Hi there, Product Talk readers! We can’t wait to share our latest Product in Practice with you. For this story, we spoke with a product team leading the Digital Hotels vertical at Seera Group, a travel and tourism company based in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). The team shares how they defined a new outcome and mapped out the opportunity space when COVID-19 ground international travel to a halt in 2020 and they were forced to discover a new market. Hope Gurion coached the Seera team using Product Talk’s Continuous Discovery Habits curriculum.
Want to check out the other posts in this series? You can find them here.
The words “travel” and “2020” don’t feel like they belong in the same sentence. Unless, of course, that sentence is, “I had to cancel all my travel plans in 2020.”
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, beginning in March 2020, many countries closed their borders and some even imposed hefty restrictions on domestic travel.
So you can imagine that a company like Seera and a team like Ahmed Guijou’s—which is focused on helping customers book hotel accommodations—would be facing a major crisis.
How could they adapt to a massive, sudden, and unforeseen obstacle? How could they quickly discover a new market?
We caught up with Ahmed Guijou, Product Director, Ahmed Abdallah, Front End Technical Lead, Eslam Tawakol, UX Designer, Senthil Kumar PG, Product Manager, and Walid Aktouf, UX Lead from the Digital Hotels vertical within Seera to learn more about their story.
The Challenge: International Travel Instantly Disappears
Before COVID-19, Ahmed Guijou described his team’s purpose as “helping customers book their dream vacation or business trip accommodations in the easiest way possible while helping the company establish itself as a market leader in the region.” The Digital Hotels vertical was an ecommerce platform where Middle Eastern customers could book their business or leisure accommodation locally or internationally. This might include places like hotels, aparthotels, resorts, apartments, or chalets.
But all that changed in the spring of 2020 when Saudi Arabia closed its international borders. “This had a direct impact on our hotel bookings as our primary customers were confined to make domestic bookings,” says Ahmed. “The pandemic also created a fear of meeting people in public places, particularly hotels.”
With the sudden elimination of international travel, Ahmed and his team saw a shift in demand from hotels to alternative accommodations like apartments, chalets, or Istrahas. Istraha means “resting place” in Arabic and it’s generally a large property with an outdoor area, barbecue, and a pool.
“From previous rounds of research, we were aware of a culture in Saudi of renting properties on a single-day basis in the same city where they reside,” explains Ahmed. “The purpose of these bookings is to have a large space with an outdoor area and pool to socialize with friends and family, almost like a mini retreat.”
Since the circumstances required focusing almost entirely on domestic sales, Ahmed says, “We had more clarity on supply and demand by city or area in Saudi Arabia. This led us to discover that our supply of alternative accommodations in certain cities was low or nonexistent—particularly in cities that don’t have many hotels, such as Abha and Taif.”
Next, the sourcing team carried out research to identify various means to secure alternative accommodations. They performed market research, which led them to identify a gap in the market.
Mapping out the Opportunity Space to Create a Path Forward
Walid Aktouf explains the process: “We knew upfront that since this is a marketplace, the opportunity space contains two types of customers: guests and hosts. Based on this we needed to create two separate trees, as each customer had different journeys and goals.”
With a marketplace model, the opportunity space contains two types of customers: guests and hosts. This means we needed to create two separate trees, as each customer had different journeys and goals. – Tweet This
Walid says that in the early stages of interviewing customers and collecting insights, they added opportunities haphazardly to each tree. “Our thinking was it was too soon to start grouping as no immediate patterns or trends have emerged.”
After conducting at least five interviews with each customer type, the product team started creating parent opportunities based on their perception of the problems. Walid explains, “At this point, the parent groups were simply labels like Content, Payment, Trust, and Miscellaneous and not higher level opportunities.”
The more interviews the team conducted, the easier it was to identify clear overarching opportunities. Walid says, “As a result, we reframed the parent labels into actual opportunities and reshuffled our tree. We narrowed it down to five high-level opportunities, like ‘I wish to have a smooth transaction,’ with multiple child levels like ‘I want hassle-free payment’ and ‘I wish I could pay on arrival.’ As you go down the tree, the opportunities become more specific.”
When we started mapping opportunities, our parent groups were simply labels. As we conducted more interviews, we reframed the parent labels and reshuffled the tree. – Tweet This
Synthesizing Learning with Visual Representation
One of the major benefits of using the opportunity solution tree? Walid says, “The tree served as a visual representation of all the insights and opportunities we were collecting from customers. This allowed us to organize learnings by hierarchy, by theme, or by size—for example, how frequently customers mentioned something.”
