Addressing The Challenges of Product Discovery

Saeed Khan
The Startup
Published in
13 min readJan 3, 2021


NOTE: This is the first of a 2 part blog post. The second part can be found here.

I had the pleasure to speak with Cyrus Eslamian of Product Manager Hub recently. We spent the time talking about the challenges companies face in product discovery and how they can overcome them.

The following article is NOT a verbatim transcript of the podcast — which you can listen to at the link below:

— but is a parallel article on the same topic, covering similar questions, but with additional perspectives and examples.

NOTE: After reading this article you can read the follow up article here:


PMHub: What is Product Discovery and why does it matter?

Product Discovery is a broad topic related to customer, user, market and product research.

It’s about understanding market, customer and user problems, and identifying opportunities so that you can define, develop, deliver, market, sell and operate products that completely meet those market and customer needs.

I hope we are well past the ‘If you build it, they will come” world. We live in a complex and dynamic world. How can anyone build successful products that people will use and love without really understanding needs, problems and opportunities? It’s either discovery or it’s luck.

As Einstein said:

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking solutions”

And who is going to argue with Einstein, right?

Seriously though, understanding problems, deeply and broadly is fundamental to product success.

The quality of your solution (not just the product, but the entire go-to-market, including pricing, messaging, positioning etc.) all depend on the depth of your understanding of the problem.

The challenge with discovery is not just about understanding problems so you can build something people need. It’s also about understanding the people themselves, the environments they work in, the ways they’ll acquire the product, how they perceive the value of the solution etc. so that you can also optimize marketing and sales etc. and align the company.

It’s really strange, but there are so many products brought to market that fail, and the number one reason for failure is “No Market Need”. The following are the top 5 reasons for startup failure from CBinsights. The remaining 15 can be seen at the link.

Top 5 reasons for startup failure. No Market Need — 42%. 2 Ran out of cash, 3 Not right team. 4 outcompeted. 5 Pricing/Cost

42% of companies cited “No Market Need” as their main reason for failure. Think about that.

I wonder what they were doing? Who were they planning on selling to? Why did they invest in building something without identifying a market to buy their product or a real market need to address?

And, discovery is not a one time action. We don’t live in an unchanging world. Even if you’ve found a market and have a product and have customers etc. you still need to continue doing discovery work to keep your knowledge of the market and customer needs up to date, to properly prioritize new problems or new use cases or new product ideas etc. It’s an ongoing process.

Discovery is fundamental to winning in markets. And the best part is that a lot of companies don’t do it very well if at all. The bar is very low to beat competitors with good discovery practices.

Years ago, when I was a Product Manager in a software company, I was talking to a long time customer. At one point he said to me, that aside from the renewals sales rep, I was the only person from my company who had ever reached out to him since the initial sale was made. I was quite embarrassed to be honest, but also happy that he was spending time with me helping me with my discovery work, despite the neglect the company had shown him.

This is not uncommon in a lot of companies. This is a huge opportunity for companies that want to get ahead of competition.

PMHub: What are the different types of Product Discovery?

It depends how you want to slice this, but there are basically two major forms of discovery in my opinion.

These are formally called generative (or exploratory) research and then there’s evaluative (or validation) research.

Generative Research

Generative is where you are exploring a new product area or market or looking for new problems to address. It’s difficult work because there are so many unknowns. It’s a bit of a treasure hunt in that you don’t know where the treasure is, and you have to look for clues and signals that may or may not be accurate. And you might even overlook the treasure if you don’t interpret the clues correctly.

Evaluative Research

Evaluative research is typically done once you’ve identified a problem or have a specific objective and you want to learn more about that. E.g. you’ve heard from many customers that your product has security issues and you want to identify them and then decide how to address them.

Generative and Evaluative Research in the Double Diamond Research Model

Generative and Evaluative research go hand in hand in that often after your generative (treasure hunt) research, you use evaluative research to get focus and clarity on specific topics. This is the basis for the famed “double diamond” design thinking model. Generative research expands your knowledge (breadth) and then evaluative research takes you deeper into specific topics.

Now people might be asking why I haven’t mentioned qualitative and quantitative research. Both quantitative and qualitative are types of research used in Generative and Evaluative discovery. Generative tends to be more qualitative (interviews, observational studies, card sorting exercises etc.), whereas Evaluative is more of a blend of both quantitative and qualitative approaches.

PMHub: Who should be a part of Discovery? And how does it change depending on Product type (B2B, B2C), Stage of company (Startup vs. Enterprise)?

