A few months ago, fellow Product Talk coach Hope Gurion and I sat down to discuss why there’s no single right way to do discovery.
Want to read Part 1 of the series? Find it here.
In this second conversation in the series, we discussed two core principles of continuous discovery: encouraging teams to discover opportunities through continuous touch points and prioritizing in the opportunity space rather than in the solution space.
You can watch the recording above or read an edited version of the transcript below.
Teresa Torres: Hi, everybody. Welcome to “Why There’s No Single ‘Right’ Way to Do Product Discovery.” I am Teresa Torres. I’m joined today by Hope Gurion. We’re both product discovery coaches with Product Talk. Hope, do you want to say hello and share a little bit about your background?
Hope Gurion: Sure. First of all, I’m appreciative, Teresa for your setting this up and for everybody joining. Teresa and I have worked together for a number of years and when I was heading up product teams at a couple of different companies. I am such a huge fan of these practices to help facilitate good decision-making in my teams. I want to help more and more teams take advantage of these practices.
Teresa: I’m going to share a little more of Hope’s background, just because I know how great it is. Hope led product teams at two different large companies. I met her when I worked with a few of her teams as a discovery coach. I feel like she’s one of the most thoughtful product leaders I’ve had a chance to work with. She’s really good at bringing change to an organization and helping teams adopt their discovery practices.
If you’re not familiar with me, I blog at Product Talk. I’ve been coaching product teams around the world for the last six years on how to develop stronger continuous discovery practices. And Hope and I are joined today by Melissa Suzuno, who is my blog editor at Product Talk, and she’s going to be helping with the chat and the Q&A. Melissa, do you want to go ahead and say hello?
Melissa Suzuno: Hi everyone. I’m Melissa. As Teresa mentioned, I help out with blog content on Product Talk. You may have seen some of my writing there because I help out with the Product in Practice series. I look forward to hearing all of your great questions later.
Teresa: Today we are going to be talking about why there’s no single “right” way to do discovery. This is actually the second part of a three-part series. If you missed Part 1, no worries, we’re going to do a quick review to help you get up to speed. Our goal is to make each webinar awesome in its own right. So don’t feel like you needed to have any prior knowledge.
Recap from Part 1
Teresa: Let’s dive in. We’re going to review briefly what we went through in Part 1, to help folks get caught up, and then we’re going to dive right into the next principles. The reason why Hope and I decided we wanted to tackle this topic is when we work with companies, helping their teams develop continuous discovery practices, inevitably they get to the point where they start to say, “Shouldn’t all my teams work the same way?”
Hope and I both believe this is really kind of the opposite of what the Agile Manifesto encourages us to do, which is to allow our teams to find what works best for them, and to constantly iterate and take a continuous improvement mindset to the way that we work. But we also recognize teams want to master their craft and that most companies want to develop a way of doing product. What we’re trying to do in this webinar series is find the right balance between principles that everybody can aspire to while giving your team freedom to explore how to implement those principles.
Rather than there being one right way to do continuous discovery, we advocate for allowing teams to find what works best for them, to constantly iterate, and to take a continuous improvement mindset to the way they work. – Tweet This
In Part 1, we talked about three different principles. The first was collaborative decision-making—encouraging your teams to make decisions as a product trio. How they do that is up to the team, but we really encourage this collaborative model.
The second principle we talked about was externalizing your thinking. Here’s an opportunity solution tree. That’s one way to do it. Customer journey maps, story mapping, impact mapping—there are lots of ways to externalize your thinking.
The third concept we talked about was being outcome focused. How do you help your teams shift from just thinking about outputs, like “What code did we ship?” to thinking about what impact that code had and asking “What metrics did we move?”
Today we’re going to spend the bulk of our time on two new principles. Hope and I are going to discuss each one for about ten minutes. Then we’re going to take a couple of questions on that principle. We’ll do the same thing for the second one. And then we’re going to jump back into all your questions. So we’re going to get a chance to explore this pretty in-depth.
Principle 4: Encourage Teams to Discover Opportunities through Continuous Customer Touch Points
What do we mean by opportunities? Opportunities are centered around your customer. What are your customers’ needs? What are your customers’ pain points? What are your customers’ desires? Where are there opportunities for you to intervene in your customers’ lives in a positive way?
Opportunities are centered around your customer. What are your customers’ needs? What are your customers’ pain points? What are your customers’ desires? – Tweet This
We talk a lot about continuous touch points with customers because the world is always changing. And we want to make sure that we’re keeping this tight connection. That’s the big idea we’re going to discuss briefly. And then we’re going to take a couple of questions. Hope, I know you’re a big advocate of this problem framing, opportunity space exploration. Do you want to jump in with what you think is important here?
