8 Product discovery techniques to use at each stage of the process
In this chapter, we look at a list of techniques to use at each stage of the product discovery process and share examples from product managers in the community.
So far in this guide, we’ve talked a lot about how product managers should approach product discovery and the basic process they should follow. The principles to keep in mind with product discovery will always stay the same. And while the stages of the product discovery process might be divided and named differently from startup to startup, the overall framework doesn’t really change.
But when it comes to the actual techniques you use within each stage of your methodology, there are a lot to choose from. Every product team has its own tried-and-tested methods to achieve the goals of product discovery. Even so, it can be both interesting and useful to try out some new ones depending on the type of project you’re working on.
Here’s a list of techniques to use at each stage of the product discovery process.
Stage 1: Learn & understand
The first stage of product discovery is all about user research. There are countless different methods to explore the problem space—here’s a few of the most important.
The simplest route to finding out what your customers need is to ask them directly. Insights from customer interviews are as reliable as it gets—less direct techniques like data analysis let you draw some conclusions about your customers’ user experience and pain-points, but customer interviews go straight to the source.
The only potential downside of customer interviews is that they can take time—and if you’re providing an incentive, money—to organize. Best practice is to collect a number of user stories until you can spot clear themes or similarities in their responses. So once you manage to get a customer on the line, it’s vital to make the most of your time speaking to them. Here’s some quick tips:
- Write a list of questions: even if you don’t need it most of the time, check it towards the end to make sure you covered everything.
- Leave your ideas aside: it’s really important to let customers express their thoughts in their own words—avoid suggesting solutions before they’ve described the problem.
- Start simple, then go deeper: people open up more when they’re at ease. Begin the interview with some warm-up questions, then gradually direct the conversation towards discussing specific pain points.
Finally, if you found speaking to certain users particularly useful, don’t be afraid to reach out to them again. Diego Sanchez, Product Manager at Buffer, likes to form a core group of users to guide product development:
I remember we met with one customer probably every two weeks. They really helped us shape our early assumptions.
Diego Sanchez, Product Manager at Buffer
While quantitative data from product analytics is often used to measure performance after the product launch, it can also provide inspiration for new products and guide early decision making. By delving into product analytics data, you can validate what customers are saying about their needs and pain points with measurable data on how they actually use your product.
For example, let’s say a bunch of customers are using your product’s spreadsheet feature to create makeshift calendars. You could pinpoint a combination of traits that are unique to these spreadsheet calendars, then analyze how many of your users’ spreadsheets have these traits. Now you have a rough idea of how many people would use a new calendar feature.
Sam Tardif, Engineering Manager at Atlassian, sees product analytics as vital to idea validation:
If you don't have analytics in your product, add them in ASAP and start using data to help inform your product decisions. Otherwise you're making important decisions in the dark.
Sam Tardif, Engineering Manager at Atlassian
Quantitative data on its own can be interpreted in many different ways. To get a clear picture, always compare insights from data analysis to what your users are telling you.
The first stage of product discovery is a perfect time to take a long, hard look at the market and find gaps in the solutions that are currently available. By giving you a deeper understanding of the solutions on the market, competitor analysis also gives you a deeper understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve.
Remember: your competitors have gone through product discovery themselves, and their solution is a reflection of what they learned. So even if you’re already broadly aware of what’s out there, this is your chance to go undercover and properly use their product.
Create a free account, analyze user journeys, and take screenshots. Once you’ve done this with a few competitors, you can build up a map of strengths, weaknesses, and feature lists of your competitors. Use this to spot gaps in what’s available on the market.
Stage 2: Define & decide
Once you’ve completed your research, it’s time to make sense of it all and decide which user problem you want to focus on.
The five ‘whys’ technique
Your customers will give you unique insights on specific features that are missing from your product. But they can’t tell you the best solution—that’s a job for your team's design thinking. The search for a solution starts with reframing the problem.
The five ‘whys’ is one quick way of doing this. The idea is to take a surface level problem or customer request, and repeatedly challenge it until you arrive at the root cause of the issue. This allows you to develop a broader hypothesis that can be tackled in a holistic way, rather than fulfilling small feature requests without a clear overall product vision.
For example, let’s say your customers are requesting a feature that lets them assign tasks to their team members.
Why? Customers have to leave our app to distribute tasks among themselves on Slack.