The opportunity solution tree served as a visual representation of all the insights and opportunities we were collecting from customers. – Tweet This
Ahmed Abdallah says the tree evolved along with the team’s understanding of the opportunity space: “The trees served as a way for us to incrementally shape our understanding of guests and hosts. Our tree was almost a reflection of our understanding of the opportunity space—as our understanding grows or changes, so does the tree.”
Our opportunity solution tree was almost a reflection of our understanding of the opportunity space—as our understanding grows or changes, so does the tree. – Tweet This
The team also used color to highlight the more valuable opportunities which they planned to explore first. Walid explains that they kept track of how often customers mentioned specific opportunities. They then posed the question, “If we solve this opportunity, how big of an impact will it have on customers?”
Using the answer to that question, they would center subsequent interviews around these opportunities to get a clearer understanding of how they would affect the customers’ overall experience. “This helped us assess and size the opportunities with more confidence,” says Walid.
Ahmed Abdallah says the tree was especially helpful because it helped them better understand the differences between booking a traditional hotel and alternative accommodation like an Istraha. “As we conducted more and more interviews, we noticed patterns in their journey that don’t apply to hotel customers. For example, when booking Istrahas, customers don’t spend the night. They book it from afternoon to midnight and spend the day at the property socializing and having a good time with family and friends. Hotel customers, on the other hand, primarily need a clean and comfortable place to spend the night—not a place to socialize and have fun. This was one of the biggest contrasts we found, among many.”
Summing up the benefits of using the tree to map opportunities, Walid says, “The tree made it easy to record, absorb, and even share our findings. By using trees, we made sure we didn’t lose record of any opportunities.”
The tree made it easy to record, absorb, and even share our findings. By using trees, we made sure we didn’t lose record of any opportunities. – Tweet This
Using the Tree to Guide Their Next Steps
The product team continued using the opportunity solution tree to guide their next steps in the discovery process. Eslam Tawakol explains that after identifying the most promising opportunities based on customer interviews, “We reframed these key opportunities we identified into themes that served as criteria for our competitive analysis. We analyzed our competitors on their experience, journeys, and business model and mapped it all in a Miro board.” Using the information they gathered, they created a matrix to score competitors on a scale of 1 (poor solution) to 5 (excellent solution).
The team returns to the tree on an ongoing basis to help them prioritize. Senthil Kumar PG says, “Our tree helps us focus on the most impactful opportunities. Everything on the tree is up to date and based on learnings from actual discussions with customers. This ensures our decisions are both relevant and evidence-based.” Senthil says the product team considers the tree to be a sort of “dashboard” where they can find the most relevant information at a glance.
Everything on the tree is up to date and based on learnings from actual discussions with customers. This ensures our decisions are both relevant and evidence-based. – Tweet This
Plus, the tree keeps everyone grounded in the same data points and means decision-making is a team effort. Senthil says, “Making decisions based on our tree is collaborative—everyone has a voice. It’s the starting point for most team conversations, and it guarantees that our discussions and negotiations revolve around facts and evidence, not our own opinions.”
Making decisions based on our tree is collaborative—everyone has a voice. It also guarantees that our discussions and negotiations revolve around facts and evidence, not our own opinions. – Tweet This
As a visual tool, the opportunity solution tree doesn’t just help the product team at Seera—it’s also an ideal way to keep stakeholders in the loop. This did require some slight changes so stakeholders wouldn’t get bogged down in the details. Ahmed Guijou says, “We reframed high-level opportunities into themes or customer needs, in a way that our stakeholders can better relate to. They didn’t need to know every little detail, so we created a shortlist of the most impactful and eye-opening opportunities to share with our stakeholders.”
During weekly checkpoints with stakeholders and management, the team would share new insights and highlight any concerns or risky assumptions they hadn’t yet tested. “We didn’t need to prepare any slides or formally present our progress,” says Guijou. “Instead, we gave them walkthroughs directly on our Miro boards. This informal approach enabled us to have an open discussion where stakeholders could share their input at any time, as opposed to a one-way presentation. Our approach with stakeholders was: ‘Here are our findings. This was our approach. Here is our next move. What do you think?’”
