Product Management

16 min read

The Product Discovery Playbook: Everything you Need to Know as a Product Manager

“Want your users to fall in love with your designs? Fall in love with your users.”

Dana Chisnell, Executive Director of CX at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, nailed the essence of product discovery.

This empathy for your users can be built by focusing on their problems. Counterintuitive as it may sound, product teams often make the mistake of focusing on solutions first. The issue with solution-focused thinking? Without diving deep into the pain points of your customers first, you may be solving the wrong problem entirely.

Our product discovery playbook will walk you through every step of the discovery process, so you can focus on solving the issues that matter most to your users.

What is Product Discovery?

Product discovery is the process of understanding customer problems and building products to solve them. 

Discovery is the starting point of your product journey. It helps you flesh out ideas, decide what to build, and navigate every decision in your product management process. 

Product discovery doesn't just help you make great products — it helps you make great decisions. Using this process, you'll connect with what your customers need, reduce uncertainty surrounding user problems, and challenge your assumptions so you can put your users’ needs first.

Author and product discovery coach Teresa Torres frames the product discovery processs brilliantly:

“The days of gathering requirements from business stakeholders and documenting them in long product requirements documents are vanishing. We no longer take months or years to release value to our customers.
Instead, product teams are experimenting their way to viable solutions. We are putting our customers first, taking the time to discover unmet needs, and developing solutions that address those needs.”

Ultimately, discovery helps you create a product strategy that will help you solve the right problems for your users and build more successful products, features, and solutions. While it requires an investment of time and resources at the outset, product discovery translates to high-quality products that are empathetic and centered around your customer's needs.

Who Owns Product Discovery?

Not sure which team members should be involved in the product discovery process? There are the usual owners—your product and development teams—but what about the folks outside your product management and product development departments? 

Product management coach and consultant Tim Herbig recommends keeping ownership of product discovery fluid:

“Don’t get caught up in a rigid classification of who should participate in product discovery. Who should be permanently or temporarily involved should be based on the requirements and context of your challenge, instead of a one-size-fits-all definition.
In my experience, it’s important to identify who will be permanently involved in the product discovery, who will contribute temporarily, and who are general supporters of the mission.”

Depending on the scope of the project, we suggest making discovery something that every department has a voice in. Each team in your org has unique insights that shouldn’t live in a silo. Your sales team, for example, has access to industry trends, and your customer-facing teams have a clear understanding of common user pain points. 

An easy fix for information silos is to use a centralized feedback platform that organizes input from every team in your org in one place. 

5 Phases of a Successful Product Discovery Process 

Instead of chasing every shiny idea that crosses your path, narrow in on the exact problems that make an impact on user experiences 

Our five phases of product discovery will help you concentrate on the ideas that make a difference for your users.

1. Get your Teams Aligned

Strong internal alignment is a pillar of successful product discovery. Without it, your team can’t organize their efforts, so even the best product ideas can fall flat — or you may have more ideas than you know what to do with. 

Maybe the folks in your c-suite request initiatives to ensure your work aligns with your org’s product vision. Or, perhaps crucial feedback from customer-facing teams never makes it to the product development department, so an exciting but less valuable feature gets prioritized. In either case, your focus shifts from reducing uncertainty around user needs to building solutions that just sound good—a relatively common problem in product development.

On the other hand, when your teams are aligned early in the product discovery process, magic happens. Your entire team has clarity around their primary goal, which is creating a deep understanding of user problems. The next steps feel intuitive because everyone has a clear roadmap and understands exactly what you're working toward. Collaborative solutions come naturally, and no one is left wondering what's next or what feedback is most important.

We recommend setting up a central location to save user feedback so that each team in your org has access to data that helps them work efficiently. Marketing will understand how to target messaging, sales will understand pain points to tackle in pitch meetings, and developers can see precisely what areas need tweaking within your product. 

Remember, early internal alignment is crucial because it fosters a deep sense of clarity around product goals. Keep everyone on the same page by scheduling periodic alignment meetings early on in your discovery process, then throughout each phase as needed.

2. Build a Deep Understanding of User Problems

As tempting as it is to jump right into collecting feedback to understand user needs, take a beat to define any areas where you lack clarity about customer needs and pain points. Getting clear on user problems up front will help you stay focused on addressing them — and give you context for refining your research process.

Let's say you need more info about what people actually do within your product. In this case, it would make sense to observe and track behaviors in focus groups instead of, say, sending out an email survey or conducting 1:1 chats. When you narrow your focus before you decide on your research methods, you'll get the most accurate results from your efforts. 

Once you know where your biggest uncertainties lie, you can collect data from as many relevant sources as possible to get an accurate picture of user needs. Ideally, you’ll also bring in continuous user feedback via sources like in-app feedback, bug reports, and user conversations with support teams. In this case, you can blend existing data with your research to come up with the best possible solutions.

Try using a user feedback platform to organize user feedback from multiple sources automatically. This way, you never have to hunt through spreadsheets, emails, or customer chats to get the info you need.

