In the last few years, product discovery has become a key area of focus for high-performing product teams. In a recent study we conducted, product teams mentioned product discovery as one of their biggest challenges. We believe that good product discovery is the key to consistently building valuable products. In this guide, we will offer original and practical takes on the core ideas behind product discovery and share tips on how you might take your discovery efforts to another level.
What is product discovery?
Product discovery is the process and practice of deeply understanding your customers' problems, needs and desires so that you can create solutions that have maximum value for them. During the product discovery process, teams set key outcomes, identify major opportunities that could impact those outcomes and define solutions that deliver on those opportunities.A simple way to understand product discovery is to define it in contrast to product delivery. In simple terms, product discovery is about deciding what to build while product delivery is about getting it built (as efficiently as possible).
At its core, product discovery is all about understanding your customers' problems, needs and desires before working on solutions. We like to refer to customers' problems, needs and desires as ‘opportunities’. A problem from the customer’s perspective is an opportunity for you to create value.
Good product discovery is all about focusing on the ‘opportunity space’ before focusing on the ‘solution space’.
Why is product discovery important?
It’s important to note that every product team does some form of product discovery. It’s not possible to build a product without deciding what to build. The issue is that many product teams do not do product discovery well – or as well as they’d like to.One of the primary issues companies face is ‘solutioning’, i.e. teams' tendency to jump straight to solutions without first properly identifying and understanding the problem(s) they need to be solving. Focusing on identifying, understanding, validating and prioritizing customer problems before thinking of solutions is an important part of product discovery.
"If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”
It’s understandable why people jump straight into the solution space. Solutions are tangible and feel like they’re closest to having impact, especially when specific features are being requested by (potential) customers. But this usually leads to companies having huge bloated roadmaps that they will never meet and unmanageable backlogs of ideas and features that grow faster than they can get through them. Most importantly, it often leads to teams spending lots of time and money building solutions that often don’t create customer value because they’re not really solving important customer problems.
Every product team has experienced building a product or feature that did not get adopted by users as hoped or expected. But these days, solutions rarely fail because they’re poorly designed or built; companies have spent the past 10-20 years investing heavily in product delivery, hiring the best talent and implementing the latest, most effective processes. The reason most solutions fail is that they do not solve an important enough customer problem.
Here’s an example of how this could look in practice:
At the end of the day, building and shipping a feature or product is the most expensive way of validating an idea. Investing more time into doing product discovery well can significantly reduce the risk of building features that fail. And to do product discovery well, teams need to think in terms of outcomes (What change in customer behaviour do we want to see? What goals are we trying to reach?) rather than outputs (let’s ship feature X, product Y).
The product discovery process: A step-by-step framework
As with any process, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to product discovery. But there are steps you can take to make your discovery efforts effective. At its core, the discovery process revolves around setting outcomes, identifying opportunities and defining solutions.
1. Define your outcomes
The first step of any good process is to set a clear goal. The same goes for the product discovery process, which starts by defining outcomes. An outcome is a desired change (e.g. in customer behaviour) that you would like to see. There are different kinds of outcomes depending on the perspective you take.
Product outcomes refer to a desired change in the product you’d like to see (e.g. fewer bugs, prettier UI)
Customer outcomes refer to desired changes in customer behaviour (feature usage, user activity)
Business outcomes refer to the ultimate changes in business performance you would like to see (e.g. revenue goals).
In most cases, these types of outcomes are aligned and connected. Most product teams will translate outcomes into specific goals such as Objectives and Key Results (OKRs).
Starting with a clear outcome is key to the next step, which is identifying opportunities in line with that outcome.
If you want to know more about outcome, check out our article on outcomes vs outputs
2. Define, validate and prioritize opportunities
Once you’ve defined your desired outcome, you want to see what opportunities are present within your product to impact that outcome. Opportunities are essentially your customers’ problems, needs or desires. The simple reasoning is that a problem for your customer is an opportunity for you to create value for that customer, by solving their problem. Many product people will use ‘problems’ and ‘opportunities’ interchangeably. ‘Opportunities’ is often preferred because it is more encompassing of customer problems, needs and desires as a whole.
Focusing on opportunities first is crucial as it is one of the fundamental differentiators for teams that do product discovery well.. As mentioned previously, dedicating time to opportunities helps prevent solutioning. This is therefore the most crucial step in this process; most features that fail do so because they do not solve a big enough opportunity.
There’s a number of ways to identify customer problems, needs and desires. Starting with an outcome helps you focus on a specific scope. User interviews and customer feedback are great sources for identifying opportunities. If your organization is customer-led and you speak to customers often, you most likely have a hunch about what your biggest opportunities might be.