Hope: I think part of the reason that this is so important is because it’s so natural for us to want to solve problems. We’re so eager to solve problems that sometimes we miss what is the most important problem for us to solve next. The language is a little awkward. It may not be a problem; it might just be an unmet need. So this is where the word “opportunity” tries to help broaden that. Think about what you’re going to need to do to get customers to adopt whatever it is that you will ultimately create to solve for that unmet need.
We’re so eager to solve problems that sometimes we miss what is the most important problem for us to solve next. – Tweet This
People only understand themselves and their problems and they understand them very, very well. The more that you’re putting your framing of decision-making into the language that your customer would use to describe those problems, the easier it is for you to have meaningful conversations. Not just with your customers, but with all your other customer-facing groups, marketing, customer support, sales, etc., because they’ll be saying “I totally have heard that problem from customers before. Now you’re giving me a way to help them solve it.” And that increases adoption and drives toward your desired outcome. Getting everybody aligned around these opportunities—from the perspective of the customers experiencing them—is such an important activity. That provides tons more purpose to your discovery and your solution development.
Teresa: I think the piece that you touched on that I really want to highlight is, how do we know that we’re solving the most important problem? Most product teams are really motivated to meet their customers’ needs.
So it’s easy to fall into the trap of hearing about a problem and trying to immediately solve it without knowing if it’s the highest impact problem to solve. We don’t know if it’s the most important problem to solve, and this problem framing is actually limiting in and of itself. We have lots of needs as customers, but we also have wants and desires. And it’s easy to forget about these opportunities to relate.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of hearing about a problem and trying to immediately solve it without knowing if it’s the highest impact problem to solve. – Tweet This
One of the best ways to think about this is: I don’t really need a beer, but I want a beer at the end of the day. If nobody was meeting that want, my life would be far less interesting than it is now. You can think about it in your own life. What are the things you desire that aren’t really needs, but you’re really glad that there’s somebody out there servicing those opportunities?
The language is a little awkward—if I could go back in time, I would have probably tried to word it differently. But the idea of an “opportunity” is that it’s trying to get you to think more broadly than just solving problems or meeting needs. You also want to tackle desires.
That’s why we’re talking about exploring the opportunity space. One of the ways that we encourage teams to do that is to continuously engage with customers through interviewing. I want to get a sense for how often you are engaging with customers today. It looks like a lot of you are talking to your customers weekly, which is fantastic.
For a lot of us, though, interviewing is new. We don’t engage with our customers that often. We rely a lot on our customer-facing teams. If you’re never talking to customers, try to talk to them quarterly. If you’re talking to them quarterly, try to talk to them monthly. If you’re talking to them monthly, try to get to weekly. We really want to apply that continuous improvement mindset even to our own practices. You don’t have to be perfect at this. But what we find is that when product teams talk to their customers regularly, they’re more likely to co-create with their customers. They’re more likely to see their assumptions that might be wrong.
When product teams talk to their customers regularly, they’re more likely to co-create with their customers. They’re more likely to see their assumptions that might be wrong. – Tweet This
I’ve been advocating that product teams interview their customers every week. When I first started saying this six years ago, people thought I was asking for the impossible. It’s now becoming more of a norm. I think that when teams interview their customers every week, it’s a habit that fuels other discovery habits. They start to see their assumptions, they start to prototype more, they start to experiment more. Hope, I know you’ve had this experience as well with the teams that you’ve worked with and the teams that you’ve managed. Do you want to talk a little bit about the power of interviewing regularly and maybe also about some of the mistakes you see teams make in their interviews?
Hope: Well, first of all, let me cover making the time for it. We can find our calendars quickly filling up with meetings. Our time is precious. We want to try to maximize time. And the thing that I found to be very powerful with my own product teams, but also with the teams that I coach, is the more that you just lock and protect the time to do this every week, the higher probability that you can do this every week.
If you have to try to squeeze it into an already full week, it might fall off of your prioritization. The more that you have a set protected time for you to co-discover as a team, as a trio, and automate your recruiting, the higher probability that you can stick to a weekly cadence of learning from your customers. That’s the mistake that I see teams make, and I think it’s incumbent upon the product leader to help the teams protect that time and make that a priority.
The more that you have a set protected time for you to co-discover as a trio and automate your recruiting, the higher probability that you can stick to a weekly cadence of learning from your customers. – Tweet This
When people are struggling week-to-week to try to find people to fill that time, they tend to go back to internal signals as opposed to customer signals. What do you most need to learn this week to move forward with good decisions is generally how to think about what’s going to be a great use of that time this week.
