Product Discovery

(Photo by Noble Mitchell on Unsplash)

Continuous product discovery is an important phase when building great products but unfortunately many teams get discovery wrong.

The premise of discovery is simple - identifying what to build and ensuring your product solves the deep and genuine needs of your customers.

However, increasingly teams are misunderstanding the very role of product discovery. It should not be seen as just a process. Instead it should reflect a customer-centred, data-driven constant improvement mindset.

There are three key components to product discovery

  • Firstly, what is the best opportunity to pursue? A product strategy may have identified a key area of focus - such as increasing basket size at an ecommerce company. But discovery may be required to understand which of the team’s several ideas would have the most impact and therefore should be pursued
  • Secondly, what should our product do? This is where a team needs to focus on the right feature set to make their product compelling to use
  • Finally, how should your product work to accomplish the best outcome for customers & business? How should the product or service be built?

So what are the top ten discovery mistakes that we often see at AKF Partners?

1. Discovery is divorced from delivery

Delivery and discovery go hand-in-hand. It should be the same team, working and learning on the same ideas and concepts. It is almost impossible to achieve fantastic success with an idea when it is handed off to another team for execution who have little understanding of the users, the prioritised needs and the lessons from experiments and failures along the way.

2. Discovery goes on too long

Product teams like to solve problems. So there is a tendency for teams to want to keep working on a problem until it is solved. However, it is critical that teams understand the time constraints around discovery work. Discovery should have a time limit. It demonstrates that teams understand the opportunity costs of their time; that they act like value-creating teams not cost centres; and that they are saying no more often than saying yes. The biggest complaint about discovery from CEOs is that it takes too long and its value is no longer clear.

3. Discovery work is not actionable: The ‘so what’ test

Teams like interesting problems. But they can fall in love with finding more about the problem rather than the solution. Discovery work needs to be actionable - otherwise there is little point in doing it. It is a good idea for teams running discovery work to build a checklist before running any experiment. This also ensures the whole team is in agreement on key assumptions and metrics of success ahead of any testing. Finally,to ensure a clear direction during discovery, it is critical to ask ‘so what’ when scenario planning for the various discovery work outcomes.

4. Discovery fails to put customers at the heart

HIgh performing discovery teams are regularly engaging with customers, utilising a wide variety of tools and approaches. This is how work is constantly iterated and assumptions constantly tested. There is a regular cadence of interaction with customers, potential customers and even lapsed customers (who can be a fantastic source of insight). We believe you should aim to validate your product ideas in front of real users at every two weeks. Constant engagement with customers is difficult and often throws up lots of surprises. But these surprises should be welcomed as a way to avoid confirmation bias.

5. Discovery as requirements gathering

This is a common mistake, most often seen in product teams that are measured on outputs rather than outcomes. They often see discovery as another step in a rigid process and use this time to gather requirements from stakeholders, who are usually the owners of the idea. It becomes an order-gathering phase. In this context, usability testing is more of a perfunctory exercise and it is rare for ideas to get stopped or cancelled when discovery shows little to no user demand. If somebody internally asks for this project to be done, it gets done - whether customers want it or not.

6. Delivery only comes after discovery

There is a myth that all work moves from discovery to development. It doesn’t. Yet many teams delay (or even stop) delivery in order to focus on discovery. Discovery and delivery happen simultaneously. Strong teams work to meet these simultaneous objectives of fast, iterative learning in discovery, yet delivering regular and stable releases.

7. Discovery can never fail

Product teams need to be prepared to be wrong. One of the best metrics for discovery work is how often an idea or solution fails and is thrown out. But this must not be gamed. We know we make better decisions when we consider more options. After all, there is no product team in the world that always gets it right first time! So it is important to ensure that teams regularly consider multiple options and also are disciplined enough to say no when an idea does not work.

8. Searching for a perfect solution

We all know the phrase ‘Perfection is the enemy of good’. In discovery, teams are not trying to create a perfect solution and engineers are not trying to build perfect code. Great discovery is about getting comfortable with making decisions without full information and always treating your decisions as reversible. For this, we offer the AKF 5-95 Rule: spend 5 percent of your time planning and 95% of your time executing.

9. Discovery not understood in the broader organisation

During the first wave of digital transformation, the concept of an MVP often caused discomfort to stakeholders outside the digital team. Today the same is true for discovery. Product teams often forget to explain this important product development stage and especially why it delivers value faster to both customers and the business. As a result, the broader organisation fails to understand the role of product discovery and there is a risk that it becomes viewed as something that delays delivery. As we have previously mentioned, it is important for product teams to work as closely with the rest of the business as possible.

10. Discovery is staffed by product managers and engineers who are not passionate about delivery

We are always surprised when we hear some senior product leaders and engineers say they want to work only on discovery. When pressed, they will often state their main strength is ‘coming up with good ideas’ and they want to concentrate on ‘innovation’. This may be true but this is not the mindset you want on a product team when doing discovery. Discovery is not about coming up with good ideas - it is about finding how you can deliver value to your customers - and then delivering it.