Product discovery: Making progress towards the innovation land — Interview with Nikkel Blaase, Product Designer at XING
I had the pleasure to chat with Nikkel Blaase, Product Designer at XING. In his spare time, Nikkel runs a couple of wonderful workshops on product discovery, and he also creates brilliant content like the Unstuck map which I highly recommend you to check out. In this Interview, we talk about what product discovery means, how to choose the right methodologies and how to get your team members on your side. Enjoy.
Nikkel, there seem to be different definitions of the discovery process, how do you define discovery?
Nikkel: When I talk about discovery, I mostly talk about innovation. And what I mean by that is the journey of exploration where you try to find new value for a specific type group of people. So in the end, it’s about value creation and the process of finding this value. This is how you arrive at a product that solves the problem in a better way than before, maybe faster, cheaper or in a new, meaningful way with the help of new technology.
From my perspective discovery is not an incremental improvement. So when you have an existing business model, existing customers, an existing product, and you want to improve on your product, on your features, to make your customers’ lives easier somehow, this is, for me, incremental improvement and not innovation.
It sounds like we may all think we are innovating when in reality we are just working on improvements. How do you differentiate between innovation work and improvement work?
Nikkel: In an innovation process you try to find new customers, you try to find a new product in a new market, this is the exploration phase. But when you do improvements, you often do that in your exploitation phase, where you have a working business model, a working product, you already have customers. I think this is the main difference when you have paid customers, a working product, and a working business model then you always execute only improvements until your product dies. Products have a life cycle, and in the end, they will die, they will be replaced by other products, one way or another. When you improve your product, you’re actually in the survival business because you want to avoid that your customers switched to other better solutions.
But when you are in the exploration phase where you don’t have a working business model, where you want to find a new business model, where you have to find new customers, this is actually quite different. Finding a new place in the market and keeping your market position are two types of journeys and require different methods For example, when I want to improve things, I would mainly gather customer feedback. I would run usability tests; I would do A/B testing, and stuff like that. But when I am in the exploration phase where I look for a new value that is not existing right now then I need a different mindset, a different set of skills, and a different set of tools and methods.
Where do you see the discovery work being done more often, large companies or small companies?
Nikkel: In all kinds of organizations. Startups are always in discovery mode until they find product market fit, but all organizations are trying to do discovery work. Maybe more slowly In big organizations where you have a lot of more limitations, boundaries, dependencies with other teams or you depend on a running business model with lots of stakeholders involved. I think it’s much harder to run discovery, from my perspective, in big organizations because you have so many limitations.
You talk to a lot of product people through your workshops. Does everybody come to you with one specific problem around discovery?
Nikkel: No, they are quite different. For instance, some people come because they don’t know how to start innovation, how to start discovery. Others have questions like, How do I find my first customers? How can I create empathy with my future customers? How can I uncover their real needs and how can I make sure that my solution really fits a problem people have? While others want to know, How can I make sure that I have market demand, that what I have is real traction?. My favorite question is “How do I start?” Because I think this is a very common problem, and we basically say, in our workshops at least, we cannot really tell you where to start, but we can give you Orientation.”
We think that discovery consists out of small field trips into specific areas, and the first one might be the mandate. We call the mandate the goal or idea that comes from stakeholders, at least in big organizations, we focus on what the desired outcome is, how success looks like in the end, and what their intention is, and what hypothesis they have about the future customers or the problem we’re trying to solve. But sometimes we can also start somewhere else, for example, an opportunity that we saw from our data, like that we see that this kind of people, they’re always struggling in this and that situation. And these people are a huge number, so let’s try to build something for them.
Then you start with your users or customers in the center, or you can also start, and I think this is quite interesting, with a solution. It’s also possible to start with a solution and then work backward to your customers, to the problem, and to the stakeholders. So it doesn’t matter with how you exactly start, what matters is that you start. If you don’t start, you will never do anything. So it’s important that you get started, that you make progress, and then everything will fall into place, and you continue to make progress.
Where do you think people get stuck? What is their biggest fear around discovery?
