Product discovery as a mindset: The origins of Disco Conf

Sep 14, 2023

Product discovery as a mindset: The origins of Disco Conf

Take a peek behind the curtain of Maze’s discovery and research conference, Disco Conf, and discover the true meaning of ‘disco’.

Born from the explorer's spirit within each of us, Disco Conf is Maze’s virtual, global conference for product people. At its core, the event is driven by a conviction that the best products are created through curiosity, and the belief that discovery is a mindset.

Returning for its second year on September 19, Disco Conf ‘23 will be center stage to four unique tracks of content and 22 speakers, including industry experts from Figma, Microsoft, Google, Miro, Notion, and Etsy.

To get a glimpse into the inception of Disco Conf, we spoke to some of the people behind the scenes, to learn where the spark of this idea began—and explore the meaning of discovery.

Discovery is a mindset. It transforms questions into decisions, data into stories, and insights into direction.

 Ash Oliver, Design & Research Advocate at Maze

Ash Oliver, Design & Research Advocate at Maze

What inspired Disco Conf?

If you ask Disco Conf host, co-creator and Design & Research Advocate at Maze, Ash Oliver, what inspired the event, he’ll say it’s a three-way tie between Dan Brown’s book Practical Design Discovery, Erika Hall’s Just Enough Research, and dance hall grooves of the ‘70s. With a healthy serving of tie-dye thrown in as well, of course.

Portion of an initial moodboard for Disco Conf

From scientists like Isaac Newton and Galileo, to modern-day pioneers like Katherine Johnson, Ada Lovelace and Steve Jobs, discovery echoes through everything product teams do today: taking a question, an idea, or hypothesis, and following the path it leads through to insight.

This idea forms the throughline of Disco Conf. Ash notes, “When I think about people who made great discoveries in history, they were led by this pursuit of figuring something out. Many great discoveries have come as surprises or from unexpected places. I think this is innately linked to the world of product—it speaks to all the different places you can have discoveries from.”

The evolution of Disco Conf

After the success of its first edition, Disco Conf is returning in 2023 with an energetic and vibrant atmosphere. At its core, it remains firmly planted in a passion for learning, a thirst for curiosity, and a belief that product discovery is more than a single stage in product development.

We want to dispel the notion that the beginning stage of research is the only place where ‘discovery’ happens. Discovery is continuous.

Ash Oliver, Design & Research Advocate at Maze

Ash Oliver, Design & Research Advocate at Maze

Today, the event has settled into its rhythm of providing product teams and people who do research (PWDR) with a spotlight on all-things discovery and research. With over 11,000 registrations for Disco Conf ‘23, designers, researchers and product managers from across the globe are coming together on September 19 to connect over curiosity, and talk about all-things product.

Rebecca Levin, co-creator of Disco Conf and Program Manager at Maze, has led the project operationally since day one. However, Rebecca emphasizes that the event is a huge team effort: “From Bozena, our Marketing Director, first having the idea of doing a conference and Ash’s discovery concepts, to the branding development, promotion and operations; everyone in the Marketing team and wider Maze touches the project at least once.”

After the success of the inaugural Disco Conf ‘22, the team wanted to bring Disco Conf to an even wider audience in 2023, elevating the entire experience, from the event platform to the quantity of content. This meant all hands on deck. Rebecca shares, “This year, our go-big-or-go-home mindset meant that an even more intense level of focus and operationalization was needed to meet the new goals. We introduced multiple content tracks to the day, duo-speaker presents, a new event platform. Our Content Marketing Manager, Giada, even piloted an influencer program to reach more designers and researchers.”

Discovery is a mindset

In the opening keynote of the inaugural Disco Conf, Jonathan Widawski, Co-founder and CEO of Maze, stated: “When we started Maze four years ago, we didn’t know where this journey would lead us. But we had a simple vision: we wanted to live in a world where experiences are shaped by the people who engage with them.”

We wanted to live in a world where experiences are shaped by the people who engage with them.

Jonathan Widawski, Co-founder and CEO of Maze

Jonathan Widawski, Co-founder and CEO of Maze

In its simplest sense, this forms the heart of continuous product discovery. At Maze, we believe this means speaking to users whenever, wherever, you can, to make user-informed decisions. And the data backs this up, with our Continuous Research report revealing that product teams who conduct regular research record more effective decision-making.

As Ash explains, during the first discussion around Maze hosting a conference “there was a prevailing misconception in the industry that discovery is a phase, that product development happens in this linear fashion where it moves from research, to design, to engineering. But we know that’s not how it works.”

Between writings from Dan Brown, Erika Hall, and Teresa Torres, the industry’s perspective has largely shifted to one which understands discovery as more than a single stage at the start of a product’s journey—it’s a mindset; it’s an attitude.

Discovery is the practice of being able to continuously uncover insights and action those insights. When considering the creation of a conference focused on this ethos, Ash believes that, “Discovery is threaded throughout the entire product process. It could range from the micro level of ‘I’ve uncovered an insight’ to a broad metaphorical interpretation of someone who leads discovery—a discoverer, an explorer.”