This really depends on the scale, scope and need, but in general for product teams, it’s best to have a cross-functional mix of roles all as active participants in the discovery.

In B2B scenarios and regardless of startup vs. larger enterprise company, the classic model is to have product management, UX and Engineering directly involved in the discovery because each role can contribute from their perspective, gather first hand knowledge of whatever is learned, and also help interpret and support the research in their particular context.

Now with AI and data products, it may be important to also include data science and other related teams. And of course, with hardware or domain specific products, e.g. biomedical devices or health and wellness or fitness applications, having domain experts might be necessary.

Key groups who work on building product should all have the opportunity to be involved in discovery. But don’t make the cross-functional group too large.

Getting discovery results second hand always reduces the fidelity of the information shared. For key participants in product decisions, having that first hand knowledge is always better.

The goal should be to have the right cross-functional participants involved and move forward together, analyze what you’ve learned, make decisions etc. so you stay in unison. This allows the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts.

With respect to differences between B2B and B2C, I think the answer is it depends. B2C applications tend to be simpler in the use cases they support than in B2B scenarios, and it can be difficult to get an hour with a B2C customer to do detailed 1:1 interviews.

You may end up doing more quantitative and indirect research in a B2C world than in B2B, where you *should* have more direct access to your customers.

With SaaS, it’s much easier to instrument your application and use product and user analytics to gain some insights into HOW the product is being used or WHAT users are doing WHEN etc. But to understand the WHY, you really need to get in front of people and hear them first hand.

My favourite example of this is Intuit’s Follow Me Home program. They basically ask customers to volunteer to have an Intuit researcher come to the customer’s home and observe their use of the product in the home environment and ask some pertinent questions.

This was started by Intuit founder Scott Cook and has led Intuit to some very interesting innovations. They also have a virtual Follow Me Home program (of course) that aims for the same results.

Here’s a short video explaining how Intuit conducts Follow Me Home interviews.

PMHub: How does Discovery change for remote Product teams?

We do a LOT of things remotely these days and quite honestly have been for a while. When I worked as a Product Manager, I would visit customers at their office for a meeting and they would always dial people in from one or more “remote” offices.

But I think this distinction of “remote” was artificial. Who was remote in the situation above?

I tweeted on this topic in 2019, and my prediction kind of came true, though much sooner than and not in the way I thought it would.

Distributed Teams

I prefer to use the term “distributed” vs. “remote”. We live in a distributed world, working collaboratively across geographies and timezones.

Distributed teams still have challenges, but far fewer limitations than they did just 5–10 years ago. The biggest shift in my opinion is the cultural shift within companies. I worked for many years as a “remote” Product Manager. I worked from home, my manager and some team members were 3000km away in the Bay Area, and my dev teams were in India, 13,000 km away. Not all companies were open to that 10 years ago.

Previously, being “Remote” had an inhibiting connotation to it. i.e. if you weren’t at HQ, you were sometimes “out-of-sight, out-of-mind”. There were some fully distributed companies (e.g. Automattic — makers of Wordpress) but they were certainly in the minortiy. The trend was growing these last few years, but the pandemic has accelerated that by at least 10x.

The discovery related actions that are difficult with distributed teams (and distributed customers) are things that require first hand observation or interaction. Ethnographic research is an example. I.e. following someone through their daily routine to understand what they do, how they do it and with whom etc. Intuit’s Follow Me Hope program is an example.

There are also difficult to describe benefits to in-person, face-to-face discussions. For example, having lunch with a customer and getting to know them personally (and not just transactionally), builds trust and a relationship that’s virtually impossible to forge over Zoom or Webex.

Those relationships become incredibly valuable over time and can help accelerate discovery efforts significantly.

PMHub: What are the top challenges for Product Discovery from your experience?

What are some strategies that you recommend to overcome these challenges?

1. The time to conduct Discovery

When I talk to people about discovery, the most common response is that either they don’t have time, or it’s not seen as important in their company. I.e. their focus is on handling inbound customer requests or escalations or addressing needs from sales etc. i.e. virtually all of these things are reactive.

That’s a cultural problem that needs to be addressed in the company.

A good product-centric company is a learning company. It’s about creating a proactive culture that can address market needs and gain competitive advantage.

Looking back, the MOST valuable time I ever spent as a product manager was 3 months with a team researching a new market opportunity. The knowledge and insights we gained not only helped drive our roadmap for at least 18 months, but were also used almost immediately by Marketing and Sales to better position our existing products. I’m certain that the ROI on that effort was 100x (one hundred times) the cost of our time and expenses that quarter. I am not exaggerating.

