers will be designing something, anything with text, and that is their main goal. Changing or creating a font is for them a worthwhile way to get it done. But it is only part of their job, not the job. Note that the needs of typographers includes applying some very heavy graphical treatments to fonts.
‘Metapolator is extendible through plugins and custom specimens.’
  • extendible through plugins is one realisation of the ‘open’ aspect mentioned in the first sentence. This makes Metapolator a platform and its extendability will have to be taken into account in every step of its design.
  • custom specimens is slightly borderline to mention in a vision; you could say it is just a feature. I included it because it programs the project to properly support working with type specimens.
‘It contains all the tools and fine control that designers need to finish a font.’
  • all the tools: this was the result of me probing during the vision session whether Metapolator is thought to be part of a tool chain, or independent. This means that it must be designed to work stand‑alone.
  • fine control: again the result of probing, this time whether Metapolator includes the finesse to take care of those important details, on a glyph level. Yes, it all needs to be there.
  • that designers need makes it clear by whose standards the tools and control needs to be made: that of the two user groups.

this space has intentionally been left blank

Just as important as what it says in a product vision is what it doesn’t say. What it does not say Metapolator is, Metapolator is explicitly not. Not a vector drawing application, not a type layout program, not a system font manager, not a tablet or smartphone app.

The list goes on and on, and I am sure some users will come up with highly creative fields of use. That is up to them, maybe it works out or they are able to cover their needs with a plugin they write, or have written for them. For the Metapolator team that is charming to hear, but definitely out of scope.

User groups that are not mentioned, i.e. everybody who is not a “pro” font designer or a typographer, are welcome to check out Metapolator, it is free software. If their needs overlap partly with that of the defined user groups, then Metapolator will work out partly for them. But the needs of all these users are of no concern to the Metapolator team.

If that sounds harsh, then remember what a product vision is for: it helps a project to focus, to fight off distractions and to take tough design decisions. That part starts now.

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