Common product discovery pitfalls and how to avoid them "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs June 06 2021 False Product Discovery, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 1457 person falling down a hole Product Management 5.828

Common product discovery pitfalls and how to avoid them

BY ON

Product discovery pitfalls, have you fallen foul of one? If your answer is yes, you’re forgiven, because the list is long and you’re only human! But, as product people, it’s our job to be aware of the hidden hurdles and do product discovery the right way.

Here we share 6 common product discovery pitfalls and how to avoid them.

1. Stopping

Faced with huge disruption, or even your day-to-day activities, it can be easy to let discovery habits slip. But, as Teresa Torres explains in ‘Remote Discovery’ on The Product Experience podcast, stopping is a mistake. In fact, she strongly advises against it. “There is this philosophy of going from zero to one is really hard,” she says, “going from one to two is much easier, right? So to the degree that a team can maintain their habits, the better off they’re going to be in the long run.” Of course, there are times when discovery feels difficult, perhaps even downright impossible. That’s true for every product team. But, says Teresa, even if that’s been the case for your team over the last few weeks, you’re not screwed, “you can still make next week better than last week,” she says.

Avoid pitfall #1

“For me, discovery starts with regular engagement with your customer. And I really encourage teams to talk to customers at least once a week.” Once you get into that habit, keep it up. Even if you can only do a little discovery, that’s okay. Just avoid dropping to zero. You’ll regret it if you do.

2. Involving too many people

You know the saying, “too many cooks spoil the broth”? Now we’re not advising you should cut people out of the discovery process but, as Teresa Torres explains in that same episode of The Product Experience podcast, there’s an important balance to strike in deciding who does your discovery interviews. “The more perspectives you can include, the more you’re going to learn,” she says, “but you’re also going to slow down your decision making.” As a team, your goal is to find the right balance of perspectives, given what you’re trying to learn, and this should be small enough that you can still move fast. How small is small enough? “I feel like product trios are the minimum,” Teresa adds.

Avoid pitfall #2

Teresa recommends that the product manager, designer, and engineer is the minimum set of cross-functional roles that you want to be represented. Yes, she continues, you could add a user researcher, a product marketer, or even a salesperson, but be mindful that the bigger that team grows, the slower it’s going to move. There’s a small team of people you need to be involved in the discovery and decision making, the rest should be informed and brought along on the journey.

3. Separating your discovery and delivery team

In a Prioritised AMA session — Empowering teams, discovery challenges, alignment and more, Marty Cagan explains how separating the discovery and delivery team is a pitfall we should all avoid. Of course, Marty isn’t suggesting that a separate team doing discovery won’t come up with great ideas — assuming you have an engineer and a designer in the mix, he says, that’s not the issue. “The issue is it’s now different people that have to make this a reality and they were not there in the room where it happened,” he says. “We never want to separate the two activities of a product team — discovery and delivery.” Marty flags that this has been tried many times before with disappointing results. We don’t want one group of people doing the innovation while the rest implement it.

Avoid pitfall #3

“Every product team is responsible for discovery and delivery. Just like every product team is doing coding and QA testing,” says Marty. “We have multiple activities going on, but we really never want to separate that.”

4. Failure to validate your solution for Product

A simple lack of discovery is pitfall number 4. No matter what you think about the solution you’re planning, remember that you are not your customer and you therefore don’t have all the answers.

Sure, it is possible to create a great product — or to match an innovative solution to a problem — but whether your great product actually works as a PRODUCT is another story. In Common Product Development Mistakes and How To Avoid Them All, Ashley Fidler explains how her team made this exact mistake. They created a great product but, at the time of launch, the market wasn’t ready. They’d relied upon a team of experts to confirm their solution but, as Ashley explains, they hadn’t validated that the solution would work as a product, could be sold, or that they’d find product/market fit. “In true feature factory style, we were told what to build and we built it,” she says. “This is, sadly, an incredibly common predicament, and it normally seems to be borne more of confusion than intent.”

Avoid pitfall #4

Remember, you might have a groundbreaking idea, but without proper discovery, you won’t know if it’s the right one for your users – validate your solution for Product.

5. Letting bias lead the way

None of us are immune to cognitive bias which means we have to be mindful of that fact and work around it. Failing to do so is pitfall number 5. Bias will impact your research — the questions you ask, what people tell you in response, and how you interpret what you hear.