CEOs and leaders need to understand that discovery is an investment in the future success of the company.

Managers and leaders should support teams so they can make those investments in discovery on for the future benefit of the company.

1a — Access to customers

As a sub-bullet to this topic, one issue that comes up in the category of culture is access to customers. In many companies I’ve worked with, Product teams don’t have direct access to customers. i.e. Sales would not allow them access, or sales people needed to be directly involved in any customer conversations related to discovery.

This poses two problems. First there is a clear issue of trust in the company that needs to be addressed. Why won’t the sales people let Product teams do this important work?

Second, the presence of sales in a customer conversation changes the nature of the conversation. Customers will be less open to being candid and will temper what they say in the presence of sales people.

Rich Mironov delves into this topic in depth in his post Talking Directly with (Real) Customers.

2. The skills and ability to conduct discovery well

Even in companies that value discovery, there are challenges given the uncertainties involved in it. The second biggest problem is, given the time, many companies struggle to perform discovery successfully.

Discovery is about finding unmet needs and new opportunities and leveraging them to benefit your business. It’s not a simple task to do well, and given few people are formally trained in it, it’s easy to go through the motions but not see the desired results.

It’s relatively easy to interview people, run surveys etc. But doing those things well, finding the right people, asking the right questions, connecting the right dots to identify real insights that you can act on is really difficult.

With my clients, we often use the word “signals”. It’s rare that you stumble onto something that’s really obvious and fully fleshed out that you can act on. You get signals and you may see them or you may miss them. But even if you see something that looks promising, do you have the time, focus and discipline to dig deep and form clear pictures of the opportunities they hold.

Discovery is not deterministic work. I.e. you can’t simply follow a prescribed set of steps and expect a positive outcome.

As I said before, exploratory (or generative) research is primarily qualitative. There’s a real skill and discipline in deconstructing and analyzing qualitative data. It’s not something we’re taught in school, and we don’t have well developed tools for it either.

There are some emerging software tools coming out, and there are models, like Teresa Torres’ Opportunity-Solution Tree, that are positive steps forward. But I think we have a long way to go in doing this well in a consistent and repeatable manner.

3. Implementing discovery findings within your company

The last challenge with discovery, is taking the findings and insights and prioritizing them and converting them to actions within the company. These could be new product initiatives, changes to messaging or positioning, new ways for sales to engage with prospects etc.

Why is this a challenge? Discovery brings NEW insights into the company. If they are incremental then it’s easy to incorporate them into existing products, programs and contexts. But, if discovery identifies new (unexpected) markets, use cases or product opportunities, then it may be harder to leverage those insights within companies.

e.g. a potential new market means new investment, new programs, new headcount, new risks etc. In some companies, when new investment or new risks are identified, decision makers may hesitate or require more information before proceeding.

If discovery identifies a new product area, then additional investigation or justification may be needed, particularly if that new area is not seen as a “fit” with the company’s direction.

I saw this in one company, where a new product area was identified through customer interviews and advisory board requests. The company didn’t pursue that opportunity for various reasons, but several years later, the company acquired a startup that had built a product that addressed that need. They didn’t think the problem was important when their own teams discovered it (and their own customers talked about it), but decided it was important after others built a solution for it. This is not uncommon.

Company culture plays a huge role here, and executives and other decision makers need to understand that discovery is the basis for innovation, differentiation and competitive advantage.

Listen to the people in your company who are doing discovery work, support them in their work and create a culture that can leverage the findings and insights to drive product and company success.

Discovery is the basis for innovation, differentiation and competitive advantage.

PMHub: How do you help Product Teams and Product Leaders.

I work with product teams in a number of ways. The most common is through workshops and mentoring, to help them improve their skills and practices.

I also work with product leaders to better define their organizations, the roles and responsibilities on the teams, the processes they follow (like Discovery, Strategy, Roadmapping etc) and the goals they can achieve.

Finally, I help product teams work better cross functionally within the organization so there is clear alignment within the business and that leads to accelerated product success.

The way I look at it is that well organized and skilled product teams, following the right processes will accelerate the path to product success.

My goal is to help them accelerate product success, and from product success comes business success.

A little feedback on the article

If you’ve read this far, thank you. I’d like some feedback on the article to make it better. Just 3 questions. Should take 1 minute, but will really be valuable to me. Thanks in advance.

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And don’t miss Part 2

You can find part 2 of this blog post here where I answer questions I received after publishing this article.



Saeed Khan
The Startup

Product Consultant. Contact me for help in building great products, processes and people.