We product people are in the business of developing a better understanding of our customers’ needs. After all, that understanding is what will allow us to create products that customers love and our business will grow from. And who doesn’t want that? If you do (we certainly do) then you want to learn about the Continuous Product Discovery method.
The Opportunity Solution Tree (OST) is where we link our customer needs, pains and desires to our desired outcome. It’s a visual tool that will allow us to prioritize these opportunities and ideate solutions for the
Product Discovery is a set of activities where you actively seek out customer needs and pain points. Your aim is to convert these to built products. The objective is to answer the question of “What product should we build to win customers?”. Continuous Product Discovery focuses on the same activities and the same question. But instead of treating discovery as a one-off project (assuming you pinpoint customer needs exactly right the first time – and that they don’t change), it increases your hit-rate by treating discovery as a continuous process throughout the product life cycle.
The method detailed in this article is based on Teresa Torres’ Continuous Discovery Habits. It is often recognized by the Opportunity Solution Tree (OST) which brings visual clarity to customer opportunities. But there is a lot more to it than that. In this article, we dive into how Continuous Discovery can empower your team to create winning products.
In this article:
- What is Continuous Product Discovery?
- Why you should consider using it
- The Continuous Discovery Process
- Advice for implementation
- Case studies
- Continuous Discovery in a busy organization
- Similar methodologies
💡 Continuous Discovery series – article #1
This article is one in a series. It works as the helicopter view of the what’s and why’s of the Continuous Discovery method. Some of the tools in the method works great as stand-alone and are therefore detailed in their own articles.
- Article #2: Build your customer understanding with the Customer Experience Map (coming soon)
- Article #3: Take customer insights to new heights with Continuous Interviewing (coming soon)
This series is built on our own interpretation and experiences using the Continuous Discovery method. The method is originally developed and published by Teresa Torres. For Torres’ own thoughts, we recommend looking into her articles on ProductTalk or pick up her book on the subject.
So What Is Continuous Product Discovery Actually?
Continuous Product Discovery is a structured approach to making the right decisions about what to build. A lot of us have used or worked on products and features that didn’t quite ring true with customers, or didn’t have the intended impact on business growth. In a world were lots of companies are competing on delivering highest value to customers, we would like to avoid that. Imagine a tool that helps you do so, so you can focus on only delivering the features and products that customers will love. That is exactly what Continuous Discovery helps you do. It does so with the following steps:
These steps may look linear, but they are not, nor is it a one-time process. As the name indicates, its a continuous process on. It is so, as your business’ and customers’ needs continuously change as well. But more on that later.
Where Does It Originate From?
The method was published by Teresa Torres in her book Continuous Discovery Habits in 2016. The book builds on thoughts she already were sharing on her blog at the time. At this stage, she had already put in quite some years as a product coach and in different product positions.
How Does It Differ From Regular Product Discovery?
Product discovery is not something new, but has been around as long as we’ve had to answer the question of what to build. Continuous discovery is not exactly new neither. You could probably say it originates all the way back to Kaizen in the 1950s. Kaizen focused heavily on continuous improvement in businesses. In more recent times, Marty Cagan wrote about the concept back in 2012. Back then, Cagan encouraged product teams to adopt a continuous mindset about discovery. As opposed to the more usual approach of doing discovery in projects or phases.
Torres’ model of discovery builds on the same thoughts as other discovery methods. Examples of these are Lean Startup by Eric Ries, Jobs-to-be-done and Design Thinking. These methods share many of the same underlying thoughts. Continuous Discovery Habits has its own advantages though. It offers a versatile path. It also offers a unique connection between business outcomes and customer opportunities.
Why You Should Consider Using It
Continuous Product Discovery helps us answer the fundamental question of what to build to win customers. At its core it’s also a shortcut to avoid wasted efforts on unsuccessful products or features. In sum, the benefits are plenty.
- Increased product success. Aligning our products with customer needs and business objectives will lead to happier customers. Which leads to business growth.
- Increased cost efficiency. If done well, we can get to the right product faster. With a structured path and a better way of prioritizing opportunities, we avoid wasted effort.
- Risk reduction. By increasing team collaboration, we can bring more perspective to find the right and validated solution. This minimizes product failure.
- Increased time to market. As we become experienced working with continuous product discovery, we become able to zero in on the right paths faster. In the end, this means we can deliver customer value faster.
When You Should Consider Using It
A product team wants to use product discovery whenever its phased with the question “what should we build?” or “can we use the product we already built?”.