Teresa: I’ll touch briefly on what you should be doing in your interviews. Because one of the biggest mistakes I see teams make is using interviews to vet their solution ideas. But really when we’re talking about interviews, we’re looking to generate opportunities. So we’re trying to understand our customer’s context, their stories, and what’s happening in their life. It’s about your customer; not your product.
Interviews are about your customers; not your product. – Tweet This
What we don’t want is for people to say, “Hey, look at my great idea. What do you think?” We teach a way of collecting customer stories. We are encouraging teams to ask questions like, “Tell me about a time when…”
We teach a real story-based interviewing format because it’s what leads to more reliable answers. And it’s also what leads to really understanding unmet needs, pain points, and desires. The key takeaway here is in your interviews, you want to spend 100% of your time exploring your customer’s context, your customer’s needs—and not exploring solutions.
In the same customer touch point, you might do part interview, part prototype test, and that’s fine. In the next part of this series, we’ll talk a lot about how to do those prototype tests. But generally, when you think “interview,” you want to think about discovering opportunities. Hope, anything you want to add? Are we ready for some questions?
Hope:I think we’re ready for questions.
Teresa: All right, Melissa, what do you have for us on interviewing?
Questions from the Audience: Discovering Opportunities
Melissa: One of the first questions is a very simple one: How do you choose the customers that you do the interviews with?
Teresa: This is a really good question. For teams that are just getting started, I would recommend talking to any customer. If you have never talked to a customer, you could talk to a complete outlier and you’re still going to learn great things. As you build your interviewing muscle and you start talking to customers regularly, I encourage you to interview for variation. You want to talk to power users. You want to talk to first-time users. You want to talk to really active users. You want to talk to some of your disengaged users. You want to talk to people that use every feature, people that only use one or two things.
With qualitative research, you’re not going to get a representative sample. You’re not going to get statistically significant data. What you’re trying to uncover in your qualitative research is how much variation there is in behavior. So the wider the breadth of people you talk to, the more variation you’re going to uncover. One of the things we teach in our interviewing course and in our coaching is to help teams automate the recruiting process. In the early days of doing that, you may not have a lot of control on who’s coming into your interviews. So this is something that I encourage teams to get better at over time. Just start talking to whoever’s easy to talk to, and then over time you can fine-tune it for variation.
Hope: Again, the language isn’t always perfect. If we only talk to our existing customers, variation is important—power users, light users, theoretical users, people who maybe paid for the product, but haven’t actually done anything with it yet, so non-users who are customers. Prospective customers—people who fit the profile of a target customer or user, but aren’t yet using the product—are also super helpful to learn from. Lost customers are super helpful to learn from. Customers of your competitors are super helpful to learn from. The term “customer” encompasses a lot. You can get a lot of variety and you’ll have a rich set of opportunities if you have a rich set of customer discussions.
Teresa: A lot of people are asking, “Can we still talk to customers in a COVID world?” I just want to touch briefly on how your discovery might need to change based on what’s happening in the world in this moment in time.
Obviously this is going to depend on who your customers are. If your customers are healthcare workers, you might not want to be reaching out to talk to them all the time right now. If they’re respiratory nurses and doctors and they’re overwhelmed, you’re probably not going to get their time. But if they’re a surgeon doing elective surgeries that have all been postponed, they might actually have a ton of time right now. The thing to think through for doing interviews right now is, how are your customers being impacted and how can you be really human about how and when and where you reach out?
I am hearing from a lot of the teams that I’m working with right now that it’s actually easier than ever to talk to their customers because they’re all working from home. Their schedules are really flexible and they’re craving human connection. So, don’t assume that just because we’re in a crisis, your customers don’t have time for you. And those guidelines apply—I have clients that are working with airlines and hotels and healthcare providers. They have to change the way they reach out and who they reach out to, but they are still finding ways to talk to their customers.
Hope: Understanding how your customer’s context has suddenly changed for some indeterminate amount of time is a very natural reason to reach out to people. And you can have a more generative discussion about how their work has changed, how their priorities have changed, how their context has changed, how their needs have changed.
Especially if they’re existing customers, it is not uncommon for people to reach out to say, “We’re here to support you and we want to figure out how to best support you in this time.” I’ve talked to a lot of teams where they may have had contractual obligations to certain customers. And if you don’t revisit whether those obligations are still important, you can be going down a path that misses the mark in terms of your true customer needs, which is why the frequent touch points with a variety of customers is going to help you make smarter decisions as a product team.