3. Prioritize the Right Problems

Now that you have an idea of the problems you’ll need to solve, it’s time to rank them in order of importance. 

How can you check if a problem is worth solving? 

  • Ask your users first. Confirm that user feedback aligns with the problems you’re tackling. In the previous step, we used customer feedback to build a concrete idea of pain points within your existing product — so this step is already underway. 
  • Check ideas against quantitative data. Try collecting quantitative data to back up your qualitative info, like A/B testing to back up findings from customer interviews. There’s often a difference between what people say and do — and collecting quantitative data can help you bridge gaps and make sure you’re on the right track.
  • Consider user segments. The most vocal users don’t always represent the majority of your customers. Look at user segments to confirm that your upcoming value proposition either benefits the majority of your users or addresses the needs of high-value user segments.
  • Remain objective. Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek data that validates our existing opinions — and it can be sneaky. Avoid letting confirmation bias influence product decisions by remaining objective throughout product discovery. Consider the points and counterpoints for each problem, then prioritize the ones likely to have the most significant positive impact on your users.

After you narrow in on the problem you’ll be solving, we recommend re-visiting problem validation. Try checking in with your customers with a quick poll or survey to make sure you’re going in the right direction. While you avoid annoying users with constant requests, validating throughout the product discovery process helps you stay on target.

4. Brainstorm Solutions as a Team (+ Validate Them Often)

Ideation is often limited to a select few product folks and developers — but you can take a more collaborative approach to development by welcoming input from all relevant teams. Consider asking team members to vote on ideas once you’ve developed a short list of features to take to the next phase.

When your team has agreed on a feature, you’re ready to build a minimum viable product (MVP) and validate it. 

Keep in mind, the point of validation is only to test your hypotheses. Rather than building a perfectly polished mockup, aim for functionality. We recommend sharing your minimum viable product (MVP) as quickly as possible. Your MVP should be just enough to give users an idea of what experiences will be like, which is all they need to share feedback.

With your MVP ready to go, you can shift your focus to rolling out your next phase of user validation. While validation is often one of the final steps in product discovery (as seen in Google’s design sprint process), we believe it should be baked into your entire product discovery process. 

Why? Progress is rarely linear. If, at any point during validation, you learn that your feature doesn't quite solve the intended problem, you’ve landed yourself back in the ideation stage. With continuous validation, this doesn’t feel like a setback because you’re never too far from user feedback — you can make minor adjustments and move on. If you’ve saved validation for last, however, this can mean a lot of wasted resources and significant changes. 

Your customers are ultimately the ones who use your product day in and day out, so we recommend including them in the product discovery conversation as much as possible. This practice will help you build user engagement and a continuous stream of feedback. 

5. Refine Your Features Based on Customer Needs

At this point, you've put a lot of effort into creating a useful new feature (and building a better product as a result). You've gotten your team aligned behind a cohesive product roadmap, listened to your users, researched the viability and feasibility of their suggestions, and validated your final solution. 

It's tempting to kick back and enjoy your success — but as you know, your work as a product manager is never really over. 

As Teresa Torres points out,

"The best teams...are recognizing that digital products are never done. We can always iterate and improve. Facebook and Netflix will never be finished projects. If they stopped iterating and developing, their competitors would catch up."

The refinement phase comes next.

Sometimes, this phase starts immediately after you ship a feature. You might get a lot of early feedback, or a feature may miss the mark and need a bit of tweaking. Either way, fast feedback means you can also learn fast. Then, you can move forward with new knowledge that helps you create an even better next iteration.

Other times, you’ll have the opportunity to crunch numbers and run competitive analyses first — but beware of vanity metrics. Vanity metrics (like your number of total users or how many free trial users you've picked up) might look great on paper, but they’re usually vague and lack the context or depth needed to create useful adjustments. Without additional context, it's impossible to know if specific metrics are connected with your feature launch. 

Instead, compare metrics that can clearly be tied to your launch (like retention before and after the launch) with user feedback, like feature polls or help desk tickets. Let’s say you see an improvement in retention after your latest feature launch. Then, you notice positive feedback on feature polls and fewer help desk tickets in the area your feature addresses. Each of these factors combined indicates you’re probably on the right track. This approach can give you a clear idea of your launch success. 

As you move forward, remember that the need for feature refinement doesn't point to failure. In fact, it's better to ship features when they're good enough instead of waiting until you've built the elusive "perfect" solution. Waiting for perfection will keep you in an unnecessary holding pattern that can stall your progress and negatively impact business goals. 

By sharing your work now and collecting feedback along the way, you won't miss the boat on product-market fit and can start solving user problems right away.

Use Continuous Product Discovery to Build Your Best Products

By now, you know the importance of discovering the solutions your customers need. Much like agile development relies on continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD), an effective development process depends on continuous product discovery. 

UserVoice helps you nurture continuous product discovery by collecting and analyzing the user feedback you need to shape product decisions in one place. Check out our free trial to see how we can streamline your continuous discovery process.

KT McBurnie

Content Marketing