Building Great Products: The Modern Team's Guide to Product Discovery
Product discovery is the very first stage of the product development journey. It doesn’t just inform the way you build your product—it tells you whether you should build one in the first place. This guide covers the basics of product discovery, with unique insights from real product managers.
Introduction to product discovery
To explain the idea of ‘product discovery’, we can learn a lot from the story of Quibi.
Quibi, a new streaming service designed for mobile phones, launched on April 6th, 2020. In a crowded market full of big-name competitors like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney Plus, Quibi differentiated its product by offering high-quality, professionally made TV shows tailored for on-the-go viewing. Each piece of content was 10 minutes or less and optimized for both vertical and horizontal full-screen dimensions.
Because its co-founders were already so successful in both Hollywood and business, Quibi raised almost $2billion prior to launch. They commissioned top talent to create exclusive content. The app itself was well-designed and easy to use. Switching from vertical to horizontal full-screen worked seamlessly, and felt like a genuinely unique feature.
But on October 22nd, 2020, Quibi shut down with hardly any users—just six months after launching. An article by The Verge lists some reasons behind this, from the global pandemic to simply bad content. Above all, the author picks out one factor as decisive: “a lack of insight into consumer behavior, wants, and needs.”
“Quibi didn’t work because no one at Quibi knew what it should be, what people wanted, or how people use their phones. Its entire thesis is wrong.”
In other words, Quibi didn’t fail because of flaws in the final product or bad user experience—it failed as an idea for a product. The way to avoid this? Product discovery.
What is product discovery?
Product discovery is the process of closely understanding what your users’ problems and needs are, then validating your ideas for solutions before starting development. By forming a close relationship with your users and letting them guide your design thinking, your overall product strategy is much more likely to end up solving real-user problems.
The idea of product discovery was originally developed in the 90s, when many of today’s product management best practices were formed. Back then, companies building websites and digital products spent a lot of time and money trying to convince customers that they needed their great products—but not so much time actually listening to them.
This led to a lot of very expensive failures, as products often made it to full release before their creators realized that people just didn’t need them. Over time, the development of customer-centric ideas—like the Jobs to be done framework, and early iterative testing based on user feedback—encouraged product teams to put themselves in their users’ shoes more, and to ask what they thought more often.
These days, we refer to this broad template of activities and approaches as ‘product discovery.’
A step-by-step product discovery framework
There’s no singular, defined set of methods that you have to follow with product discovery—you could include customer feedback surveys, interviews, focus groups, journey mapping, insights from product analytics, and various types of usability testing in your approach.
But whatever modern product discovery techniques you end up using—more on that in chapter 4—the goals are always the same:
- Form a deep, upfront understanding of what your users need
- Define and validate a solution based on your users’ input
For this reason, it’s vital to approach product discovery with a mindset that’s open to all possibilities. You might start the process with a really cool idea for a product in the back of your mind, only to find out that your users don’t need a new product after all. Maybe a few specific improvements to your current product are enough. This kind of realization is all part of the ‘discovery’—it’s what makes product discovery both useful and interesting.
And while the exact methodology is up to you, to achieve your product discovery goals you should combine this open mindset with this basic, step-by-step product discovery framework:
1. Learn & understand
Before you start thinking about what's next on your product roadmap or even decide which problem you want to solve, spend a decent amount of time communicating with users. Run customer interviews, organize user stories into themes, create journey maps, and form a close relationship with a group of users.
The information you learn here will help you hone in on pain points to build solutions for. You could spend weeks or months in this stage—however long it takes to start spotting clear themes in your users’ feedback.
2. Define & decide
Once you’ve got a healthy amount of data and feedback, your team should take a step back and prioritize the most important problems for your users.
With problems prioritized, you should be able to form a clear, broad hypothesis that can form the foundation of the solutions you develop. This should be a short, simple sentence—often a question—that covers the main problem and related sub-problems you want to solve for your users. Here’s an example:
“Building a commenting feature will increase the amount of time users spend in our product.”
This sounds straightforward, but it will probably take you a few attempts. Take your time—it’s super important to get this part right, as your hypothesis will determine what you build.