Teresa: For those of you who are really worried about how things changed given the current climate, I did a podcast interview with the Mind the Product podcast team about doing discovery in a COVID world. Be sure to check that out if you want to go deeper on this topic.
Melissa, do you have a quick question on discovering opportunities and then we’ll come back to more questions on this after we talk about the next principle?
Melissa: One of the other questions we got was about the ratio or relationship between product and design in these interviewing activities.
Teresa: I wrote a blog post that’s an excerpt from a book that I’m writing about continuous discovery. Here’s what I advocate for: the product trio. We talked about the product trio last time. It’s a product manager, a designer, and an engineer interviewing together. The reason for that is we’re going to hear different things in an interview based on our prior knowledge and experience. We know all three disciplines are required to make a good digital product and we want to leverage all three disciplines when listening to pain points and desires in interviews.
If everybody’s working from home and schedules are a little more complicated at the moment, you may not be able to get all three people interviewing together, but you can record your interviews and make sure everybody listens to them. There are lots of ways to get those different perspectives listening to the same interview material.
This question might also be asking if you have multiple designers or multiple engineers whether everybody needs to be in the interview. You want to be wary of overwhelming your participant. So don’t have a panel of people interrogating somebody. But do think about how you can share the audio or the video widely across the team, so everybody’s building their customer knowledge. Hope, do you want to add on there?
Hope: It’s helpful if you can get everybody on the team comfortable with interviewing. Even if everybody’s listening in, don’t just let the UX person or the product person run the interview. You want this to be a skill set that everybody is comfortable with and everybody feels confident in it.
You want interviewing to be a skill set that everybody in the trio is comfortable with and everybody feels confident in. – Tweet This
Then in a magical world where you’re automating your recruiting—which is not so magical, people do this every day—you can divide and conquer. If you get three customers who show up for the same time slot, beautiful. You can each have that conversation and come back together to share your learnings. And you don’t have an artificial bottleneck on your ability to learn from customers by needing the three of you together.
Principle 5: Prioritize in the Opportunity Space, Not the Solution Space
Teresa: Let’s talk about the second principle we have for today, and that is to encourage your teams to prioritize in the opportunity space and not in the solution space. We see a lot of teams have these really complex Excel spreadsheets or Google sheets, where they have a ranking formula and a long list of ideas and they’re just chewing off the top idea.
The problem with that is teams are missing the strategic decisions. What’s the most important problem for us to be solving? How do we make a strategic decision about where we want to play before we get into what we are going to build? Hope, do you want to dig in more on this?
Hope: This goes back to the idea that there’s no one right way to do discovery. And sometimes maybe people think that they’re doing it right, but then they have this unforeseen problem. Product teams will often tell me that every quarter they pick a problem and then they work on a solution. And then they move on to the next problem.
It feels like you’re doing the right thing—you’re solving customer problems. But there’s no discussion of which problems you considered and how you decided this was the one that was actually going to move the needle on customer value or your success metric. And if you’re not able to really understand the relative contribution of solving that problem versus a different problem, you may be solving problems—and it may be meaningful to some set of your customers or internal stakeholders—but it may not be the most valuable thing to focus on in terms of incremental value for your customers and your company.
Teresa: When it comes to prioritization, Hope and I have seen companies across the board. The reason why spreadsheets with ranking solutions are popular—even though they skip over what problems are most important to solve—is that it’s implied. Maybe our leaders are dictating what problems we should be solving, so we’re ranking the solutions to those problems.
And then I think also it’s a language problem. It’s only recently in the product world that we’ve started talking about discovering opportunities and prioritizing customer needs. We’ve all known intuitively to do that, but I think it’s only recently that we’re explicitly talking about that.
The visuals that we’re using on these slides are of my opportunity solution tree. If you’re not familiar with this tool, you don’t need to be. There are lots of ways to visualize what you’re doing. That was one of our tenets from last time. There are lots of ways to prioritize the opportunity space.
We see a lot of people talk about opportunity backlogs and managing and prioritizing an opportunity backlog. That’s a great way to do this. What I like about this tree structure is that it helps with your prioritization decisions. You don’t have to rank all opportunities against each other. You can use the tree structure to prune branch by branch. It helps teams frame the opportunities in a way that gives them structure.
There’s a lot of research on problem-solving that talks about the importance of problem framing and how to shape the problem space so we can better solve it. One of my goals in designing this visual tool was to help teams learn how to frame the problem, but there are lots of ways to do this.
The key—getting back to there’s no one right way—is structuring the opportunity space in some way. And then, are teams using that to drive prioritization decisions? Hope, do you want to jump in?
