Product discovery is the initial phase of product development that allows us to discover what problem we really need to solve and how for our users.
Looking through history of Product Management, this area has come in the spotlight only in the last 10 years or so.
If we take a look at Product Management before 2001, before the Agile manifesto was written, not much was done in the area of product discovery or any type of research and experimentation.
Ideas and business cases were generated by business stakeholders. Based on these business cases Roadmap was formed. Requirements for that Roadmap were gathered from stakeholders as well. So a Product Manager was purely an administrative role: gathering, documenting, filing and communicating requirements. Design and build was done based on those requirements as well. Once finished, the product would be shipped. Only after it reached the stores and end-customers would you be able to get some feedback on your product.
There are a lot of failed products that did reach the market. Imagine how much time and money could have been saved if the feedback could have been received before it reached the market, maybe even before design and build started.
All it needed was an answer to “Are we building something that our users need and want”.
Looking at the way work was organized at that time, there wasn’t even a possibility to support this. Large scope of work done in phases with waterfall approach, the cycles were so long that by the time there was a possibility for a feedback, the product was already done.
When it came, Agile really opened the door for this to even be possible.
According to Jeff Sutherland, one of the original Agile manifesto creators, when they were coming up with the Agile manifesto and that part about “Customer Collaboration over Contract Negotiation”, they weren’t thinking about end-users as customers, they were thinking about business stakeholders as their customers.
Even though they still did not include the end-user in the process, they managed to prepare the ground for the future Product Discovery. They introduced “Working Software over Documentation” as an idea, supported short cycles for delivery and showing it to the stakeholders. That was the early feedback that was missing, even if it was just internal.
At about the same time there was a trend developing, User Experience Design, trying to answer a question: “Are we building what our users know how to use”. Design Thinking was the approach they started using to explore this.
The real turning point came when Eric Ries (Lean Startup) and Steve Blank (Customer Development) started looking into the question “Are we building what our customer wants”. Finding the quickest and cheapest way to validate your idea became a new standard for Product Discovery in the tech driven industry. Through Lean Startup they gave us a lot of different tools that were designed to help answer the most “expensive” questions early in the process, to eliminate the greatest risks first.
Progress of the Product Discovery didn’t stop there. New trends are coming out regularly trying to answer additional questions in Product Discovery and make the process simpler and more direct. Some of them are:
“Jobs to be done” – trying to answer “Are we solving the right problem for our customers”
OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) – focusing on outcomes and alignment through organization
Design Sprint – human centric product discovery
Even though there is a clarity within the industry now about the value and need for Product Discovery, still there are not a lot of teams that are doing it.
Maybe nowadays it’s due to a wide range of tools available for this, people get overwhelmed about what to use when and for what.
Take a look at the goal for Product Discovery – learn as quickly as possible and as early as possible “Is the thing we want to build the right thing to build?”.
With each methodology we’re answering different stakeholder question and we’re answering it earlier in the process:
Agile – are we meeting our business stakeholder needs
User experience design – are we building the thing that our customers know how to use
Lean Startup – do customers want our solution
Jobs to be done – are we solving a problem that customers care about
OKR – Are we all driving towards a desired outcome
Listed questions are not something you answer once and then you’re done. Process of Product Discovery needs to be continues, never-ending, if you want to keep up with your customers, overall market and different trends. Staying current and relevant in these fast-pacing times is the most challenging part of product development, so keep discovering.