3. Ideate & prioritize
Next, it’s time to get creative and start thinking about what a new product idea might look like. Encourage your team to brainstorm without limits at first, then gradually narrow down to the best ideas. You could even do an ideation hackathon to get the whole team focused on the problem.
Once you have a few solid options, plan out how each solution could work in practice by assigning scores for predicted value and feasibility to build. There are many ways of prioritizing your options—some very detailed. The simplest way is the ICE framework: score each solution out of 10 for the Impact (I) it’ll have, your Confidence (C) that it’ll solve the problem, and the Ease (E) of building it, then compare the average scores to get a prioritized list.
4. Prototype & test
The final stage of product discovery is where you can start prototyping new products or features. But don’t get too carried away—the idea is just to create some quick prototypes for user testing. You could make a working MVP (Minimum Viable Product), a mockup using a design tool, or even a paper prototype.
With your prototype done, now’s the time to reach out to users again. Run some prototype tests and collect user feedback to find out if you're building the right product. If your users’ responses validate your hypothesis and early iteration, you’re ready to start development. If not, keep tweaking your prototypes until you’re confident that the solution you’re proposing is really what your users are looking for.
Learn more 💡
Dive deeper into each of these steps in the product discovery process chapter of this guide.
The benefits of product discovery
Like many best practices of modern product development, a lot of the product discovery process seems like common sense. But as the fall of Quibi shows, the benefits of investing time into product discovery are still often overlooked to this day. So let’s take a look at some of the main ones:
You’ll save time & money
Product teams spending weeks or months doing a lot of thinking and not very much building might seem counterintuitive to the fast startup culture they exist in. The demands of key stakeholders to drive metrics and business goals by shipping new products is a constant pressure for most product teams.
But cutting corners with user research to press on with development is a massive—and very expensive—risk. You’re essentially gambling on assumptions about what your users want, which could turn out to be false no matter how experienced you are. Product discovery gives you validation on whether your product needs to exist before spending a lot of money building, polishing, and marketing it. It makes you more agile, not less.
Sebastien Phlix, Product Manager at N26, sums it up:
Think about how much one two-week sprint costs. 10k? 20K? Product discovery is important because engineering and design time is the most precious asset a company has.
Sebastien Phlix, Product Manager at N26
Your products will be more innovative
By incorporating customer viewpoints from the beginning, product discovery inspires your team to challenge their own assumptions and think outside of the box when making product decisions. This doesn’t just lead to more innovative solutions—it also validates which of your ideas are market opportunities.
Freddie Beesely, VP of Product at Attest, sees innovation as the true value of product discovery:
Product discovery helps you expand within your market, move into new ones, stay ahead of the competition, and adapt to changing trends. Without discovery, products tend to stagnate by getting stuck focusing on the short-term.
Freddie Beesely, VP of Product at Attest
Your product designers and development team will thank you
Product discovery gives you a good idea of whether your new product or feature will be used. And for product designers and developers, seeing their creations help thousands or even millions of people is one of the best parts of the job. Without product discovery, your team members won’t get the feedback they crave.
Fadeelah Al-horaibi, Senior Product Manager at Slite, knows the feeling:
I've unfortunately been in an environment where product discovery was skipped. No-one was talking about the customer or business opportunities—just product delivery. The scariest part is that once the delivery took place, we were straight on to the next.
Fadeelah Al-horaibi, Senior Product Manager at Slite
Pivoting late in the development process—or worse, releasing a feature that no one uses—just doesn’t feel good. In many ways, the product development process is all about failing and learning. But without staying close to your customers, it’s hard to even know whether your team succeeded or not.
Before Quibi, co-founder Jeff Katzenberg was CEO of Dreamworks Animation. On his watch, the company created an incredible run of unlikely hit movies, including Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, and How To Train A Dragon. His ability to make films that kids loved led him to claim that he “knows millennials better than millennials.”
Ultimately, product discovery is there to protect you from making costly mistakes due to following false assumptions like these. As Marc Davies, Product Lead at Oliva, says:
Product discovery is important because it's too easy to build the wrong thing which your ego thought was the right thing.
Marc Davies, Product Lead at Oliva
For some deeper dives into topics related to product discovery, check out the next chapters of this guide.