Why? Our customers can’t collaborate directly in our app.
Why? We didn’t build in-app collaboration features.
Why? We haven’t prioritized team collaboration in our roadmap.
Why? We weren’t aware that collaboration was important to our customers.
From a minor feature request, your product team has discovered a much bigger question to answer: would a suite of collaboration features complete your product solution? This would form the basis of a good hypothesis—and could even lead to a whole new part of your product being developed.
Stage 3: Ideate & prioritize
With your problem decided and defined, the next stage of product discovery is all about getting creative with ideation and coming up with solutions.
Brainstorming is a straightforward, tried-and-tested way to get your team’s creative juices flowing. You gather the team together, give them some uninterrupted thinking time and post-it notes, then see what happens.
Many parts of product strategy call for brainstorms—some more fruitful than others. The infinite ocean of possibility that opens up in a brainstorm can seem daunting at times, leading to a lack of focus or ideas among participants.
To give people some healthy creative limitations and channel conversations in some interesting directions, here’s a few brainstorming exercises your team can try:
- Imagine that you have infinite time and resources to solve this problem.
- Imagine you only have one week to build a solution.
- Imagine your product only exists on mobile—no desktop.
- Imagine you end up building the worst possible solution. What would it look like?
Once you’ve got a board full of weird and wonderful ideas, it’s important to bring your brainstorm back down to earth. You’ll probably notice consistent themes emerging between post-its. Group similar post-its until you have a backlog of possible solutions, and highlight the ones that are viable with your business model and will have the biggest impact on key metrics.
Prioritizing what to focus on in your product roadmap is a major part of product management, which means there are a lot of different prioritization frameworks to choose from.
Some, such as the MosCow template, are more useful for figuring out which specific features you should include once you’ve committed to a solution. Others, such as the Kano model, start from the customer research phase.
For product discovery, your goal is to build a quick MVP (Minimum Viable Product) or prototype to be validated by users. So complex prioritization frameworks that require a lot of data entry or are designed to compare specific features aren’t what you need.
Instead, go with a quick and simple technique to rank potential solutions in terms of feasibility and viability. Here’s a couple of suggestions:
- Value vs. Complexity matrix: create a graph with predicted ‘value’ for customers on one axis, and the ‘complexity’ of building it on the other. This will help you separate quick wins from more major projects.
- ICE framework: score each solution out of 10 for the following categories, then compare average scores to get a prioritized list:
- Impact (I) you think it will have on your business
- Confidence (C) that it’ll solve the problem
- Ease (E) of building it, then compare the average scores to get a prioritised list.
Of course, you’ll be judging the value of potential solutions based on stakeholders' interests, their impact on business goals, and what you think users want. Whatever you decide, be prepared for your users to see things differently during testing.
Stage 4: Prototype & test
The final stage of project-based product discovery is about building a quick prototype, then testing it out with users until you're confident you've found the right product to move into product delivery.
Remember that the goal of product discovery is to validate an early product idea before you properly start the development process. So the quicker and more straightforward it is to build your prototype, the better. A paper prototype or low fidelity sketches would work perfectly—anything that’s easy to tweak, iterate, or scrap if needed based on customer feedback. Ideally, you won't even need a development team.
Tip: For everything you need to know on how and when to test your prototype, check out our guide to prototype testing.
The earlier you start usability testing, the better. Even if you lack the time or resources to arrange a lot of usability tests for product discovery prototypes, there are still rapid ways to get the user feedback you need on your early concepts and ideas:
- Remote usability testing: observe users across a range of locations trying your latest iteration in the comfort of their own home. For more reasons to go remote, head to our guide on remote usability testing.
- Unmoderated usability testing: with the right usability testing platform, you can simply create a test with your prototype and share it as a link. Find out more about unmoderated testing.
- Guerilla usability testing: usability testing doesn’t have to be an arduous task. If you’re low on time or budget, take to the streets with guerrilla usability testing.
Product tip ✨
Easily create and share usability tests for your product discovery prototypes with Maze. Find out more here.
Now, just because you've reached the prototype stage doesn't mean you've finished your product discovery. The best insights come from continuous product discovery—it's a mindset; a way of working that makes gathering customer feedback and iterating habitual.
To help you get started, you need the right toolkit for your journey: read on for our next chapter, all about product discovery tools.