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Building Products That Redefine Industries – Taking Control Through Product Discovery

21 years is a relatively short period in the grand scheme of history, yet winding the clock back to the turn of the millennium would be a truly eye-opening experience for even the most ardent traditionalist.

Placing the past 18 months and the pandemic to one side – a period that will be definitive in human history – the world has changed tremendously since the year 2000.

Back then, Instagram, ASOS, Spotify, Uber, WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram simply didn’t exist, while Amazon and Netflix were largely unknown to the masses. Today, these companies shape a significant proportion of our world as they continue to pave the path for many major industries, from music to fashion to ecommerce. 

Digital transformation is, of course, everywhere – businesses continue to change the ways in which they operate, leveraging the power of data and automating processes to enhance their productivity, efficiency and value offerings. Yet the best companies go further, successfully redefining entire sectors.

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A marketplace for taxis was not a new concept, but the platform Uber introduced that seamlessly connects drivers and passengers is. Look at eToro democratizing the traditionally privileged trading opportunities, or JustEat bringing regional restaurant-quality food to the masses in times of lockdown.

These are just a few examples of startups that have successfully transformed their industries. But how have they been able to do so? Where did they start?

Here, product discovery can be the key to unlocking both sizeable and unseen opportunities.

What Is Product Discovery?

In simple terms, product discovery is a case of determining how a product, service or feature should be developed by taking the time to truly understand the needs of the market and capturing the voice of the customer. By identifying challenges that customers are facing, a product development team can begin to consider ways of creating solutions to said problems.

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In essence, it informs the development process and helps validate your product-market fit. Without this vital knowledge, enterprises will be at risk of delivering features that do not actually fulfill the needs of the user, leading to lackluster demand and undesirable outcomes.

This process is, of course, easier said than done, so here are some key tips on how to avoid common product discovery pitfalls and improve the chances of products and services creating a dramatic impact.

Tip 1: Work With Proven Product Experts

First, it is vital to bring in product experts who have a proven track record in building custom products from scratch, ideally in your given industry. Many organisations will often attempt to place a square peg in a round hole, assuming domain experts or project managers are capable of leading the strategy in terms of product development and the product discovery process. However, often the skills are wildly different.

In large companies, domain experts or project managers who often take on these types of products, have product experience that is based on configuring and customizing existing products, rather than building custom products from the ground up. 

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The results of this are often ineffective definitions of MVP, in addition to being prone to particular habits and old ways of thinking can hamper the discoveries process by biasing the user research with their existing assumptions.

Tip 2: Focus on an Effective MVP or Validation Approach

Secondly, it is critical that the minimum viable product (MVP) is effective, rather than just looking at efficiency of delivery.

The MVP is an early iteration of a product within minimal features that can be used by prospective customers, who can then provide feedback to inform, enhance and direct additional product development. It allows you to further validate the purpose of your product with the genuine feedback and requirements of those who are intended to use it.

Companies should move away from their traditional project mindset that tends to focus on strict criteria such as time to completion, and instead shift their thinking towards a product-orientated mindset.

Products can often take a long time before they are delivered in a full dancing, full singing version, and require high costs for completion, making it hard to get board approval. Instead with incremental releases, you can add and demonstrate value early, and use the question “if you were to have fixed development capacity, what would prioritize next?” to focus on the key needs vs an endless list of project requirements. In doing so, this will reduce the time to value of product development for your organization.

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There is no one size fits all approach to this. Dropbox, for example, started out with the launch of a simple video that explained their idea, gaining valuable feedback from those who watched it that they needed to validate and improve their product, before building it.

Meanwhile, early versions of the now automated AdWords (a company that generates relevant advertising copy for its customers) had its back end powered by students that were quick at typing ad copy. By originally taking this approach, the company was able to prove and refine its concept before making heavier investments into automation. 

In this sense, using MVP, initial product pilots can be launched to accelerate time to market and gain board approval in the first instance, while additional needs can be addressed thereafter with frequent, incremental updates guided by informed customer feedback. 

Tip 3: Pursue Perpetual Innovation

This idea of consistent, frequent, continuous improvement forms the basis of the third tip – to make product innovation and product discovery a continual, perpetual process. 

One of the key lessons companies will have learned from the pandemic is how quickly consumer demands, and in turn entire markets, can change depending on the needs of the here and now. As the landscape continues to move, products and services must transition in tandem to enhance the user experience.

Therefore, product discovery should not be a process with a beginning and an end. Rather, it should continue well beyond delivery as opportunities for improvement present themselves. Let’s take Facebook or LinkedIn as examples. Do they look the same way as they did three or five years ago? No, they don’t even look the same as they did a few months ago. They never, ever, stop innovating. 

Unless companies are in contact with their customers every day, they can unknowingly begin to gradually drift further and further away from being customer-centric, hampering their competitive advantage.

For this reason, continuous discovery (product discovery that continues after the delivery phase) must take precedence. 

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