Nikkel: I think the biggest fear is the risk of failure. Failing is part of every discovery, and it’s good because this is how we learn, but many people don’t feel comfortable in times of uncertainty, discovery means risk. It’s risky but the more progress you make during your discovery phase, the less risky it gets. So actually, the more progress you make, the easier it gets. It’s very easy to have a first idea, what you want to do, and sometimes the solution also looks easy and obvious, but the journey is quite hard. Many people also fear the hard times because it means a lot of work, it means getting stuck at some point, it means getting frustrated.
How do you define progress when you are feeling like it’s not working for you? Especially if you’re in a large company and you have to battle a lot of people.
Nikkel: For me, progress is getting insights, validated user insights. Progress is also about generating evidence. With every validated fact that you discover, with every new evidence you basically get new opportunities, because you know you can combine those facts and create something new, they will lead you to more and better ideas. I think it’s important to collect these validated insights and this is, for me, progress. So what that means is that I don’t necessarily think the outcome of discovery is a given solution. The outcome could also be learning and better ideas.
If you are generating validated facts, you know you can engage the business in real opportunities, you can confidently say “Okay, this is a fact. We know that our customers always do this or that and now we see an opportunity how we can improve our product or how we can create something new.” So yeah, progress is basically to generate validated facts and evidence so that you are confident to act.
In my experience discovery work always feels like a constant back and forth, maybe that’s why people find it hard to not only start but to continue investing in the process. Is that true?
Nikkel: Yeah. It’s hard but, you have to go constantly back. It’s how it works, and this is not bad. So for instance, when you start a discovery because a stakeholder has a certain idea of a new solution you should build and you find out that the targeted people will never, ever adopt this new product then with these facts, you have to go back to the stakeholder and tell her, “No, it won’t work like you intended. But because of our research, we find a way we could make something different work”. So it’s going back and forth and back and forth, and we have to get used to it, you are actually making progress.
You make progress because then you will explore other areas and you will connect the dots more easily. It’s quite hard for us humans to step back because it feels like taking steps backward, but actually what you do is you make progress.
What have you seen as the most successful way to communicate these validated facts and get the support you need for your research.
Nikkel: What I always do is storytelling. I try to combine these facts we gathered and try to put them into a story. When I do deep dive user interviews or customer interviews, I always take pictures of the people I’m interviewing so I can share these stories with a face with others. I also have a moveable wall in the office where I put my stories on for anybody to see, people easily remember the stories because they can associate the picture of a real person and the facts.
I also like to have multiple small meetings with different stakeholders so that I can avoid doing three months of discovery in a small, dark room somewhere in the company and then come out one day saying “This idea isn’t going to work,” that does not help anybody. What I prefer is to engage with people one to one or small groups, that way everyone feels like they are involved in the process and can also share ideas. It is a collaboration process after all.
Is there any specific tool or methodology that you see as problematic for people trying to do discovery?
Nikkel: I think one of the things is that I found out is that people use frameworks often the wrong way or at the wrong time and this is also something people often realize too late. They look back and say, “Oh my God, why did I use this framework? I think designers, product managers, and engineers often don’t really think about frameworks as tools that should serve their own needs. They just conduct different frameworks and methods just for the sake of doing it sometimes so they can say, “I did a user journey map.” But if you ask, “Okay, why did you do it?” They often don’t have a good answer. This is a very common problem and what I try to solve with the untuck map.
What is the one thing you wish you knew five years ago, something you wish you had learned sooner?
Nikkel: Dealing with politics.
It took me sometime to understand how to navigate politics in different organizations. You talk to someone in a company, and you don’t understand the other person because you don’t know their goal or intent. You try to convince someone to do something, but you don’t understand why you cannot convince them, you don’t understand the other person’s agenda. They just say, “No,” and your first thought is, “Oh, with no reason?” And you get frustrated.
So what I learned is to ask the other person, “What is your intention? What are your goals? Why don’t you like my idea?” Or, “Why don’t you want to do this or that?” So company politics is something that is, for me, quite hard. Everyone has an agenda, and you have to find out what the agendas are before making any progress. This is something I wish I would have known a few years ago. I would have been more effective and probably feel a lot less frustrated in the past.