Here are the types of bias that all too often creep into research:

  • Confirmation bias: Looking for evidence that proves you right, and avoiding or ignoring evidence that contradicts your beliefs
  • Cognitive dissonance: That feeling when you’re trying to hold two contradicting views at the same time
  • Survivorship bias: Wanting to talk to happy customers because it makes you feel good and failing to remember that your happiest customers aren’t typically the best representation of what needs to change in your product

Avoid pitfall #5

In Cognitive Biases and The Questions you Shouldn’t be Asking, Cindy Alvarez suggests some simple ways to kick these biases to the curb:

Avoid confirmation bias

Instead of asking “How likely would you be to use (a solution)?”, ask “Tell me about what you’re currently doing in (a situation).” Hearing people’s stories is a better way to discover what they really need and care about.

Avoid cognitive dissonance

When research isn’t proving what you thought it would, it’s tempting to ask, “are we sure we’re talking to the right customers?” Blaming users might make you feel better but won’t solve the right problem. Instead, start by saying: “Let’s assume (an undesirable belief) is true. Now what?” The semantic break of pretending something’s true allows your brain a release and helps you to get to a different answer.

Avoid survivorship bias

Talk to churned customers, low-usage customers, or non-customers using competitor products. Find out what drove them away or why they’re not using your product anymore. Ask them questions like, “If you HAD to change one thing…”, “Which tasks do you put off doing?”, or “How have you done (a task) differently in the past?”

6. Ill-defined problems

In his ProductTank London talk, How to Avoid Product Discovery Pitfalls, Navin Nair’s top discovery pitfall is ill-defined scope. Too often, he explains, people just miss out entire sections of their research. They’re too broad in their definitions and simply fail to get to the root of the problem. For example, he says, not enough people talk about success criteria, or detail how it is they’ll know when they’ve solved the problem. Users, he continues, are another good example as too often, “people simply say ‘all users’ and it’s very unlikely that all users have exactly this problem in exactly the same way.”

Avoid pitfall # 6

Navin defines scope as six different sections that identify the:

  1. Target user
  2. Current problem
  3. Current workaround
  4. Proposed approach
  5. Success criteria
  6. Business value

To ensure that your problem is properly defined, you need all six sections to be well thought out and clearly defined. Failure to do so will waste time, money, and effort.

What to read next

For more insights on discovery, browse our library of content on Product Discovery and, for even more product management topics, use our Content A-Z.

Some of the content referenced above is exclusive to Mind the Product members. Not yet in the club? Learn about Prioritised and MTP Leader membership today.

You might also like:

Product discovery pitfalls, have you fallen foul of one? If your answer is yes, you're forgiven, because the list is long and you're only human! But, as product people, it's our job to be aware of the hidden hurdles and do product discovery the right way. Here we share 6 common product discovery pitfalls and how to avoid them.

1. Stopping

Faced with huge disruption, or even your day-to-day activities, it can be easy to let discovery habits slip. But, as Teresa Torres explains in 'Remote Discovery' on The Product Experience podcast, stopping is a mistake. In fact, she strongly advises against it. "There is this philosophy of going from zero to one is really hard," she says, "going from one to two is much easier, right? So to the degree that a team can maintain their habits, the better off they're going to be in the long run." Of course, there are times when discovery feels difficult, perhaps even downright impossible. That's true for every product team. But, says Teresa, even if that's been the case for your team over the last few weeks, you're not screwed, "you can still make next week better than last week," she says.

Avoid pitfall #1

"For me, discovery starts with regular engagement with your customer. And I really encourage teams to talk to customers at least once a week." Once you get into that habit, keep it up. Even if you can only do a little discovery, that's okay. Just avoid dropping to zero. You'll regret it if you do.

2. Involving too many people

You know the saying, "too many cooks spoil the broth"? Now we're not advising you should cut people out of the discovery process but, as Teresa Torres explains in that same episode of The Product Experience podcast, there's an important balance to strike in deciding who does your discovery interviews. "The more perspectives you can include, the more you're going to learn," she says, "but you're also going to slow down your decision making." As a team, your goal is to find the right balance of perspectives, given what you're trying to learn, and this should be small enough that you can still move fast. How small is small enough? "I feel like product trios are the minimum," Teresa adds.

Avoid pitfall #2

Teresa recommends that the product manager, designer, and engineer is the minimum set of cross-functional roles that you want to be represented. Yes, she continues, you could add a user researcher, a product marketer, or even a salesperson, but be mindful that the bigger that team grows, the slower it's going to move. There's a small team of people you need to be involved in the discovery and decision making, the rest should be informed and brought along on the journey.

