Product Discovery - What & Why

Understanding the Importance of Product Discovery in Product Development

Most people know cyanoacrylate as “super glue”, though I prefer to call it CA glue. Dr. Harry Coover discovered it during WWII as he was trying to make clear gun sights for allied soldiers. That didn’t work out, and he abandoned the substance for several years until he circled back to it for jet canopies and found again it worked great as an adhesive. It was eventually put on the market by a few companies in the 1950s and became a popular household adhesive.

Of course, our stories never stop there, do they? During the Vietnam war, soldiers used super glue to create temporary sutures for injured compatriots until they could get properly stitched up. Though this originally wasn’t an intended use for CA glue, and wasn’t approved by the FDA, we’ve seen it more commonly accepted recently and other similar concepts come to market. Many people recommend CA glue as part of a first aid kit, especially in a pinch.

Additionally, it’s become a popular finish for small woodworking projects. I don’t know the full history of CA glue and woodworking, but it has become a common finish for things like pens, shaving sets, and other small items. I use it on most of my small projects for a solid, glossy finish. It shouldn’t be a surprise. It is something that is clear, hardens quickly, polishes smooth, and stays strong. Never intended as a coat for finishing wood, it has all the qualities you’d look for. Now you can get CA glue at any wood store, and get it in different viscosities, from thin to medium to thick (I prefer medium). I apply several thin coats, building it up on my lathe and then polish it to a smooth, glossy finish. It is perfect.

Like so many of our favorite products, users took something intended for one use and created an entirely new use and new market. I occasionally use CA glue for gluing things together (I have other glues I like more), but I use CA glue almost daily on a shaving set or keychain. It is great for woodworking. Less awesome as a glue.

Fortunately, I don’t have to hassle with the little tubes of super glue at the store because I can get large bottles with easy application for woodworking. That’s because someone took the time to identify a problem for woodworkers, a job we were doing, and created a solution for it. We needed super glue, but not in the way that a typical user would need it—occasionally and in small amounts. We needed lots of super glue frequently in an easy to distribute bottle.

And this gets us to the heart of what is product discovery and why we need it.

What is Product Discovery

The purpose of product discovery is to understand user and customer problems so we can create compelling, meaningful solutions.

Product discovery is fundamentally about understanding as early as possible if our ideas are good for users and for our business. It is meant to reduce the risk before we go down the wrong path.

Marty Cagan, in his book Inspired, describes it as follows:

The Purpose of product discovery is to address these critical risks:

1. Will the customer buy this, or choose to use it? (Value risk)

2. Can the user figure out how to use it? (Usability risk)

3. Can we build it? (Feasibility risk)

4. Does this solution work for our business? (Business viability risk)

The simple and scary truth is that we cannot know ahead of time what will work and what won’t. We can make very good, educated guesses. But we can’t know. So we need to do discovery and research to build our understanding, test our assumptions and reduce our risk.

Why We Need Product Discovery

Product discovery and user research are some of the most critical parts of product development. There is no other way you can understand what your users need, the genuine problems they are facing based on actual feedback and evidence from the field, and what you should focus on for potential solutions.

It is important because it allows us to validate not only that users care and it is worthwhile and doable for our business, but to do all this before we commit ourselves, along with massive time and energy and money, to a specific path.

So often, companies get in the mindset of looking at product discovery as a “nice to have”, but only if it doesn’t slow down our building process. They need to get things out the door quickly, so whether or not they are the right things becomes an afterthought.

Despite its importance, product discovery often moves to the back burner for many teams and organizations. Why is that?

Some reasons I’ve seen, and you’ve likely seen, include themes like:

  • Not enough time

  • Not enough resources (meaning people)

  • Not understanding the value or need

  • Leaders thinking they already have the answers

You’ve probably felt some or all of these things before. You’ve probably had leaders who didn’t understand the need for discovery or research, weren’t willing to invest in it, or thought they had good enough answers already. We’ve all been there.

When I was working on a new investment experience for a company, we thought we had the new user flow nailed. We had put a lot of thought and work into it. But I wanted to get it in front of as many people as I could before we moved forward. So I prototyped it and started doing interviews. And while we learned that some of our inclinations were correct, a few areas we thought were easy to navigate we anything but. Every user we talked to felt confused, so we ended up reworking major parts of the experience before going live. That’s why it is so important to do discovery and research before making enormous investments in products or development.

For more thoughts on user research, check out a podcast episode we did on this topic.

Returning to the woodshop for a moment. I use woodturning chisels to knock the edges off of the wood on my lathe and then shape each piece. I like to think of product discovery as sharpening the chisels. It takes some time before getting to work and isn’t something you see in the end product. But if I don’t sharpen my chisels regularly, it costs me painful amounts of extra time trying to turn the wood. There are few things worse than trying to cut with a dull tool. It adds time, it adds danger, and makes a worse product.

Every time we try to jump ahead to making something rather than ensuring it’s the right thing through discovery, we’re not sharpening our chisels. It may seem like we’re moving faster by jumping right into making a product (or chiseling wood), but the truth is it will hurt us in the long-run and cost us significant time and money. Product discovery reduces that risk and ultimately speeds up our ability to deliver the right thing.

Best of the Rest

The Best and Worst State Birds in America (podcast) - If you need a break from everything that is going on in the world, hopefully this is a fun diversion. Unscientific and without expertise. And a lot of fun.

Being Smart is Not Enough (article) - I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and the importance of intelligence and sociability. Both are critical.