Product discovery is the notion of testing ideas and theories to see if the market wants our product. It includes activities such as coming up with presentations, potential questions, determining the appropriate market segments and potential customers, and identifying key contacts to speak with, often beginning with other product managers.... is the process of finding the product and feature set that satisfies your target market.
Product Discovery is at the core of every product manager’s job. It is why most of us become product managers. We love the creative challenge of solving market problems. We love being in the hub of a team trying to find product market fit. This is a primer for product managers preparing their team to work on product discovery for the first time.
What is Your Approach?
Product Discovery comes in all sorts of flavors. Before tackling product discovery, it’s important to to have some context.
What kind of company are you with?
- Are you an entrepreneur with your own idea? Are you still discovering your market?
- Are you with a startup team that already went through product discovery? Do they believe they already have product market fit?
- Are you with a major enterprise that is launching product extensions and adjacent businesses rather than brand new products?
What kind of product are you working with?
- Are you in charge of innovating new products or discovering features for existing ones?
- Are you in the B2B or B2C space?
- If B2B, is it SMB, Mid-Market, or Enterprise?
- Are you in a mature market segment or a new market?
- Are you trying to make a new product category or build a better mousetrap for the existing one?
What kind of product manager are you?
- Are you a the creative with ideas or the architect that helps creatives find their path to market?
- Are you an guider of process or a creative innovator that needs organizers to stay on track?
- Are you a domain expert or market guide to domain experts that can’t connect with their market?
These are important questions to answer as you walk into any product team. Knowing yourself and what kind of company you like to work in can help you find the best approach to building your team and bringing your product to market.
Product Discovery Sources: Where the Ideas Come From
Career product managers are always bubbling with ideas. In today’s tech world, great ideas come from all corners. You can’t bottle lightening, but there are ways to think about innovation that are typical of serial entrepreneurs.
Ok, let’s not leave this out. It’s the oldest form of innovation. If you’re Archimedes, Michelangelo, or Steve Jobs, then you’ve got the tools and resources to invent over and over again.
Finding a genius who both knows it all and can marshall a team is a lucky find. It’s like finding a benevolent dictator. The flaws of genius is the stuff of Shakespeare plays– lots of them.
There’s only a few geniuses of this kind in every generation. Often, it’s only a generation later we recognize their genius. If you’re in this category, go out and pound the pavement for venture money. Our hat is off to you. You won’t find any job postings on the boards for this kind of product manager, but these kinds of product geniuses cut their own path.
R&D was the focus of product development for most of the 20th century.
Sometimes engineers come up with something awesome and need a product manager to find the market. R&D was core to Proctor & Gamble’s success that drove the need for the original brand managers. Great R&D is the famous story of Post-Its. It is how CNN’s R&D team came up with The Magic Wall for the 2008 election. The stories go on.
Sometimes your engineers are that alpha customer that knows what the market wants before anyone else. This is especially true of technical products, where there is not much difference between the buyer (an engineer) and the person who built it (another engineer). Think of B2B Technology Markets like IT Security or Software Tools.
R&D is critical to industries where patents can create a sustainable competitive advantage. A quick look at the top spenders on R&D and you’ll see the world’s largest automotive, pharmaceutical, consumer packaged goods, and electronics companies.
Besides Google, not many Internet or software companies in that list. Why don’t more consumer web, SaaS, and mobile app companies spend on R&D? In part, it is because of new startup frameworks like Customer development refers to a methodological approach for building startups, and one of three parts of Lean Startup. The largest assumption with customer development is that the company has no facts about anything product related and must test everything.... and the Lean, shortened from Lean Manufacturing or Lean Production, is a program of best practices that systematically minimizes waste during certain processes without sacrificing productivity.... Startup. In part, R&D is not as productive in fields like media and software where rapid prototyping and innovation is an option and doesn’t need as much investment.
Serial entrepreneurs have a natural instinct to think about the great market problems of their day:
- How to make air travel more convenient? (Southwest)
- How to reduce traffic and make sharing cars more convenient? (Lyft)
- How to organize my music so I can listen to what I want when I want? (Apple)
- How to track my sales team and customers better? (SalesForce)
- How to find stuff on the Internet? (Google)
All of these products started with a market problem and then explored solutions to fix it that were compelling and valuable to the target market.
If you’re an entrepreneur, this is a great place to start. If you’re a product manager trying to discover features for a product, it’s important to recognize who your most valuable market segments are and understand their problems when they use your product.
Central to design thinking is the idea of observing and empathizing with your customer. Product managers should use their product and observe customers who use their product.
- If you work as a product designer at Asics, you’re probably spending time with fanatic runners.
- If you work at Fit, you probably talk to health fanatics.
- If you work at Intuit’s Mint, you probably spend time talking to young people organizing their finances.
- If you work at NetSuite, you probably spend time talking to Small Businesses who use your product.
- If you work at Splunk, you probably spend time talking to Enterprise IT Security teams.
The idea is that your best ideas will come from understanding the user’s problems. Often this involves seeking out so-called alpha customers, people who drive innovation. These are the fanatic runners who really care how the shoelaces are tied. There the people that write those long reviews on Amazon (without being paid). They’re the early adopters who will use a new product more intensely and drive innovation. Driving that innovation into the mainstream is the famous topic of Crossing the Chasm.
Rapid prototyping is a core concept in Agile Development. Sometimes building the product and failing fast is the quickest option. Why go out and talk to all those customers about your idea when you can just prototype it first? Maybe they don’t know what they want until they see it.
The focus in this approach is on the Minimum Viable Product. Start with your business hypothesis and create a prototype that is just good enough. Then test your hypothesis on the market. Measure the results, learn and build the next release.
This approach works great for web products that can be put together on the shoestring of open source and re-usable components. 3-D Printing is opening new doors for this kind of innovation with physical products as well.
Rapid prototyping is a favorite of lean startups and innovators who don’t have ready access to market research.
Product Discovery is a long journey. For more on how to take your product through the full lifecycle, check out these Vision and Bricks Primers:
Ross Reynolds works a product manager in brand protection and media. He currently is VP of Product & Marketing for Marketly, a startup in Silicon Valley. He likes building products and helping new ventures grow.