Reflecting on Their Challenges and Successes
As you might expect, the product team at Seera encountered a few obstacles and challenges when adopting opportunity solution trees and continuous discovery. Walid says recruiting hosts to interview was a hurdle initially and continues to be. “It gives us an early indication or warning that getting them to sign up to our platform will be even more challenging.”
Sizing opportunities was also challenging, Walid says, “As we were exploring a new product space, we didn’t have any existing data or numbers to help us size opportunities. However, the more we talked to customers, the more knowledge we gained. This gave us confidence that the opportunities we picked were the right ones.”
The more we talked to customers, the more knowledge we gained. This gave us confidence that the opportunities we picked were the right ones. – Tweet This
Walid cites the very nature of their project—understanding an entirely new product—as another challenge: “We were not trying to optimize anything, but rather find a product-market for an entirely new product. So we needed to address more than one opportunity to be able to create an MVP. Deciding which ones to validate and solve for first was difficult.”
But the team experienced some bright spots, too. They were lucky to have supportive management from the get-go, says Walid: “They gave us the room to properly explore the opportunity space. They also gave us whatever tools, resources, or other requests we needed.”
And it wasn’t just the management who contributed to their success. Walid says, “Engineers were super proactive as they were involved every step of the way. They created comprehensive prototypes with no requirements or briefs. Their invaluable contribution helped us quickly and effectively test with customers.”
And reflecting on the continuous discovery process as a whole, Walid can’t help but share his enthusiasm. “This process helped us innovate. We’re not copying competitors or creating something that already exists. We’re focusing on real customer problems that are yet to be solved or addressed in the market. We have early indications that we are about to provide real value to both our customer types, and it’s really exciting.”
Key Takeaways for Other Teams
Reflecting on the product team’s experience so far, Ahmed Guijou distills their learnings into a few key points.
- Never get complacent when it comes to interviewing customers
“No matter how repetitive the insights get, it’s important to keep your customers within arm’s reach—and there’s no better way to do this than by talking to them on a regular basis,” says Guijou. “If our insights got repetitive, we simply shifted our interview focus. There are always things we can learn more from our customers.”
No matter how repetitive the insights get, it’s important to keep your customers within arm’s reach—and there’s no better way to do this than by talking to them on a regular basis. – Tweet This
- Make sure the whole team is comfortable interviewing customers
Guijou stresses the importance of having everyone—whether product managers, designers, or engineers—get comfortable talking to customers. “It’s a lot more powerful when you talk to customers directly, as opposed to listening in on the conversation.”
It’s a lot more powerful when you talk to customers directly, as opposed to listening in on the conversation. – Tweet This
- Use interview snapshots religiously
Be sure to take notes during interviews in a format that others can easily understand. Guijou says his team took notes in real-time directly on the snapshot document and made sure to debrief soon after the interview to extract opportunities while the conversation was still fresh in their minds.
- Don’t be afraid to tear your trees down and build them again
“We had over ten different iterations on our tree,” says Guijou. He explains that after rounds of interviews, customer insights led them to identify different ways of looking at things and reshuffle the whole tree. “Changing direction is not a bad thing. Think of it as correcting instead of changing course. Always remain flexible, as new findings can emerge that might shift your focus.”
Changing direction is not a bad thing. Think of it as correcting instead of changing course. Always remain flexible, as new findings can emerge that might shift your focus. – Tweet This
- Every team member has a voice
The opportunity solution tree makes it easy to collaborate both within and outside the product team. “We loved dot-voting,” says Guijou. “It’s a fun and fair way for the team to make decisions quickly, and have an open discussion afterwards.”
2020 has taught us that we can’t anticipate the massive global changes that can transform our industry instantaneously. But we can develop skills and tools that will help us adapt to these unanticipated changes. The Seera product team’s story shows us how the opportunity solution tree can help teams quickly change course, evaluate new opportunities, and emerge with confidence in their new direction.
Reflecting on her experience with the Seera team, Hope says, “Working with the team as they evolved their approach to identify market needs, customer needs, and where to begin to prove that they were on the right track was so rewarding. They embraced the practices and were never discouraged—even when it was messy and they had to restructure their thinking. I know this journey will inspire other teams eager to experience the same purpose in their work by using continuous discovery methods and having supportive leaders who get why this is critical to success.”
Do you have a story about adopting continuous discovery at your company? Get in touch to let us know, and we may end up featuring your story in a future Product Talk post.