Hope: No, I am curious to hear what questions people have.
Teresa: All right. Melissa?
Questions from the Audience: Prioritize in the Opportunity Space, Not in the Solution Space
Melissa: Yes. Someone was asking if you could explain a little bit more the nuances of outcome framing.
Teresa: Let’s distinguish between outcomes and opportunities. And I suspect the question was opportunity framing, but we’ll just make sure. At the very top of the tree, you’re seeing a blue box, which is your outcome. We talked about outcomes a little bit last time. Outcomes are the metrics you’re trying to move. So if you work at Facebook, you try to increase engagement. If you work at Slack, you’re probably trying to increase retention, driving monthly recurring revenue. We can go a level deeper into product metrics, like what drives engagement, what drives retention.
In the green boxes, the opportunities, this is where we’re talking about customer needs, customer pain points, customer desires. Problem framing could be a webinar topic in and of itself, but here are some tips that I like to use.
I like to frame the problem from the customer’s point of view. I actually encourage teams to write their opportunities like, “I want,” “I need,” “I wish,” “I hope,” “I’m trying to,” or to frame it as questions they’re asking.
I’m working with a company where their customers are farmers and ranchers, and a lot of their opportunities are framed like, “When should I plant my crop?” “When should I harvest?” “Who should I sell to?” “Should I sell or store my grain?” These opportunities are questions and needs that their farmers and ranchers are experiencing that their products can address.
The key here is that the opportunities are framed from your customer’s point of view. And the reason why I think that’s really important is that it’s easy to disguise a business need as a customer need. So the example that I give for this often is Amazon probably has a business need of getting you to spend more money, so increasing the average order price. But no customer would ever say, “I wish I spent more money with Amazon.” So when you take the opportunity and you reframe it from your customer’s standpoint, it’ll help you test if it’s really customer centric.
Opportunities should be framed from your customer’s point of view. And the reason why that’s really important is that it’s easy to disguise a business need as a customer need. – Tweet This
Melissa: One person is saying that they find that some customers are much better at reacting to the list of opportunities they’ve gathered from other customers and then ranking them based on their own priorities rather than articulating their own pains and needs. Do you have a good way to get customers to open up? Is it still worthwhile to have customers react to other customers’ pains and needs, or would that skew the results that you get?
Hope: I’m happy to pick this one up. And there’s actually a blog post that we wrote about how you can get customers to participate in your opportunity solution tree at the opportunity level of the tree.
On the one hand, you want to start without biasing them towards these opportunities. You want to be more open-ended in your discussions to really hear what is top of mind for them, but sometimes people have needs that don’t come immediately to the surface. So one technique is to actually go ahead and have them actively participate. Ask them, “What is missing from the tree?”
If there are multiple representatives from a customer that all represent your target customers and users, you might use something like a dot vote to see how they feel about the relative importance.
Another technique that I like to use—after we’ve done some more general understanding of the customer and their unmet needs and their context—is the “Spend $100 exercise.” It’s not how would you spend it on solutions, it’s all those “I want,” “I need,” “I hate,” “I wish” statements with blank spots for them to tell us which ones we missed. And then they use that $100 allocation so that you can see how they would distribute it across these problems. Immediately you very clearly see that not all problems are created equal in terms of importance.
Teresa: Let’s distinguish between generative research and evaluative research. When we’re talking about generative research, first of all, we’re not asking our customers, “What are your pain points? What are your needs?” Human beings are really bad at answering those types of questions. We don’t really know. We know what our needs are, but we don’t know how to articulate them. That’s why we teach a story-based form of interviewing where we’re asking people to tell us a specific story.
I use Netflix a lot in my examples, because most of the world is familiar with Netflix. If I asked you to tell me about your needs related to Netflix, that would be a hard question to answer. You probably have feature requests, but now we’re solidly in the solution space and not in the opportunity space. Whereas if I instead say, “Tell me about the last time you watched Netflix,” and I get you to tell me that story, I’m going to hear pain points and needs that you might not even be aware of.
So rather than me asking you, “What are your needs and pain points?” I’m asking you to tell me about your life, to share your story with me. And I’m actively listening for the pain points and needs. That’s the generative part. That’s how you’re populating the opportunities on your tree.
We can do evaluative research to test if we got it right. Are we working with the right list of opportunities? And that’s where Hope is going when she’s talking about sharing branches of your tree. You can share lists of opportunities with your customers and ask them to evaluate how you did, but I think these are two really different activities and you want to make sure you’re doing a mix of both.
Melissa: Okay, great. Do you want to take another question?
Teresa: Yeah, let’s do it.
