The deliberate practice of product discovery

How many days have passed since you last spoke to a customer?

Only in the movie Fields of Dreams does “If you build it, he (they) will come.” People don’t just show up. All profitable, effective products begin by identifying and talking to their customer first. You’ve got to know who you are serving and what they’re doing before you start.

Just like everything in product, research should have its’ own success criteria and metrics to evaluative your research objectives. What cadence of research have you established for success? 

If too much time passes between your customer interviews, then the decisions you make on a daily bases are based purely on assumptions. To learn and improve your product, it requires the deliberate practice of product discovery to see how people actually behave with your product offering.

When a product team develops a weekly habit of customer interviews, they don’t just get the benefit of interviewing more often, they also start visualising opportunities. The team improves their critical thinking skills and evaluate their solutions by testing their assumptions more often. They can minimise the risk of failing before they even start building anything. This results in connecting what is learnt from research with unbiased product decisions.

Deliberate interview questions

Asking the right interview questions will help uncover how your customers behave. To uncover the gap between what they say they do versus what they actually do requires us to ask the right types of questions. 

You can’t simply ask your customers about their behaviour and expect to get an accurate answer. Most will give you what sounds like a reasonable answer. You won’t know if they are telling you about their ideal behaviour or their actual behaviour. Nor will you know if they are simply telling you a coherent story that sounds true, but isn’t true in practice. In Thinking, Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman argues confidence isn’t a good indicator of truth or reality. He argues, “Confidence is a feeling, which reflects the coherence of the information and the cognitive ease of processing it.” Not necessarily the truth.

If you build a product based on your customer’s ideal self, you might get the initial sale, but you’ll struggle to engage them, and you’ll churn through customer after customer. If you want to build a successful product, you need to understand your customer’s actual behaviour—their reality—not the story they tell themselves.

Instead of asking, “How often do you…?”, ask, “How many times did you… in the last week?” You can follow it up with a question like, “Is that typical?” This can help surface if the last time was unusual. If it was, ask about other instances. But don’t let your customer generalise. If they start off with, “Usually I …”, encourage them to tell you another story of a specific instance. You’ll get more reliable information.

Improve your active listening

This means focusing on what the customer is actually saying, not what we want to hear, thinking from their perspective, and not projecting our own experiences on to their words.

Try to understand their meaning, often the emotion or feeling in our message communicates as much, if not more, than the words that are used. Take note the non-verbal cues, from the tone of voice, clarity of speed, rate of speech, and whether or not they hesitate.

Reflect back to the customer what you heard, this may not seem like a listening skill, but even when you focus on what is being said you need to confirm with them, that what you heard, is in fact what they meant. If you aren’t sure what they mean, don’t assume or project your own assumptions. Instead, ask them for to clarify. 

Continuous discovery synthesis

Visual thinking is one of the most valuable parts of the creative process. It helps you think, by drawing your ideas and see them in new ways, so you can continue to iterate.

Teams hear a lot of information from customers, identify many different opportunities, and generate multiple solutions. Mapping is a critical way for teams to synthesise all this information, agree on the key points, and create an action plan for which solutions they’d like to pursue and how they’ll test out their assumptions and experiment to validate those solutions.

There are many different maps to visualise insights. The Opportunity Solution Treecreated by Teresa Torres illustrates the value of mapping around a shared understanding, and communicate how you’ll reach the desired outcome.

Maps are living documents they aren’t static. They should reflect what you currently know. If you are continuously learning, they should be continuously evolving. The opportunity solution tree should evolve week over week as the team learns about the opportunity space and explores solutions via prototyping and experimenting.

Automate the recruitment process

Teams that interview infrequently, recruit by sending large inefficient emails to their large pool of candidates to only get a handful of responses and some cancellations.

To recruit in a sustainable way for continuous discovery teams need to automate the process of getting participants booked in weekly. For consumers websites tools like Ethnio or Qualaroo recruit directly from your site. Depending on the volume of traffic this can be automated to recruit live or try Calendly to book interviews through a shared calendar. 

There are lots of ways to automate this and teams need to find what works best for them. The goal is to have participants scheduled on a regular basis. Over time you can refine the automated recruiting processes, include screening questions to be more specific about the customer you’re targeting. 

At Open Universities Australia we automate the recruitment process using Hotjar to survey participants direct from the website, triggering automatic email with a booking link to Calendly.

How many days have passed since you last checked your assumptions? More than 10 days then you might want to start reserving some time to build your own deliberate product discovery practice.