The Subtle Art (and Science) of Product Discovery

Evan McCoy

4 min read

Aug 28, 2017

The Subtle Art (and Science) of Product Discovery

Early on in a product’s life, its sole purpose is to find product/market fit. Product/market fit happens when the product that you have created solves a problem for a targeted group of people. Companies that have found success have done so by ‘getting out of the building’ and into the market to ensure that they are solving valuable problems.

Go Outside

That means leaving your home or office and interacting with the people whose problems you intend to solve. Learning more about the problem is the first step to creating a better solution. How and where to find potential interviewees largely depends on what markets you’re trying to reach.

A new social media platform? Go to a coffee shop and offer free lattes for anyone who will give you 15 minutes. An enterprise application for a specific industry? Find a local meetup or conference that people from that industry are likely to attend. An app for a specific consumer niche? Search Facebook or Twitter for relevant discussions or hashtags to see what people are discussing. Sprint suggests that for more targeted discovery, place ads on Craigslist and offer gift cards to compensate interviewees and testers.

Jobs, Pains, and Gains

Now that you have found your interviewees and are ready to begin customer discovery, there are three places to focus.

The first is customer jobs. What are your target customers trying to accomplish? These can be:

  1. Functional, such as mowing the lawn.
  2. Social, such as being the envy of the neighbors.
  3. Emotional, such as feeling secure that someone can provide for their family.
  4. Supporting, such as trimming the trees and spreading fertilizer.

The next is customer pains. What annoyances can occur before, during, or after the jobs they’re doing? Pains could be:

  1. Negative outcomes: I hate mowing outside when it’s hot.
  2. Obstacles: I can’t mow when it is raining.
  3. Risks: I could flip the mower and hurt myself.

The last item is customer gains. What benefits are possible when performing those jobs? Some gains are:

  1. Requirements: My lawn mower must be able to cut grass.
  2. Expected: My lawn mower can run on gasoline.
  3. Desired: My lawn mower is self-propelled.
  4. Unexpected: My lawn mower is fully autonomous.

This information forms the context that your product will exist in and can help uncover the value that it could potentially provide.

On Interviewing

Interviewing for discovery is equal parts art and science.

The science of interviewing says there are specific strategies that can help your interviewees feel at ease and get the most value out of your time. You should aim to do 20% of the talking: any more and you’re explaining too much, any less and you aren’t framing the conversation well enough.

Asking open ended questions about the customer (not your product) will help focus the discussion on problems they face instead of any potential solutions. You’re looking for information about the problems people face in these discussions, not validation that your product idea is a good one. No one wants to be the person to tell you that “Uber for Grapes” is a bad idea.

Conversations can also be more effective if held one-on-one; people can feel like they’re talking to the Bobs from Office Space if you bring a friend with you to the interview.

Another piece of advice—don’t record your interviews. I have personally experienced this, as I thought it was a great idea when I asked all my interviewees if I could record our conversation so I could focus on them instead of feverishly taking notes. After several unsure yes’s and blunt no’s, I realized that this can take people out of their element and make them feel like they’re being interrogated.

The art of interviewing is all about empathy. Developing empathy with the people you’re interviewing means being able to put yourself in their shoes. This empowers you to be the ‘voice of the customer’ down the line when making product decisions. How will your customers care about your product when you’re not even excited to talk about their problems? Being genuinely interested in the things people have to say is pivotal to having a successful customer interview.

Moving Forward

The advice above may seem obvious, but often entrepreneurs and product people alike jump to creating solutions before they invest the time in understanding the problem. Product discovery, done properly, is hard. It takes less time to come up with a new widget to solve a problem than it does to do the legwork to understand why a problem occurs.

At Big Nerd Ranch we work with small and big teams alike and we are always preaching product discovery in order to build awesome software. Find some potential customers and talk to them for a couple minutes—you may be surprised by what you hear. Then, and only then, will you be ready to start on the building the software to make your idea a reality.

Already completed the product discovery portion of your project? Get ready to put your customer feedback into action by moving forward with app development. Big Nerd Ranch can help. Get in touch to see what we can do for you and your company.

Mark Dalrymple

Reviewer Big Nerd Ranch

MarkD is a long-time Unix and Mac developer, having worked at AOL, Google, and several start-ups over the years.  He’s the author of Advanced Mac OS X Programming: The Big Nerd Ranch Guide, over 100 blog posts for Big Nerd Ranch, and an occasional speaker at conferences. Believing in the power of community, he’s a co-founder of CocoaHeads, an international Mac and iPhone meetup, and runs the Pittsburgh PA chapter. In his spare time, he plays orchestral and swing band music.

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