Melissa: Okay. How can you show prioritization in the opportunity solution tree?
Teresa: Generally, a tree is going to be broad. You’re going to have a lot of opportunities that span the width and the tree is going to be deep. So you’re going to have a lot of opportunities that get broken down into smaller and smaller opportunities. And so if you, for example, are using an opportunity backlog, you’re going to have a flat list of a lot of different opportunities, and some of them are going to be big, some of them small, some are going to be subsets of others.
The tree structure is allowing us to group subsets and peers together underneath a parent. So when we talk about prioritization, we can now prioritize row by row. Instead of prioritizing everything against each other, we can look at just the parent opportunities and say, “Which branch is most important?” And then you can visually designate that on your tree.
I’ve seen teams do this in a lot of different ways. You can thicken the border around the opportunity that you picked. You could put a little check mark next to it. Some teams like to visually track which opportunities they’ve addressed and which ones are coming up next. So I’ve seen people use their tree as a “Now, next, future” roadmap. They indicate we’re working on this opportunity now, this one next, and everything else is future.
And then once you pick a top-level opportunity, you can just work down that branch so you can prioritize sub-opportunities, and then its sub-opportunities, and you can use the same visual cue to indicate those decision points.
This artifact becomes a really great way to communicate with your stakeholders. Here’s what we considered. Here are the decision points. Do you have feedback on the decisions that we’re making? Are we missing anything? And it really opens up that conversation. And that blog post that Hope referred to actually includes a couple of real-world examples of how teams are tracking their decisions visually on the tree.
We’re going to switch to taking everybody’s broader questions, but before we do that, I want to share a couple of resources just for how people can dig in and learn more on these two principles. Hope and I both work as discovery coaches. Our goal is to help teams level up as quickly as possible. We have a lot of ways in which you can do that.
- We have a 12-week coaching program designed for trios.
- We teach a 6-week live Master Class.
- We have a number of online courses that are really great for people working at home.
- We publish a monthly article for free on Product Talk.
- We have a monthly newsletter where we share the best of other people’s content.
General Questions from the Audience
Melissa: How do you recommend combining design thinking practices with the opportunity solution tree methodology?
Teresa: I started my product practice as an undergraduate at Stanford, learning design thinking from David Kelley and the IDEO folks, in what later became the d.school. I think the strengths of design thinking are primarily empathy for your customer, really good ideation practices, and really good prototyping practices. And we see all three of those infused in today’s discovery practices. So the way that I would connect that to the opportunity solution tree is that exploring the opportunity space is helping you to gain empathy for your customer to really understand their needs, to do the work to do good problem framing.
In Part 3, we’re going to talk a lot about ideating and how to generate a lot of different variations so that you get to better ideas. A lot of it is inspired by the ideation techniques coming out of design thinking. We’re also going to dive into prototyping and experimenting.
I think what we’re seeing right now—whether it’s lean or agile or design thinking or jobs to be done or whatever your favorite framework is—is a lot of these are different flavors of doing the exact same thing. This is why we say there’s no right way. It’s better to ask, “What’s the way that’s working best for your team?”
What we try to do is look at the best elements of each and how to help teams adopt the right mix and match that’s going to work best for them. Hope, anything you want to add on design thinking?
Hope: No, I think you hit it. I think the speed and efficiency and inclusiveness and customer centricity around considering multiple solution ideas and quickly getting feedback in a design sprint or something of that ilk is a great combination. When you’ve already identified your problem and deeply understood your customer’s unmet needs and now you’re trying to figure out the best way to solve for that need, it’s a great tool in the toolbox for sure.
Teresa: I think there are two big differences between some design thinkers or advocates of design thinking and what I think gets taught under the discovery umbrella. One, some people argue design thinking is what designers do. But we teach a cross-functional team approach. And two, some companies that have a strong culture of design thinking get bogged down in endless research. And we, under the discovery label, really try to tie it to driving an outcome and making sure your research is in service of an outcome and not just research for research’s sake. But I think philosophically design thinking has more positive than negative. Like everything, we see agile in a hundred flavors. We see design thinking in a hundred flavors.
Melissa: Okay, great. Our next question is about when you have a new product and maybe you don’t have existing customers or you don’t have users or a public-facing website. When you’re in those very early stages, how do you find customers or users to talk to?
Teresa: Hope, do you want to tackle that one?
Hope: Sure. If you don’t have existing customers because it’s a new product or service, you probably have a hypothesis about who the target customer is or you know the problem that they’re trying to solve. We start with a theory or a hypothesis on who that target customer is. And back to Teresa’s point on generative research, we’re trying to understand what exactly they do to solve for that need today. Usually if it’s a new product or service, you also have a theory of the problem that your conceived solution is solving for. We need to go back and figure out what it is that they truly need.
