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Product discovery: what you need to know

There’s a reason product discovery is emphasized time and again by experts in product management processes.

When executed well, it guides product development teams to find the right problems to solve for their customers.

Product discovery also ensures that teams avoid wasting time and company resources attempting to serve the wrong customers, solve the wrong issues, or build the wrong solutions.

When some of our customers asked us to help with text analytics for product teams, we realized just how important customer understanding was in product processes. Product teams don't have time to manually process massive amounts of survey comments to find opportunities, but they still need customer insights. These learnings are integral to product discovery.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves! Just what is product discovery, and more importantly, what makes it successful?

What is Product Discovery?

Product discovery is the process of clarifying answers to some of the biggest questions we have as product teams.

  • What pain points or problems do our users have?
  • What better product can we build that speaks directly to that user need?
  • What solutions exist that a real user will choose to use and be able to figure out?
  • Are these solutions viable from a product standpoint?

If you wanted a TL;DR, you could describe product discovery as the process of gaining a deep understanding of your users. This understanding empowers you to create a data-driven, customer-led product strategy.

Or, as Tom Herbig puts it, “the data-informed reduction of uncertainty in regard to problems worth solving and solutions worth building, through a series of nonlinear activities, conducted as a cross-functional team.”

Either way, there’s a lot to cover. You may see some overlap with product validation.  Product validation and product discovery aren’t the same, but they go together like salt and pepper.

So what’s the key to effective product discovery?

We’ve identified six essentials to help you establish - or revitalize - product discovery at your organization, bringing the focus back where it should be.

1.       Continuity is the name of the game

While product discovery is often introduced as the first step in new product development, it’s never something that’s over and done.

Continuous product discovery ensures your product never loses its relevance. It’s also the best way to guarantee your company continues to meet its full potential. Imagine a never-ending cycle, with your product becoming more customer-centric as you iterate.

So how do you make a discovery phase continuous?

Think about the basic discovery journey:

  • You begin by exploring the problem space
  • Choose a good solution, with appropriate ideation
  • Move on to prototyping, testing and product validation
  • Look at product usability, viability and feasibility

With these steps complete, your work would be just about done. You’d present your solutions to the product delivery team. They’d get to work on the product development process and build the solution that you’ve dreamed up.

But product development should never be static. Ideally, you want your product to keep evolving in step with the needs of your target consumers.

This means keeping a finger on the pulse of your users. It means analyzing customer feedback, reviews, and any other info you can get your hands on - continuously.

This never-ending information feed helps build a thorough understanding of the problem space. Your product team stays focused on what customers really need.

Change your one-time product discovery journey into a cycle, and you’ll find your product getting closer to the ideal with every iteration.

2.       Prioritize the problem space

Product discovery includes a lot of big questions, but one area should be your focus: the problem space.

At least 40% of your discovery potential should be spent here. A thorough understanding of the problem can save you from a thousand dead ends in ideation and prototyping.

Exploring the problem space means getting real and personal with your user base, and listening to what they’ve got to say. It means putting aside your own preconceptions on how the customer should interact with your product. Instead, watch what the user experience looks like in the real world.

Problem space discovery will involve a heavy amount of user research. That said, you don’t necessarily need to contract a survey service or hire a research team. Online text analytics software can make user research accessible to every member of your product team.

Make automated data analysis part of your discovery process, and gain a better understanding of your user base. With analytics software doing the heavy lifting, your team is free to continue the actual discovery journey.

3.       Use analytics software to understand your user base

Manual user research can be a huge time suck, which is why we recommend an automated solution.

Find software that integrates with your existing workflows to consolidate and analyze user data at every touch point. There are a few essentials to consider and the best choice for your team will depend on your specific needs - and your deal breakers.

We’re understandably biased, but Thematic provides thousands of product managers with the right insights at the right time. Our platform analyzes data from product reviews, social media, surveys, support chat: anywhere your users are providing feedback. You can see your full customer journey, and understand how users really experience a feature.

Screenshot from Thematic, showing themes

One feature that product teams especially love is the ability to zoom in on any issue to get as granular as you need. With any visualization, you can explore the data behind it, including specific user reviews or customer/support exchanges.

A representative of Doordash explains how this makes a difference when it comes to sharing information: “We’re able to harness customer feedback so beautifully. So it’s not just me saying, ‘these three Dashers emailed me’. It’s ‘these three Dashers said this and here’s what we’re seeing in the net promoter score (NPS).  I can be a better champion for our audiences because I have a better understanding and I have all the info.”

Keen to see how Thematic works magic on your data?  Book a consult with one of our team  - we'd be thrilled to show you round!‌

4.       Integrate product validation in your product discovery process

Whether you’re rolling out beta features or inviting a user segment to sign up for an experimental run, product validation is integral to any discovery cycle.

Product validation means a secondary exploration of the problem space. It comes after brainstorming and prototyping are complete and allows your team members to test the effectiveness of your product idea.

The same feedback analysis tools that made your problem space survey so effective can do the same with product validation. As Teresa Torres, founder of Product Talk, puts it: “Our customers are the experts. They’re better at evaluating whether our solution is a fit than we are.”

User sentiment is a key data point here. Analytics software can easily analyze user sentiment on the new features you are testing. It can also provide you with all the data you need to convince stakeholders you’ve got an evidence-based roadmap in hand.

5.       Stay focused on your target user

When working with real-time data from users, it’s important to understand exactly who your target market is.

Keep your business model top of mind - it’s not practical to please everyone. When doing user research for product design, focus on your target audience and give minimal attention to outliers.

Let’s say you’re a B2B company focused on companies with more than 200 employees, but with a starter option that allows you to sign a few smaller companies.

There’s nothing wrong with this model. But when you’re running product discovery and exploring the user experience for your current customers you’ll want to focus on the needs of your ideal customers - the bigger fish.

When your business goals inform your product discovery, you’re far more likely to end up with a successful product. Data from outliers can be analyzed separately, as pain points and user priorities are likely to be different.

6.       Avoid canonizing the process

Your users will change. Your product will change too. And you’ll need to evaluate your processes too - there’s no one size fits all.

When we want to be productive it’s easy to be drawn into three-step methods, six-step processes, or a master plan that promises to get you exactly where you want to go.

To be really effective, product discovery needs to be as much a mindset as a process.

Explore. Get to know your users, their needs and their pain points. Be empathetic, and put yourself in their shoes. Try to avoid making assumptions, and be willing to reimagine your starting point in the light of new information.

We all know the stories of products that fell flat because the makers just weren’t in touch with their user base.

Products like the Fire Phone, a spiffy-looking device that just didn’t meet customers' needs and ended up costing Amazon 170 million.

It’s easy to waste time and money following dead-end roads that someone on the product team, out of touch with the user base, dreamed up in a brainstorming session.

Final thoughts

By leveraging user insights and focusing on product discovery, your product development process will be solid as a rock.

More time will be spent designing features your customers will love, and your team, your users - and your stakeholders - will thank you for it.

Ready to scale customer insights from feedback?

Our experts will show you how Thematic works, how to discover pain points and track the ROI of decisions. To access your free trial, book a personal demo today.

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