Product teams need a product discovery toolkit to identify the problem at hand

By Nicole Dingess

Advance Local

Alexandria, Virginia, United States


By Cathy Pages

Advance Local

Gaithersburg, Maryland, United States


Every product team should have a discovery toolkit.

Related to a framework mindset (outlined in a previous blog post here), these are different discovery techniques that can be used in a variety of combinations to gain user insights and determine what is the problem you are trying to solve.

The six phases of product discovery.
The six phases of product discovery.

For large projects, like the creation of a new product, you may need to use all of the techniques; for small projects just a few. Some of these techniques, like a heuristic assessment or journey mapping, will need to be done before design begins. Others, like usability testing, are typically done to test the design solutions. 

However, there are times when you will employ usability testing at the start of the project. This typically happens on existing products that require a redesign or significant improvement to its functionality. 

Here we will discuss the the first two steps.

Stage 1 discovery: research

The research stage of discovery is to understand the competitive landscape and learn what users want and need. The tools to gain these insights include:

  • Heuristic assessment: Process where internal teams (typically product designers/researchers) measure the usability of the user interface and report their findings.

  • User interviews: When a product designer/researcher asks one user questions about a topic of interest, user flow, or functionality to learn more about what the user thinks.

  • Ethnographic research studies: A method where researchers observe and/or interact with a study’s participants in their real-life environment.

  • Journey mapping: A visualisation of the process a user goes through to accomplish a goal. This is typically a user flow shown in the form of a timeline. Journey maps sometimes include what users think and feel along the way. 

  • User personas: A persona is depicted as a specific person but is actually a synthesis of the observations or data of many people. The persona descriptions include user behaviours, attitudes, needs, goals and background information (age, gender, occupation, etc.). Personas help team members and stakeholders to empathise with users. If a group of users is only presented broadly with data and statistics, it makes it much harder to retain information about this group.

  • Card sorting: A discovery method where users group individual labels written on notecards or via an online tool in a way that makes sense to them. This method helps teams to uncover how the target audience structures the information, helping to create an intuitive information architecture system.

  • Quantitative data: Product organisations are typically never short on quantitative data, such as click-through rates, feedback form data collection, etc. Reviewing any data as part of the discovery process helps inform what the team knows before work begins.

Stage 2 discovery: ideation

The ideation stage is focused on prioritising the most important user problems. Once agreed upon, the team begins working on design solutions, followed by the creation of an MVP prototype. Most designs require multiple rounds of design iteration and user testing to get to a final solution that is ready to be tested in-market.

  • Prototyping: A design process that allows teams to ideate and experiment in a low risk environment. Prototyping can be as simple as low-fidelity paper ideas to complex, interactive experiences. Testing prototypes allow users to interact with the product before it is built. 

  • Usability testing (moderated/unmoderated): In moderated usability (or user) testing, a researcher interviews a user, asking them to perform tasks with a user interface. The moderator observes the behaviours, listens for feedback and asks questions. In unmoderated testing, a user completes a series of tasks at their own pace while being recorded. 

  • A/B testing: Once a prototype has been vetted, conducting a live A/B test helps to show how a user will react in the real world. A/B testing, also known as split testing, is an opportunity to present two versions of a design to users at the same time. Typically for a set period, success is determined by agreed upon business metrics.

As mentioned above, projects require differing prioritisation of the steps, depending on their complexity: 

Successful product discovery:

• Helps to understand what your competition is doing: Spotting opportunities helps to enhance the value of your products.

• Minimises business risk: Skipping discovery increases the chance that the product won’t be profitable or intuitive.

• Increases knowledge about customers: Immersing cross-functional teams in customer problems helps them see user patterns across all projects, getting to solutions faster.

• Reduces development time: Putting energy into features users care about rather than building solutions based on assumptions ensures irrelevant products or features are not developed.

• Leads to better outcomes: Developing products with a compelling value proposition increases the likelihood of their success. When you know your customers you build the products they need.

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