Rolling hills at sunset

Using hills in product design

By Kathryn Dingle 20 November 2019

Recently I attended the Eleks Product Design Meetup. The meet up was focused on ‘building value through customer-centricity.’ Marion Summerville, Principal Product Designer at Pivotal Software gave a fantastic presentation on ‘Hills.’ This was a completely new concept for me. Below I will share a quick overview of what they are and how you can use them.

An image saying who, what, and wow

IBM defines a hill as: ‘statements of intent written as meaningful user outcomes. They tell you where to go, not how to get there, empowering teams to explore breakthrough ideas without losing sight of the goal.’

Hills are used by teams to communicate the intention for the project/product. They focus on the outcomes of fixing a ‘problem,’ rather than on how you will get there. I believe this has a lot of overlap with vision or the impact statements that many charities create as part of a Theory of Change (a process to articulate how your organisation or project aims to bring about social impact.

How to create a hill

IBM describe a hill as being made up of three parts – a who, a what and a wow!

  • Who: Start with the user – Who are they? What characteristics do they have? Who do you not intend to support?
  • What: What change are you trying to create? What is the most meaningful outcome for your users? What do you want your product to help users to achieve? Not what tool are they going to use.
  • Wow: What is unique about your product? Why is it valuable to users? How do you measure success?
    The aim isn’t to create a solution, but to have a clear direction for your team and open up the possible solutions. Make sure your hills are informed by user research and creation of it includes key stakeholders (where appropriate) or that the concept is tested afterwards to make sure it resonates.

When to use a Hill?

Marion spoke about bringing in a hill when you get to the problem definition stage of the double diamond process. This is the middle of the two diamonds. It is at the point in which you have a clear idea of the problem you want to fix (for now!) but you have no idea what you are going to do about it just yet. A hill is the perfect way to open up the possibilities for solutions, whilst having a clear and meaningful focus for both the outcome of the solution and a clear direction for the team.

An image of the double diamond method, including the 4 stages, discover, define, develop and deliver

*Image adapted from Innovation English site

Another thing to add is that your hills won’t be perfect and they should evolve as you evolve your understanding of the need/problem you are trying to fix. You can also have more than one hill if you need, but don’t use this as a crux for being able to do everything and not making a decision.

How My Best Life is using hills?

We haven’t used a hill yet because we are still at the initial discover and define phases, but I will teach my team about it and hopefully we will create a hill to share with you all soon.

How can you use hills?

You can use hills when creating any product or project. IBM have created a slide deck and step-by-step guide on how to create your hills. Explore the IBM design kit. 

I would love to hear your experiences of using hills – the good, the bad and the ugly!