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6 Product Discovery Methods You’ll Need as a Product Manager

September 20, 2022

8 minute read

Product discovery is a huge and often overlooked part of a product manager’s day-to-day job. Product managers, and anyone wanting to become a product manager, are responsible for a big chunk of any business: keeping the product useful, relevant, and ahead of the competition.

The key to such success? A healthy product discovery process. Here’s an introduction to what that looks like, including product discovery methods and the tools that will help you along the way.

What is product discovery?

Product discovery is the process of deciding what to build by uncovering and understanding customer needs, evaluating alternatives, and testing potential ideas. It’s how product teams “constantly validate that there is a real problem to solve – that it is a real problem, and that solving it is worthwhile,” in the words of ProdPad’s co-founder Simon Cast.

Ultimately, discovery is about reducing risk in product development, while always developing in line with your product strategy.

That said, there’s initial product discovery and there’s continuous product discovery. The two involve similar techniques, but as their names might suggest, they take place at different stages of the company.

What is initial product discovery?

Initial product discovery happens before launch. It’s often about identifying the problem you’re tackling and whether what you think you should build is actually worth it. This is the MVP stage – and product discovery here doesn’t actually represent something that should be built by the business. Rather it’s a chance to test certain decisions (or pivot away from them) so you don’t waste so much time creating something that isn’t viable as a business.

In such an early stage of a business, you don’t necessarily have the existing product or customers to lean upon as sources of intel. Once you actually have a product, that’s when continuous discovery comes in.

What is continuous product discovery?

Continuous product discovery is the process of routinely questioning what it is you’re building, questioning the people who use it, figuring out what their current problems are and making sure that your product stays relevant to them. Continuous discovery ensures that your product value remains high, no matter how long you’ve been in business or what direction the market takes.

Two dots doing product discovery

The definitive list of product discovery methods

Here are the six definitive product discovery methods – some obvious, some old school, and some new that you can introduce to your team and incorporate into your product management process.

1. Customer feedback

If you’re reading this, we don’t need to stress the importance of customer feedback in product management. It should be a given! Customer feedback is crucial to PMs because it’s the source material for identifying problems, validating ideas, and prioritizing the roadmap. ProdPad is built to assist PMs and entire teams with all of that, in part by consolidating all channels of customer feedback into one tool.

The key is to establish a product feedback process, with clearly defined roles on your own team and with creative, perhaps unconventional routes for eliciting that feedback from your customers. You should design an internal process for your team to get customer feedback from colleagues, such as sales and customer support.

Of course, there’s a lot more to learn that’s not offered willingly by your users. You have to go looking for insights, they don’t just reveal themselves. And that brings us to…

2. Customer interviews

Customer interviews might seem old school, but it’s the most proactive – and often most productive – way to get the valuable insights that fuel your discovery.

By customer interviews, we don’t necessarily mean the people who are actively paying for your product. These interviews can also include:

  • Potential customers that match your current user base
  • Target customers that match your ideal user base
  • Trial users who didn’t buy
  • Users who canceled
  • People who bought a competitor
  • People who aren’t buying a product at all

Interview these people! There’s no way to fully automate these. A questionnaire won’t cut it. You need someone there to pull the information out of people. Check on these tips for conducting great customer interviews.

At my old company, we’d welcome a group of people to the office every Thursday. They all fit our ideal customer profile in some way. An intern arranged for them to come in – as well as the pizza and drinks. Then it was our job, as the product team, to present something and ask them questions. One week might be discovering what the reaction is to our newest homepage iterations, the next might be getting their thoughts on pricing and taglines.

That said, there are few pieces that you can automate. See our product discovery tool recommendations below.

3. User analytics

User analytics provides concrete data and insights into customer behavior inside your app, not just what are they using your tool for, but how are they using it. This not only informs the UX design of your product, but could reveal unlocked potential in how your product functions – and which functions it serves.

There are many great SaaS tools on the market for user behavior and UX analytics – we’ve included them in our list below.

4. Competitor analysis

Competitor analysis plays a big part in the product discovery process. You must understand what your customer’s alternatives are. What else is out there? How is your target group solving its problem? This changes all the time.

When you launched, maybe your main competitor was an Excel spreadsheet. But nowadays, it’s a new SaaS tool that works better than both you and the spreadsheet.

Of course, you also want to stand out in your market without mimicking all your competition. We’ve put together some tips on how to achieve product differentiation without turning into a feature factory.

5. Business modeling

Business modeling is another product discovery method that lays out what your product is, who uses it (and why), where the product is situated in the market (and how), plus the resources and money that go into and out of the business. 

Basically, yes, it’s a business model. But founder and author Alex Osterwalder invented the Business Model Canvas, which is a great format and process for distilling everything down onto one page. It will help you challenge assumptions and discover new opportunities.

6. Internal discovery

Last but not least, conduct some internal discovery. Is your team on board? Engage them to help figure out the marketing channels and the supply chain considerations, the cost considerations and other types of risks that you want to mitigate. These aren’t necessarily insights that you’ll be able to get from your customer. Remember that there are other people – your own people! – that you should consider in terms of what’s feasible, viable, and valuable. 

Product discovery process

The product discovery process for your organization will depend upon the flow and pace of your work – the key is that it’s continuous.

What does “continuous” really mean? That you’re learning something in every cycle or sprint, and that it’s built into your routine. If your development team works on two-week cycles, then you get something interesting from your developers every two weeks. Each time, you should test it with customers and learn from it.

Basically, we’re talking a matter of days or weeks between customer interviews and learning sessions. What you want to avoid is waiting months, or dividing product development work into two separate phases: during this period we talk to customers, and now we build. They should be integrated, ongoing processes.

Bottom line: always assume you have something to learn and make space for that learning.

Product discovery tools

Here are a few tools we recommend for different parts of the product discovery process.

Prodpad for product discovery

ProdPad helps you gather customer problems, user needs, and potential solutions. Our tool records how you validate and prioritize them, capturing all the context so team members are in the loop and see exactly where an idea sits in the workflow – and in the bigger picture. From feedback to product specs to strategic vision, ProdPad collects and connects it all to help you make decisions and keep you moving forward. Start a free trial here and let us know how you get on with your product discovery in the comments.

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