My gut instinct is one of my strongest and most used tools. In business, relationships, new people I meet, and big life choices. I rely on other data points but my gut feeling always plays a significant role. But with product development, you need more than just your gut, your personal experience, or your passionate hypothesis to build successful products. Discovery & validation around your problem & solution, with the actual users you’re building your product for, are not only necessary, but they can also be the difference between success and failure.
“Too often, we jump to the first solution that comes to mind. Our brains are remarkably good at closing the loop—when we hear about a problem, we jump to solve it. But if we want to find good solutions, we need to take the time to make sure that our solutions are tailored to our customer’s specific needs.” —Teresa Torres
What is Discovery?
There are varied definitions of product discovery and even more varied ways to go about conducting it. My summary of a definition is that product discovery is a research & planning process designed to validate problems, inform solutions, and reduce risks & uncertainty throughout the product development process. It ensures that you build the right product/feature, that solves the right problem for your target users.
Ok, now how does one go about product discovery? There are lots of ways to do research, talk to customers, get feedback on ideas or visuals, and test solutions. It’s an especially exciting time in the tech world with the emergence of so many new AI tools that enable low-code prototypes, easy mockup creation, or other great ways to test product ideas. Generally, I think of product discovery just like I think of processes. You have to right-size it for your specific needs. It’s not one size fits all. Is it a 0->1 product you’re doing discovery for? A feature added to an existing product? A massive new innovation? There are clearly going to be different levels of product discovery for each of those examples. So let’s focus on a couple of common themes.
Research & User Feedback
Research is always going to be a part of product discovery. Whether it’s research around the problem you’re solving, analyzing the competitive landscape for other similar products, looking at industry benchmark data and trends, or talking to a set of your friends/family about how they use certain products, all of these are types of research. You have to know how big the problem is, how many potential solutions already exist, and develop an informed position on why yours will be different/better.
User feedback is another part of the discovery process that should never be overlooked. This can be an extensive process, or one that is conducted more quickly and generally, but it is essential nonetheless. What do your target users really think about your product? How easy it is to use? How often would they come back? What do they find confusing or redundant or complicated? Why do they like or dislike it? Putting yourself in the shoes of your users is critical to understanding them and developing the most relevant solutions for them.
Some of the more common user feedback mechanisms include surveys, interviews, prototype testing/feedback, support emails/calls, and live user testing. Like everything, they vary in cost and effort, so it's important to assess what's most important in your situation and for your specific product discovery needs (speed to market, general vs. nuanced feedback, level of detail, volume of users, etc.).
Strategic Alignment & User Validation
Ensuring you have a basic product vision & strategy both initially (for 0->1 products) and continuously (for existing products that are being iterated over time) is essential. It should serve as the map for everything you do going forward. Initially, you have to clearly articulate what problem you’re solving, who you’re solving it for, and how your product will be that solution. Then you need to go validate that with a set of your target users.
Talking to users provides valuable and varied perspectives that will make your product better. You’ll learn what aspects of your product are most important to them, and how they’d use it. You’ll hear the problem from their perspective to better inform how you build the solutions. You may want to know how likely they are to pay for it, and how much. Talking to your customers enables a deeper understanding of their needs and behaviors and will ultimately help you create a product they want, and need.
‘The process enables teams to move beyond “nice to have” features and products towards building products that solve a problem and become a genuine necessity for customers.’ — Product Plan
Clear strategy & user validation will also help you identify risks, refine your planned scope, and ensure you’re building the right product from the start. These steps don't have to take months and are a very worthwhile investment that will save you time & money in the long run (probably a ton of stress & maybe some blood/sweat/tears, too). By leveraging product discovery learnings, you can more quickly focus on product ideas with the highest chance of succeeding.
There are significant business benefits to product discovery & strategic alignment as well. Without a clearly articulated and validated strategy to consistently align everyone, teams & founders often stray from the core purpose or functionality of the product. They build too much, make things too complicated, or deviate further from the original/intended product. It takes longer, costs more, and is often wasteful
I like to call this the Slippery Scope Slope™ (and yes, I came up with that term myself, thank you). When this happens, MVPs take longer to build and get over complicated. The product goes to market and instead of doing one simple thing really well, the product does a bunch of things that feel clunky or not intuitive. Users don’t engage and don’t come back. You’re spending more time & money to redo, undo, or rework things and try again (tech debt, anyone?). Strategic alignment & user validation early on are essential in building successful products and avoiding the Slippery Scope Slope.
“Product discovery provides value to the product team, value to the company (e.g., not wasting valuable resources pursuing the wrong ideas and developing products nobody wants), and value to customers by delivering something they may very well consider vital. The process of product discovery ensures that product managers and teams are on the right track in prioritizing and building a product that will be successful.” — Product Plan
I’ve talked to founders or execs who hear the words ‘product discovery’ and groan. They assume it’ll be a lengthy process, will slow them down, will cost more money, and ultimately they already know what they want to build. So they skip it. Or lightly do a few pieces but not in a meaningful way. Fast forward 6, 12, 18 months and they’re divesting large pieces of their product that are unused, pivoting their strategy, or for many, they’re out of money and at the end of the road.
Product discovery & validation doesn't have to be a long, laborious process. It is not meant to slow you down or cost you more. Quite the opposite in fact. It is designed to ensure that your money & time are spent wisely, on a product users actually want/need, that solves a real problem for them & makes their life better/easier in some way. Without some discovery & validation, you’re guessing. And even with the best of gut instincts, that can be one expensive guessing game.