A product manager recently asked me, “how much discovery is too much discovery?” She was feeling pressure from her manager to ship work faster by shortening the amount of time she was spending on product discovery and this concerned her. Would less discovery impact the quality of her solutions? To me, it’s not about the time spent on discovery, but rather how the discovery work is done. I’m a big fan of investing in what I call a discovery foundation and using that foundation to propel project-based discovery processes 

Defining a discovery foundation

A discovery foundation is a set of insights and 2-3 corresponding hypotheses about your target user, your product, or both. Critically, these insights and hypotheses should not focus on a specific piece of functionality that already exists in your product. The idea is that they’re broad enough to repeatedly inspire new feature development.

The insights can be qualitative or quantitative. I like to phrase the hypotheses as bold statements, usually starting with “we know that…”. For example: “We know that Americans have many different financial accounts across multiple financial institutions, which leads to a fragmented understanding of their financial health and a higher likelihood of poor financial decision-making.” This statement is broad (it doesn’t describe a specific feature or product solution) and compelling (it touches on emotional themes like fragmentation and subpar financial outcomes), making it an effective springboard for product ideation.

Discovery foundations streamline product discovery

In a typical product discovery process, product managers identify user needs, confirm the surrounding market opportunity, and summarize the value of potential product solutions. It’s a research-intensive experience that can take weeks. 

A good discovery foundation shortcuts this early, research-oriented phase of product discovery. It incorporates user needs, market opportunity, and solution value assessments into a single, reusable asset. Once a foundation like this is in place, you and the team can focus on the other activities inherent in product discovery, such as scoping, design, and usability testing of individual features.

What’s behind a discovery foundation

I’ve found that having an archive of qualitative insights from users (including those who aren’t using your product) is a must-have in a discovery foundation. You’re looking for broad sentiment here, not feedback about a specific area of your product. A diary study is an excellent way to build this archive, as are user surveys, particularly ones that include open-ended responses where users can share their opinions using their own words. 

Consolidate and review these insights, and run additional studies if needed, at least once a year. Plan to create new hypothesis statements using your insights archive every three or four months, which is typically when they start to feel outdated or stale. You’ll want to sharpen or revise your current set of hypothesis statements as you release features and discover new insights about your users and product. 

The objective of a discovery foundation is to accelerate the product discovery process by articulating user needs, the market landscape, and the value of a solution set in one fell swoop. Instead of figuring these components out at the onset of each project, you and your team can focus on solution scoping, usability testing, and launch planning for priorities that naturally emerge from the foundation. It’s a great way to move quickly without sacrificing quality.

About the speaker
Katherine Kornas Betterment, VP Product Contributor

Katherine Kornas is VP of Product at Betterment, where she leads growth, mobile, and money movement product teams. Prior to joining Betterment, she was SVP, Product at Havenly, and held product leadership positions at Pandora and Autodesk. Katherine has also worked on product teams at Dictionary.com and GreatSchools. Katherine is a graduate of the University of Michigan and currently lives in New York City

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