Avoiding antipatterns in product discovery

Product discovery works best when you have no favourite ideas. Spending time with real users validating problems and potential solutions is a critical part of good product discovery. Often ideas that sound great around the office white board fall flat when tested with real users. An important part of maturing as a product manager is learning to avoid leading the conversation, regardless of whether reception is positive or negative.

The negative version of this is pretty easy to spot and address. Someone pitches an idea to a customer and the idea lands poorly. The person running the conversation continues to re-pitch the idea, confirming again and again that there’s no interest. Time with users is precious and it’s easy to get caught up trying to validate a pet product idea that’s somehow become tied up with a PMs identity.

The path here is fairly simple. If an idea falls flat, maybe give it one more try with different words, then move on. Not every idea is going to land. Those that do won’t land with every customer. It’s just as valuable to avoid building something customers don’t want as to build something they do. 

Often when this behaviour is present it’s a sign that there aren’t enough raw ideas on the table. When PMs have dozens of low stakes potential ideas it’s easy to let any one of them slide. If you’re noticing this behaviour, in yourself or your team, aim to test more ideas at a time.

The positive version of this is arguably harder to address. On the surface, getting some excitement from a customer sounds like a good thing, and in a way it is. The reason this becomes an issue is when a PM becomes laser focused on the first sign of excitement at the cost of wider discovery efforts.

The path here looks a lot like the negative one in a sense. An idea is presented, this time to a positive response. As a result the PM spends the remainder of the discussion revalidating interest in the one idea.

In the case of a positive reception the goal should be a quick validation and a continued focus on breadth. The purpose of product discovery is to determine the vast map of things that are valuable to a customer. If we use the crude analogy of charting a map, our goal is to get a good idea of the whole land mass. Drilling in too quickly on the first warm idea is akin to mapping a very small section of coastline in millimetre detail at the sacrifice of the bigger picture.

The way to avoid drilling in too much on a positive reception is the same as the negative case. Test more ideas. When your meetings are focused on validating several options it's harder to get lost in the details of just one. Like anything, there is a careful balance to strike here, our goal is to learn about the broader picture of what a customer finds valuable, not to run through a laundry list of ideas and give each of them a tick or a cross.

Broadly speaking, if you have an hour with customers, spend the first half moving quickly between ideas and the second half digging more into those that sparked some interest. This will give you a chance to see patterns and bigger themes in what customers find valuable.

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