For most companies, I would say they have a concept of a solution that they believe solves for a problem, and they’re trying to find a market for it. Or they have deep understanding about a target market, and they’re trying to find the best possible solution to drive customer growth within that market. But you start with a theory on the who and the why. What is that unmet need that they have? Then you need to figure out if anybody even mentions this problem that you think is important to solve. And if nobody’s mentioning it yet, it may not be the most important problem to solve. Either you’ve got the wrong who, or it’s not a problem they’re actively trying to solve for.
Teresa: A lot of small companies like startups are founded by somebody who has a strong vision of a thing that should be in the world. So they’re starting with a solution. I think in an ideal world, they’d be starting with an audience and a need to address, but we’re not there. That’s not how most startups are founded.
I think the key is if you’re a startup that’s really founder vision-led, and you’re working with a solution, and you’re trying to get in touch with people who might want that solution, work backwards, work your way up the tree.
We love this solution. Why? What problems do we think it solves? Who do we think has those problems? And then go try to talk to those folks and listen backwards. Listen your way down the tree. Are they bringing up those problems themselves? Are they important enough to them? Are they spending money to solve those problems? Sometimes when we have a really strong solution-focused founder that’s driving our vision, a lot of the early work is finding an audience that cares about that problem. And a lot of your discovery is going to be, who’s the right segment? And we see that a lot with conversations about product market fit. Really a lot of the work is, who’s the market?
Melissa: While there’s no single right way to do discovery, what are the best indicators for discovering when you’re going the wrong way with your discovery?
Hope: If you are spending a lot of time with customers and you’re not moving any sort of metric within what are considered to be reasonable time frames—quarterly, monthly, whatever it is—something is wrong. The outcome metric might be wrong. The customers you’re talking to, your way of assessing and prioritizing opportunities might be wrong. The way you developed and chose the solution might be wrong. Something has gone wrong in that process. We might need to diagnose what went wrong and why it went wrong. But that to me is ultimately why that is the top level of the tree.
If you are spending a lot of time with customers and you’re not moving any sort of metric within what are considered to be reasonable time frames—quarterly, monthly, whatever it is—something is wrong. – Tweet This
If you’re not moving your desired outcome metrics, you can use exercises like the five whys or retros to explore what went wrong. Even if you think activity-wise you’re doing the right things—you’re having customer conversations, you considered multiple solutions—maybe it was something in the experiment design. I would try to retro from the bottom of the tree back up. Where do you think you got off course? Did you talk to the wrong customer? Did you not have good criteria for deciding amongst your opportunities? I can’t give you a single reason why you might be going wrong, but that’s how I would diagnose it.
Teresa: I’ve got one, too. I see a lot of teams get bogged down in research. They never make a decision. They never release anything. They never choose a target opportunity. They never choose to pursue a solution. I think one of the challenges with good discovery is balancing having confidence in what you’re learning so you can actually ship a product with maintaining some doubt about whether you’re getting it right. That tension is something that good product teams manage well. And when discovery is going wrong, we either ship what we were always going to ship regardless of what we learned in discovery, or we never ship. And both of those are equally problematic.
One of the challenges with good discovery is balancing having confidence in what you’re learning so you can actually ship a product with maintaining some doubt about whether you’re getting it right. – Tweet This
Every week, I ask my teams, “What did you learn this week that surprised you?” If you stop learning things that surprise you, something is wrong with your discovery process. You’re falling prey to confirmation bias. You’re not listening in your interviews. You’re asking the wrong questions. You’re not running your prototype test well. We have a lot of data now on how often ideas fail, how often experiments fail. Teams should be failing more than they’re succeeding in a discovery world. You’re going to have a lot of things not work out. And so if that’s not the case, if you’re not continuously surprised, you’ve got to go back and tweak your discovery methods.
Hope: I really want to emphasize that I have also seen teams lose organizational momentum for discovery when they keep doing the things that everybody expected them to do anyway. It’s not just about what you learned this week that surprised you. It’s also about how you’re sharing that surprising insight to your leadership team and your stakeholders. Because the more that they also are surprised, the more there is this reasonable doubt and humility that will fuel more purpose-driven discovery.
Teresa: Yep, definitely.
Melissa: The next question is, do you have a good example and thoughts on what makes a good outcome to start with?
Teresa: Yeah, we covered this a little bit in the previous session, so I’m reluctant to dive into this in-depth, but Hope, do you want to just give us some brief thoughts on this?