A ‘discoverer’ is anyone who is inquisitive and constantly learning, evolving, and taking that learning to the next iterations and decisions of a product.

Ash Oliver, Design & Research Advocate at Maze

Ash Oliver, Design & Research Advocate at Maze

The tenets of Disco

Disco Conf’s speaker line-up and attendees alike bring together minds from design, product and research, with the goal of helping teams adopt a discovery mindset, scale learning, tell stories with data, and inform product decisions through human-centered understanding. That’s quite a mission for one event.

Rebecca says that being virtual was always a priority for Disco Conf: “From the start it was important to us that we made Disco Conf global and accessible; Maze has always been a fully remote and globally-distributed company. This naturally means our community is also distributed world-wide. We also very much believe in professional and organizational development content being free and accessible, regardless of your location. Making Disco Conf virtual, with all the content available on-demand following the event, just made sense.”

The tenets of Disco:

  • Global: Uniting minds across the globe, Disco Conf sparks interconnectivity between design, product, and research to ignite the next generation of insights-driven teams. We pride ourselves on offering a diverse representation of content, perspectives, and insights.
  • Virtual: Taken from the Maze ethos of being a fully distributed company, Disco Conf is online-by-design, welcoming all travelers (audience) across the information superhighway and centering accessibility and rewatchability for attendees and speakers alike.
  • Curiosity-led: Disco Conf inspires the pursuit of questions and building from insight. Curiosity-led inspired continuous learning, propelled by the notion that to build incredible products you must be in a state of continual learning.

With these key tenets guiding the UX research conference, it’s no surprise that these themes overlap with Maze’s own approach to building successful products and teams. As Jo, Co-founder and CEO of Maze, explains—the ethos of creating and sharing accessible education, and making research available to everyone, has always been a core principle of Maze.

“Our first hire at Maze was the amazing Elena Luchita as our content writer (who is now leading our entire content team). We understood early on that, to democratize research, education would be critical.” Explains Jo, “We've come a long way since then, and today I'm so proud that we can offer Disco Conf as a free, global event—providing world-class content to the world for free, staying true to our vision of making research available to everyone.”

Disco Conf is about us coming together as a global community to celebrate product and research.

Jonathan Widawski, Co-founder and CEO of Maze

Jonathan Widawski, Co-founder and CEO of Maze

Designing Disco

Last but not least, we couldn’t talk about Disco Conf without talking about design. We may be biased, but the design of Disco Conf, from binocular emojis to eye-catching color palettes, is a huge part of what makes the event what it is.

“Music was of course a big inspiration,” says Ash, “Jazz, disco or disco-adjacent music happens to feature during a lot of conferences and industry events; it feels energetic and excitable, so it fitted nicely with our theme and spirit of discovery. The music connection wasn’t what led us to Disco Conf, but it was a very happy coincidence, and pulled through brilliantly to the visual design and branding that held that fun, energetic, curious feeling which we wanted to cultivate.”

While the first mood boards for Disco Conf were inspired with a clear visual disco theme, Ash comments that ultimately the team wanted Disco Conf’s brand to convey “a transmittable exchange of energy; a sort of viral liquidity that could be interpreted, picked up, or shared, by anyone who came in touch with Disco Conf.”

The team wanted attendees to feel as though they were at Disco Conf with every small touch of branding they interacted with. From the infamous t-shirts, to the conference’s early bird postcards and website, Disco Conf’s design transports you to a world of curiosity, inspiration, and excitement, perfectly setting up the stage for a day of insights about transforming how teams learn, scaling research practices, and furthering UX knowledge.

For many attendees, a highlight of the Disco Conf design was the handwritten postcards sent to attendees. Rebecca explains the idea behind this: “With a virtual-by-design event, we wanted to ensure it still felt personal. For the first Disco Conf in 2022, we were inspired by Ash’s own tradition of sending handwritten cards to peers and professional collaborators—so we sent out Disco Conf postcards early on to invite attendees.”

“In 2023, we wanted to continue this tradition after it resonated with so many people. We also wanted to embrace the global diversity of our audience by writing cards in as many languages as possible, so we recruited Maze team members to translate messages for us so more recipients could get a card in their native language.”

There’s nothing like the modern delight of receiving something in the post (that isn’t a utility bill!).

Rebecca Levin, Program Manager at Maze

Rebecca Levin, Program Manager at Maze

Shaping the future of discovery

Ultimately, whether you find yourself drawn into the eye-catching branding, the line-up of industry speakers, or the DJ-led intermission, threads of curiosity and excitement run throughout Disco Conf.

Coming on September 19, Disco Conf ‘23 is here to spark conversations, inspire your drive to learn, and encourage discovery as a mindset.

With 22 speakers and 23 sessions to choose from, the four-track agenda covers democratization & continuous learning, research methods, leadership & collaboration, and decision-making.

So whether you’re looking to muse on AI in design, establish accessibility programs, scale research, upskill your leadership, or assess your org’s research maturity—there’s something for every product person.

You can check out the full agenda for Disco Conf ‘23 here, and join us on September 19 with a free ticket. All you need is an internet connection, and an explorer’s spirit. We’ll see you there!

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