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What is Product Discovery

Product Discovery is a set of activities that help to answer what is the next best thing to do to reach your Product vision. It supports valuing experimentation over deep analysis. In the fast paced world we are in, it is an imperative process to undertake to deliver technology products successfully.

“It’s called a functional specification. You write down what the client needs, the developer builds it and we deliver the project”. This was effectively what I was told on my first technology project. Dutifully, doing as I was told, I spent hours writing out requirements and never seeing the product I was building. Years later, I would hear how it “wasn’t working as they thought…” Funny that.


So, when I started using Product Management techniques my world changed. Now, I could see how the imagined solution in my head could make it to the real world. Better than that, my ideas got better the more of the team I worked with. Goodbye failed IT projects!!


So, what is Product Discovery? Why is it so important, and what are the steps involved?


What is Product Discovery?


Product Discovery is a set of activities that help to answer what is the next best thing to do to reach your Product vision. It supports valuing experimentation over deep analysis.


Whether your product is customer facing or internal, purely technology or has a physical element, you should have a vision that sets the direction, aligns your teams and helps prioritise what you are doing. However, a well crafted vision allows space for options and so there will always be multiple things you can do next on your product.


To add to this, there will always be a finite amount of time and resources you have. You will need to choose what is the best thing to do next. Choosing that thing can be difficult, and the temptation is to analyse your options. There are a myriad of tools out there that support analysing different options. The uncomfortable truth, though, is we live in a very complex world and it is practically impossible to analyse all the options. Our belief that we can is common and described as the God Complex. Tim Harford covers it very well in his Ted talk.


So, how do you handle complexity? You experiment. You find cheap, easy, quick ways to test what might work and what might not. You lower the risk that the next bit of the product you build will not work by building only a small part and you test it.


Why is Product Discovery Important?


When operating in complex environments, analysis generally does not help us. There are too many variables. Forming small, inexpensive experiments helps us to make sense of what might work and what might not. Also, time and money is finite. In today's competitive world with things changing faster than ever, we need to prioritise what we work on more than we have before. I’m sure that, between Covid and the other major world events in the last few years, every company has a story about a change that needed to happen faster than they originally thought. Companies need to be agile to survive.


Product Discovery allows you to experiment with what might work. It gives you quick feedback from the world you operate in today and evidence behind the decisions you then make. Additionally, it allows you to compare options and review them from the three viewpoints needed to ensure success - the customer, the business and the technology.


The 3 Steps of Product Discovery


There are 3 main questions you want to answer from a Product Discovery. These are:

  1. Will the customer value it?

  2. Can the business support it?

  3. Can technology build it?


I advocate answering these by following these 3 steps:

  1. Define the problem

  2. Validate the problem exists

  3. Test solutions


Two health warnings here. Just because there are 3 steps does not mean this is a linear process. It is not. Expect to go back and forth, refining the problem and solution based on what you learn.


The second health warning is that you won’t need to spend an equal amount of time in each of these spaces. How much time and effort you devote to each will depend on your environment and context. Be mindful!


So, what happens in each stage?


Define the problem

First, get really clear on the problem you want to solve. Do this with everyone who will help solve the problem. In larger organisations it will probably be appropriate to do a kick off meeting that includes defining roles and responsibilities. This creates the alignment you will need and starts the process of building a shared understanding.


As part of this problem definition, define what success looks like. It is likely, at this initial stage, the person who you are solving the problem for is not there. So, you are far more likely to agree on the definition of success. Best done in a measurable way, it sets out a target for you to achieve with this piece of work. Examples may include, increasing conversion, increase in revenue, or a decrease in cost.


Validate the problem exists

Now is the time to check in with the person who experiences this problem today and be sure they have the same perspective. This might look like speaking with customers, observing the current situation or reviewing your product analytics.


It could be that from this you don’t find the problem. Win! At best, all you’ve wasted is a few hours. Most likely, you’ve found more nuance or a slightly different understanding of the original problem. It might be that you need to update the original definition of the problem. Or, it may be you have started to challenge your assumptions on what the solution will look like. All of this is great learning to bring to the next stage.


Test solutions

Now, with a clear understanding of what you are aiming for, and a solid understanding of what the current situation is you can test some options.


Never before has it been so easy to mock up and test technology. If you have a product with a user interface there are a myriad of tools out there allowing you to mock up realistic looking interfaces and test them with thousands of people in hours.


But don’t forget the classic paper and pen! Even small sketches can help test what might work and what might not.


No user interface? No problem. What is the riskiest assumption to test? If it is around technical viability, might you need to get a developer to try something out on their local machine? What about if it is a step that might need to change in a process? Could the team work like that for one day, or one hour, and see what they learn?


The aim of this stage is to increase the probability that the next thing you do to your product will achieve the success you defined upfront. So, form your hypothesis, define your experiment and iterate until you’ve the level of confidence you need to invest in a full build.



Successful Technology Products

There are three core questions to answer from a Product Discovery phase. Will the customer value it, will the business support it and can the technology build it? By experimenting with solutions early you can get a view on the answer to all three and decide if a full investment is worthwhile.


Product Discovery is a set of activities that help to answer what is the next best thing to do to reach your Product vision. It supports valuing experimentation over deep analysis. In the fast paced world we are in, with limited resources, it is an imperative process to undertake to deliver technology products successfully.


Want help implementing Product Discovery in your organisation? Get in touch to see how I can help.






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