Take a group of people involved in the product design cycle and ask them a seemingly simple question: ‘What does Product Discovery mean to you?’ Chances are you’ll get answers like: ‘It’s the opposite of product delivery’, ‘It’s testing hypotheses upstream of development’, ‘Or maybe it’s fishing for feedback and information?’, ‘It’s spotting business opportunities and available resources’, ‘Um, isn’t that the product owner’s job?’, ‘Or perhaps it’s part of the Product Manager’s responsibilities?’, ‘It’s a state of mind: focussing on the user’s problems… and finding solutions!’
As you can see, there are as many definitions and solutions as there are people to ask. But, as our panel shows, few take into account the fact that product discovery is first and foremost a process of learning and continuous improvement.
And surely the main point about learning is that it isn’t a process that can be strictly bound to any one path. To recognise this is to finally free ourselves from those mystifying debates between experts. Because, as we shall see, nobody has a monopoly on product discovery!
1. A limited-access area?
Of course, this did not appear overnight. Product Discovery did not simply come from nothing. Melissa Perri, Teresa Torres, Marty Cagan, and more. It too has its masterminds, its functions, its methods… and its core texts: Escaping the Build Trap: How Effective Product Management Creates Real Value, Continuous Discovery Habits: Discover Products that Create Customer Value and Business Value, Inspired: How to create tech products customers love. But even Marty Cagan, author of the latest book, and spiritual father of product discovery, admits that he is not comfortable with overbearing names and labels… They contradict the vision and openness he was hoping to generate with the idea of product discovery.
Its origins? It all started in the world of research and, more specifically, in the pharmaceutical industry, which places risk at the heart of its scientific culture. Indeed, most medicines will never make it out of the research laboratory. Ineffective, dangerous, allergenic, and so on and so forth, these criteria get in the way of their creation, production, distribution and, in the final phase of the cycle, sale.
And so the term ‘discovery’ expresses the long process of arriving, step by step, at a viable drug that works. Beyond the pharmaceutical industry alone, it encourages product managers and their teams to consider the risks of value, usability, feasibility and viability.
Product discovery in 4 key points:
So what is another advantage of product discovery according to Marty Cagan? Its neutrality. It is impossible to associate ‘discovery’ with any particular technique or method. This is an essential point because, while techniques and methods come and go, discovery remains. However, despite this flexible nature, the discourse surrounding product discovery still fails to fall under the radar of many companies, tech or marketing teams, steering committees or management teams. Too elitist, too proselytizing, too idealistic, too disconnected from the reality of the field… Product discovery is often criticised for being a matter for experts, with functions that appear obscure to the uninitiated, and methods and tools that are not very applicable outside the world of tech startups.
2. Risk: a thousand and one ways to manage it
Does this mean that there’s no risk in other companies? That these key players are not equipped to deal with it? Not really. When questioned, CIOs as well as marketing, customer or digital departments, from VSEs-SMEs as well as large groups, also say that they take risks into account and, after analysis, try to limit their impact. And that’s simply to be expected. How else can you avoid business failure?
The difference? They use a different vocabulary. For them, product discovery refers to the risk assessment and analysis phase, which is launched at a very early stage, often before any development has even begun. It is part of the opportunity or scoping study, but this stage rarely extends beyond the project phase, let alone to delivery.
Product discovery is often criticised for being a matter for experts.
There is no such thing as zero risk, and risk can never be completely ruled out. Caution must be exercised and all possibilities must be considered. Take, for example, competition. Do you really think that your competition will resign itself to staying, perfectly happily, in the shadow of your product? Pretty unlikely. What once made your business successful can quickly become its undoing. From user needs to technologies, from business models to uses: today, everything is changing faster and faster. It is therefore impossible to rely on the same assumptions, hypotheses and information for too long and not to start looking for new solutions. As a result, product discovery covers a range of activities that need to be carried out throughout the product life cycle and not just at the design stage.
The customer is often right
Indeed, even the best products in the world, accompanied by the best customer service, supported by the best product manager and the best data analysis, do not escape criticism. And this regardless of the efforts made by your teams or the vision top management tries to share. Increasingly savvy and clued-in consumers now want a user journey and a customer experience that doesn’t hit any wrong notes. With a click of the mouse, they can move on to the competition, become your greatest ambassadors… or your greatest foes. A problem? Not really if we recognise, like Bill Gates, that ‘your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning’! A principle that works, primarily, because it invites us to place ourselves in a position of listening and empathy. A vision which, above all, encourages a change of approach, a rethinking of product development methods.
Bill Gates’ advice: ‘Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning!’
The days of selling mass-produced goods are well and truly over. It’s now time to make way for hyper-customisation. The challenge? Not just designing a single product for each individual, but seeing the users as full members of the project. Of course, not everything this somewhat unusual stakeholder says should be taken at face value. The data and information provided by users must be carefully analysed. And then it’s a question of sorting them. On the other hand, leaving the choice of options and functions to the user ensures the delivery of a product that meets the user’s needs, that provides a solution to the user’s problem and which therefore, in short, works. And isn’t that ultimately the most important thing?
A team product
This goal of discovering and designing the product that will meet users’ needs and expectations has always been in the sights of American startups. But there is no need to cross the Atlantic to find solutions and inspiration. Something closer to home? French trailblazers that play the game like Tiger Woods… Just like the golf champion, the management of these companies encourages the teams to shoot the first ball in what they consider to be the right direction, and then to move forward to perfect the product, based on the course and the feedback from the first users. Surprisingly, the golf metaphor can help demystify product discovery. Better still, it suggests that it is above all a state of mind that can be transferred to any context.
A state of mind that can be transferred to any context
Take, for example, the developers of a car rental company. It was only after spending several mornings in the agency that they realised how difficult it was to manage both a face-to-face meeting with a client and a complex computer system… A reversal of roles, an experiment, which led them to revise their initial hypotheses and to design an interface which was admittedly basic, but far more practical. Taking an interest in users is therefore not just a matter for startups or marketing departments alone.
The solution? There are many. However, product discovery is not just an added extra. Rather, it should be a permanent and continuous part of product development and design. Of course, breaking down the silos between the ISD, the tech teams and the marketing department is a more difficult task in large groups. But ideally, it should be part of the ISD’s objectives and involve a multi-disciplinary team. This mixing of genres and skills will in no way mean the death of the ISD. Quite the opposite! Still too often considered as an internal cost centre, it has the opportunity to fully play its part in the era of digital transformation we are experiencing today.
A discovery? No, a revelation!