3. Separating your discovery and delivery team

In a Prioritised AMA session — Empowering teams, discovery challenges, alignment and more, Marty Cagan explains how separating the discovery and delivery team is a pitfall we should all avoid. Of course, Marty isn't suggesting that a separate team doing discovery won't come up with great ideas — assuming you have an engineer and a designer in the mix, he says, that's not the issue. "The issue is it’s now different people that have to make this a reality and they were not there in the room where it happened," he says. "We never want to separate the two activities of a product team — discovery and delivery." Marty flags that this has been tried many times before with disappointing results. We don't want one group of people doing the innovation while the rest implement it.

Avoid pitfall #3

"Every product team is responsible for discovery and delivery. Just like every product team is doing coding and QA testing," says Marty. "We have multiple activities going on, but we really never want to separate that."

4. Failure to validate your solution for Product

A simple lack of discovery is pitfall number 4. No matter what you think about the solution you're planning, remember that you are not your customer and you therefore don't have all the answers. Sure, it is possible to create a great product — or to match an innovative solution to a problem — but whether your great product actually works as a PRODUCT is another story. In Common Product Development Mistakes and How To Avoid Them All, Ashley Fidler explains how her team made this exact mistake. They created a great product but, at the time of launch, the market wasn't ready. They'd relied upon a team of experts to confirm their solution but, as Ashley explains, they hadn't validated that the solution would work as a product, could be sold, or that they'd find product/market fit. "In true feature factory style, we were told what to build and we built it," she says. "This is, sadly, an incredibly common predicament, and it normally seems to be borne more of confusion than intent."

Avoid pitfall #4

Remember, you might have a groundbreaking idea, but without proper discovery, you won’t know if it’s the right one for your users – validate your solution for Product.

5. Letting bias lead the way

None of us are immune to cognitive bias which means we have to be mindful of that fact and work around it. Failing to do so is pitfall number 5. Bias will impact your research — the questions you ask, what people tell you in response, and how you interpret what you hear. Here are the types of bias that all too often creep into research:
  • Confirmation bias: Looking for evidence that proves you right, and avoiding or ignoring evidence that contradicts your beliefs
  • Cognitive dissonance: That feeling when you’re trying to hold two contradicting views at the same time
  • Survivorship bias: Wanting to talk to happy customers because it makes you feel good and failing to remember that your happiest customers aren't typically the best representation of what needs to change in your product

Avoid pitfall #5

In Cognitive Biases and The Questions you Shouldn’t be Asking, Cindy Alvarez suggests some simple ways to kick these biases to the curb:

Avoid confirmation bias

Instead of asking “How likely would you be to use (a solution)?”, ask “Tell me about what you’re currently doing in (a situation).” Hearing people’s stories is a better way to discover what they really need and care about.

Avoid cognitive dissonance

When research isn't proving what you thought it would, it's tempting to ask, “are we sure we’re talking to the right customers?” Blaming users might make you feel better but won't solve the right problem. Instead, start by saying: “Let’s assume (an undesirable belief) is true. Now what?” The semantic break of pretending something's true allows your brain a release and helps you to get to a different answer.

Avoid survivorship bias

Talk to churned customers, low-usage customers, or non-customers using competitor products. Find out what drove them away or why they’re not using your product anymore. Ask them questions like, “If you HAD to change one thing…”, “Which tasks do you put off doing?”, or “How have you done (a task) differently in the past?”

6. Ill-defined problems

In his ProductTank London talk, How to Avoid Product Discovery Pitfalls, Navin Nair's top discovery pitfall is ill-defined scope. Too often, he explains, people just miss out entire sections of their research. They're too broad in their definitions and simply fail to get to the root of the problem. For example, he says, not enough people talk about success criteria, or detail how it is they'll know when they've solved the problem. Users, he continues, are another good example as too often, "people simply say 'all users' and it's very unlikely that all users have exactly this problem in exactly the same way."

Avoid pitfall # 6

Navin defines scope as six different sections that identify the:
  1. Target user
  2. Current problem
  3. Current workaround
  4. Proposed approach
  5. Success criteria
  6. Business value
To ensure that your problem is properly defined, you need all six sections to be well thought out and clearly defined. Failure to do so will waste time, money, and effort.

What to read next

For more insights on discovery, browse our library of content on Product Discovery and, for even more product management topics, use our Content A-Z. Some of the content referenced above is exclusive to Mind the Product members. Not yet in the club? Learn about Prioritised and MTP Leader membership today. You might also like: