How to Master Product Discovery in 3 Steps: an Intro Guide

Profile image of Joana Pereira, CareerFoundry blog author

How did product discovery enter mainstream product management? While in the 1990s and 2000s product managers were far more likely to be asked about their product delivery abilities than their product discovery skills, in more recent years, the needle has shifted considerably. 

This change can be partly attributed to the fact that companies began to realize the very real, very tangible heavy cost of building software without first ensuring its viability: these days, a product manager should strive to build just enough to attain commercial success, and so product discovery has entered the limelight. 

Table of contents:

  1. Demystifying product discovery: What is it?
  2. The 3 steps of product discovery
  3. More product discovery resources for PMs
  4. Final thoughts
  5. Product Discovery FAQ

Demystifying product discovery: What is it?

To put it very simply, product discovery is a non-linear process that allows companies in general and product managers in particular to investigate, analyze, understand and prioritize what to build

While this process in itself can take many different forms, its goal should be crystal clear: to validate any assumptions and to gain a much better understanding of both what a company should build and why. 

Why product discovery matters

The phrase “product discovery” has, thanks to product expert Teresa Torres, evolved into a more complex one: continuous product discovery has, thanks to Torres, become if not an industry standard, then at least an industry aspiration. 

By qualifying it as an ongoing, never finished, process that evolves in continuity, Torres signaled a significant departure from the waterfall mindset that had prevailed until then and re-positioned product discovery as an iterative agile process

At the same time, continuous discovery started gaining some traction as an instrument to cut down on development costs, particularly in cases where the answer was not more nor faster software development, but better validation of the problem space or the viability of the product.

In today’s context of tech layoffs and in light of the premium now placed by companies on profitability as opposed to growth, continuous product discovery, coupled with other product management skills such as no-code development, are proving to be particularly in demand among employers, as much cheaper ways of reducing risk.

Now that we know what it is and why it’s important in today’s product landscape, how does it work in practice? 

The 3 steps of product discovery

doing product discovery right takes practice

While there’s no single correct way of organizing product discovery efforts, the following three-step process is both an easy way to get started and to build on, as efforts are refined and experience accumulates. 

One word about the people involved in product discovery: the concept of the product trio (product manager, designer, and tech lead) has become extremely popular in recent years, but it’s not necessarily easy to implement in every single company. If you’re working for a bootstrapped startup for instance, you might need to be a strong advocate as to why having these stakeholders on board is NOT a waste of time, but a very valuable way to make impactful decisions.  

Step One: Research

Research can be a very encompassing umbrella term, but it can also become an opportunity to kick start the discovery process in a focused and structured way.

The goal here is to uncover any potential opportunities for the company or the product worth exploring further. This might involve conducting market research at some level, but in user-focused product discovery it’s equally common to start by digging into user feedback and move from there. 

If you do decide to start from user feedback, remember that it can be found in multiple places and forms: support tickets, product analytics, NPS or other scores/review systems, or even in your CRM. The main thing is, analyzing that feedback should allow you not just to gain a better understanding of what your customers and/or users might be struggling with, but also how and if these are problems that your company would be in a position to solve for.

Tip: the JTBD (Jobs to be Done) framework is a useful tool to summarize the findings of your research. It also delves quite nicely into the next stage of product discovery: solution ideation. 

Step Two: Solution ideation

Take your newly discovered JTBD, or any findings if you’ve chosen to use a different format, and zoom out of the user problem space for a while.

Once we move to step two of product discovery, solution ideation, comes the time and the place to map out the opportunities hiding behind each problem uncovered during the research stage. Techniques which can be used during this stage include:

  • Impact Mapping
  • Opportunity Solution Tree
  • Experience Maps

The focus of all of these isn’t, strictly speaking, to agree on a specific technical implementation which would solve a particular issue. 

Instead, the goal’s to start analyzing and making some decisions on which opportunities might be worth pursuing. This means that not only their technical feasibility should be taken into account, but their business viability as well. As cool as some Shiny Objects might be, they’re not much use to a company unless they can be monetized.

Tip: If you can take one Job to be Done, or one idea and tie it back to one or more of your product’s Principles, it’s a good sign that you’re on the right track. 

Step Three: Testing

A lot can be included under the umbrella term of testing. Ideally, at this point no one is jumping into actually developing anything (no code options are best), but rather trying to double-check whether the proposed solution to solve one or more problems will actually produce the expected result or not. 

Testing can take place in many different ways, depending on resources available and also on whether what requires testing is a potential brand new product, a product line or an additional feature to an existing product. While the goal is to be as close to early iterative testing as possible, that concept may take on many forms depending on the company in question. 

Just to give one example, feature flags are very effective when it comes to testing, but are hardly something easy to deploy unless there is an entire technical infrastructure already in place. For startups in particular, leveraging no code tools or using more rudimentary methods of prototyping is no reason for shame: the main thing is to get results and even a paper prototype will be enough, when used correctly. 

More product discovery resources for PMs

If you’re just getting started with product discovery, getting acquainted with Teresa Torres might just be the place to increase your knowledge on the topic: Continuous Discovery Habits is no longer simply a book title, but a skill that is featured more and more often in job descriptions as well.

If longer readings don’t scare you, do consider spending some quality time going through Tim Herbig’s chapter on product discovery for product teams.

Finally, Innovat Labs have recently put together a very comprehensive, catch-all guide for Product Discovery complete with examples from companies such as Zendesk. 

Final thoughts

Product discovery has come a long way since the time when it was thought of as a one-time thing companies could just brush off. Higher rates of competition between different companies, as well as recent economic developments, have elevated the importance of product discovery. It’s here to stay, and product managers have their work cut out for them to continuously discover what their customers and users are willing to pay for.

If you’re ready to get started in product management, consider taking CareerFoundry’s free product management intro course. Not quite there yet? Here are a couple of articles from our blog that might be relevant: 

Product Discovery FAQ

What are the different methods of product discovery?

Possible methods and techniques employed during product discovery include product research, market research, user interviews, user feedback, focus groups, journey mapping, product analytics, feature flags and A/B tests. There isn’t one standardized method to conduct discovery: each company needs to find out what works for them.

How do I start a product discovery process?

Depending on the starting point, it’s possible to start product discovery from user data, from hypotheses, from research, or from an ideation session. The key thing here is to assume a permanent state of continuous discovery in so far as it’s feasible to do so. 

What is product ideation vs discovery?

Product ideation is a specific stage in the product discovery process: it refers to the act of coming up with ideas or concepts for an entire new product or feature. Techniques such as brainstorming can be used for product ideation. Product discovery encompasses the full process of deciding what to build next for a product.

How do I prioritize different problems to address?

Problems to be solved stem (hopefully) from customer feedback. But your product doesn’t have to solve for everything. So when deciding what to prioritize, remember to consider the specificities of your company as well: its goals, strategy, resources and business priorities. 

How to do good product discovery?

Good product discovery isn’t about adhering to a specific method, but about embracing the goals of the entire process. The ultimate goal of it is to build only stuff that matters, stuff that creates a positive impact for that product or that company. 

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