Once you have identified a few opportunities in line with your outcome, you need to validate and prioritize them. Having quick access to customer insights is key to doing this quickly. Again, user interviews and feedback will be important tools.
3. Test, validate and prioritize solutions
Once you’ve done your research and identified your biggest opportunities, it’s time to finally think about solutions! Solutions can come in the form of services, features, products or even experiments and are closely linked with product delivery.
If you’re building products, you’re most likely familiar with prototyping and validating solutions. The key difference within this process is that it’s best to come up with more than one solution for each opportunity. Once you have validated the different solutions, you can prioritize which of them will have the biggest impact on your given opportunity.
There are several frameworks you can use for prioritization. Marty Cagan suggests focusing on minimizing risk by assessing:
Value (Will people find it valuable?)
Usability (Will people find it easy to use?)
Feasibility (Will engineers be able to deliver the solution at reasonable cost and ease?)
Viability (Will this solution work for the various aspects of our business?)
4. The opportunity solution tree
A great tool for product discovery is an opportunity solution tree. It is a framework designed by Teresa Torres that helps effectively visualize the links between outcomes, opportunities and solutions. The idea is that for every outcome, you need to define opportunities, and for every opportunity, you need to define solutions. An important part of the opportunity solution tree is that you break big, complex opportunities down into smaller, more manageable opportunities.
Picture: Teresa Torres' opportunity solution tree
When working on solutions, you can start with the niched-down, manageable opportunities at the bottom and work your way up to achieve your desired outcomes.
Reverse-discovery - a great way to getting started
As mentioned before, every company does some form of product discovery. But if you’re looking to make continuous product discovery core to your decision making process, getting started can be difficult.
Reverse-discovery is a process developed by our very own CPO Marcel Hagedoorn. The idea is to essentially start with products or features (i.e. solutions) you already have on your roadmap and reverse-engineer the discovery process from there.
Essentially, you begin with solutions and then identify what opportunities they solve before linking them back to one of your key outcomes. This is a great way to get started with product discovery while also showing the value of the process, as you will often find that solutions already agreed upon on your roadmap aren’t as impactful on your customers’ problems and your strategic outcomes as maybe expected.
Important concepts related to product discovery
Product discovery is a process that was born out of a lot of different ideas that revolutionized the way we build products. In a talk she gave in 2016, Teresa Torres highlighted how different ideas and concepts helped pave the way for modern discovery.
The lean startup methodology
The idea of finding lean ways to quickly test and validate the assumptions behind your product. This brought the importance of experimentation and rapid validation through data to the forefront of product management.
→ Watch (5 mins)
Objectives & key results
A goal setting framework developed by Google that separated goals into Objectives (high level) and Key Results (measurable). This presented a major step towards outcome-based-thinking among product teams.
→ Watch (4 mins)
Jobs to be done
The idea of thinking about what a product’s main ‘job’ is for the customer. This placed the customer problem at the center of what product teams were doing.
→ Watch (4 mins)
An iterative and human-centric approach to developing and designing products. This presents the very foundation of how teams learn about the customers and make those learnings actionable in product development.
→ Watch (3 mins)
Though most product professionals will be familiar with these concepts, it can be very helpful to think about them in the context of product discovery.
Product discovery tools
Product discovery is a complex process that can vary depending on the outcomes, opportunities and solutions you are working towards. There are many ways to get customer insights and experimentation can take on lots of different forms. It’s therefore important to be using the right tools
UserInterviews – for conducting interviews
Looking to get quick feedback on solutions you’ve prototyped? Nothing is quicker than chucking a Figma sketch onto LinkedIn or Twitter and getting some quick feedback. Another option is to use UsabilityHub for quick, targeted feedback.\
UsabilityHub – for testing prototypes
Looking to get quick feedback on solutions you’ve prototyped? Nothing is quicker than chucking a Figma sketch onto LinkedIn or Twitter and getting some quick feedback. Another option is to use UsabilityHub for quick, targeted feedback.
Amplitude – for validating solutions
Product analytics are an important source for quantitative data on how users actually behave. Amplitude is a great option with an extensive free plan to get you started.
Reveall – for the product discovery process
Reveall is designed to help you tie it all together and manage the discovery process from A to Z. Reveall helps you define outcomes and validate & prioritize opportunities quickly by centralizing customer insights from the different tools you use.
As the market for great products becomes increasingly competitive, companies need to do product discovery well to ensure they make the most out of the time and resources they invest into building. Product discovery is about minimizing the risk of your product failing – and in an age where most products fail, that is invaluable. Spending more time understanding your customer problems and working towards clear outcomes is the best way to ensure you create the most value for your customer and have maximum impact with what you build.