Hope: Oftentimes the leadership team cares about business outcomes, which are lagging indicators—revenue, EBITDA, market share, ARR, account growth. What product teams need to do is link that to the behavior of the people using the products, adopting the product, getting to some critical moment that drives to making it easier to hit those revenue targets, easier to hit the lifetime value targets, easier to hit the retention targets, whatever the business metric is. You’re looking for that product outcome metric that links to the business outcome metric.
What we’re looking for in a good outcome metric is that it leads to the business outcome in a way that adds value for the users of the product. It’s something that is negotiated between the product leader and the team, so that there’s this tension about whether it’s big enough or aggressive enough to have a meaningful impact. And is that something that the team feels they can actually make progress on in the timeframe they’re given? All of those things contribute to it being the right outcome metric.
Teresa: Yeah. Perfect. All right, Melissa.
Melissa: Next question: How can you reduce the effort of engaging with customers if you are trying to interview people every week?
Teresa: We teach teams how to automate the recruiting process. Here’s the goal: We want every product team to have an interview on their calendar every week without them having to do any work for it to be there. For teams that have never been exposed to this, that sounds like it’s magic—and it actually feels magical— but I have worked with over a hundred teams that are doing this now. And I’ve heard from many more that have taken my interviewing course that have learned how to implement this.
We want every product team to have an interview on their calendar every week without them having to do any work for it to be there. – Tweet This
The easiest way to do it is to recruit people while they’re using your product. You may have seen other companies do this. Somewhere in the flow of using the product, you get asked if you’re willing to participate in research. Your customers are already engaging with you in one way or another. So where can you hook into that flow for them to go ahead and schedule an interview?
You want to pair that with scheduling software, something like Calendly or one of its many competitors. Once someone says they’re willing to participate, they just get to look at a calendar and pick a time. And then that interview gets added directly to the product team’s calendar. The benefit of doing this is now it’s just like any other meeting. It’s on their calendar. All they have to do is show up.
There are lots of ways to automate the recruiting process. How you do it is going to differ based on your audience. And it will take some experimentation to get it to work right. If you want to dig in more on that, we do cover automating the recruiting process in our Continuous Interviewing course. And we also cover it in our 12-week coaching program. But the big idea is what I just shared, find a way to recruit your customers while they’re already engaging with you.
Melissa: We also had somebody asking if you could give a little bit more of a definition of “opportunity” or share how broad an opportunity should be.
Teresa: I define an opportunity as a customer need, a customer pain point, or a customer desire. It’s that simple.
One of the mistakes I see teams make is they define their opportunities really vaguely. So again, this is problem framing. We’re trying to frame an opportunity in a way that allows us to address it easily. I try to encourage people to frame their opportunities in a really specific manner.
One thing that really helps is to think about a particular moment in time. You might hear customers say really vague things like, “I wish this was easier to use.” Okay, well, that opens the door to all usability improvements. We could work on that forever and our customers are still going to say, “I wish it was easier to use.”
So how do we reframe that to be a really specific moment in time? Again, if you’re collecting stories, you’re going to hear about the need in the context of a story, so you can tie it to a specific moment in time. Because I’ve been using Netflix as an example, I’m going to stick with that. Instead of saying, “I wish this was easier to use,” it’s, “I can never find where to go when I want to search for a specific show.” That’s a really specific moment in time.
Now, what I don’t like about that opportunity is it’s really tied to the product and I like to keep the product out of the opportunity space. So I would reframe that even more—and this is where the tree structure can help. As you move up the tree, your opportunity is going to be a big pain point.
For Netflix it might be, “I can’t decide what to watch.” That’s the big opportunity. It’s still a moment in time. It’s the moment when you’re trying to decide what to watch. And then as you move down the tree, you’re going to break that opportunity up into a series of sub-opportunities. A sub-opportunity might be, “Is this show any good?” or “Have I seen this before?” What are the questions people are asking when evaluating what they should watch?
For, “Is this show any good?”, you might get more specific. “Are there any actors in it that I like?” “Is the story good?” “Is it based on strong characters?” As you move from a really big, hard problem—“What should I watch?”—you’re deconstructing it into more and more specific problems. Eventually you’ll get to one like, “Is there an actor in it that I like?” That’s a very solvable problem that we can now start to tackle iteratively.
This has been super fun. I know Hope and I love getting your questions. We love hanging out and talking with folks. Don’t miss our next session, which will be Part 3 of this series.
This webinar was the second in a three-part series. We’ll be sharing Part 3 right here on Product Talk in the coming weeks. Subscribe to our newsletter below to make sure you don’t miss it.