- When developing a new product. if you are trying to address a new opportunity, discovery is the way to answer how.
- When maintaining an existing product. Products needs to be continuously maintained. Here, discovery can come in handy for acting on changing customer needs.
- When needing to pivot. Sometimes the need for a product fundamentally changes or disappears. In these cases, a product discovery process can allow product teams to quickly pivot.
- When entering a new market. If you want to address a new market (by geography, segment or industry), product discovery will help reaching product-market fit
Continuous Product Discovery Starts With Mindset
Continuous Product Discovery is not just a set process, it’s an approach and mindset to developing the right products. A lot of the mindset points below can be beneficial in any product setup. But especially for Continuous Discovery Habits, we believe it will increase your chance of success.
Outcome over outputs. By focusing on outcomes, we keep our focus on the end goal. I.e. what is the value we want to drive for customers and our business. By focusing on the outcome, not the features we release, we don’t forget what’s important.
Customers in center. We have to make sure our efforts evolve around our customers. In the end, they are the ones who buy our products and make it worthwhile. This does not mean a customer focus can’t be paired with business growth. Actually, we will make that pairing our goal later.
Great products come from collaboration. Creating great products requires teamwork to deliver customer value. Discovery is not a one-person task where one person can come up with the best possible idea to solve a customer need. Doing discovery as a team will allow a broader perspective and in the end, a better product.
Be visual to gain clarity. By being visual with our work, it’s easier to maintain and overview. And we can be much clearer in communication to stakeholders. Moving from a list of outcomes to something visual will give you the full picture. This is where the Opportunity Solution Tree comes in.
Be experimental. They key idea of discovery is to discover. We need to keep in mind that we do not have all the answers, and sometimes our answers are half-truths. Therefore we need to continuously test and validate them to ensure we don’t build products on the wrong assumptions.
Discovery is continuous. Discovery is not reserved for the beginning of a project. As we work with our products, we will need to answer new questions along the way. That’s why we need to develop the habit of continuously talking to customers. This will allow us to effectively test our assumptions, as the need arises. If we don’t, unproved assumptions will remain just that. And building on unproved assumptions equals risk of product failure.
Opportunity Solution Tree as a Visual Path to Winning Products
With the right mindset in place, we want to start carving our path to winning products. The Opportunity Solution Tree (OST) will be our way of getting there.
One of the major advantages of the OST is that it provides a structured way of doing so. It also helps you drive both business and customer value at the same time. It’s also a great visual tool for aligning understanding across teams.
As you see on the below illustration, an outcome sits at the top of our tree. Below that we have our opportunities (customer pains, needs and desires). These will in time end up having their own solution ideas below them. And our solution ideas will end up having our assumptions below them, which in turn has our ways of testing these assumptions. And as we test our assumptions, we can start building the right solutions to solve the right opportunities.
When we start working on the OST, we start at the top and work our way down. Let’s get into a brief overview of that journey.
Step 1: Define Your Desired Outcome
We start at the top of the tree, where we want to set an outcome. An outcome is what we want to get out of our product efforts in the end. This can be a business outcome (increase revenue on product X) or ideally a product outcome (increase usage rate on product X).
The outcome is a large part of the magic of the OST, as this is where you define what you want to achieve. By using this as the filter of everything we work on further down the tree (e.g. “are we driving usage rate up with this solution?”), we create a more purposeful discovery approach.
Step 2: Start With a Customer Experience Map
Next up, we want to start building out the opportunity space below the outcome. To do so, we need to get an understanding of our customers and the opportunities we have to help them. Most likely we will be working on a product that we have some familiarity with, so it makes sense to start with the stuff we already know.
To do this, the discovery team outlines the steps a given customer would take using your product. This is called a customer experience map. This is relevant as each of these steps represents possible opportunities. The customer experience map can act as a catalyst to identify needs, pains and opportunities that we might want to build solutions for.
Step 3: Continuously Conduct Customer Interviews
Having built a base understanding of our customers, we want to refine that. By understanding our customer opportunities better than our competitors, we can be more accurate in solving them.
In the world of Continuous Product Discovery, we want to be experimental and we want to so throughout our discovery work. Only then can we test the assumptions we identify as we build products. And only then can we truly increase our accuracy. To make sure we have a chance of testing our assumptions, we would like to have customer interviews on a regular basis, as this will be the healthy soil that we will grow our tree from.
The best part is that continuous customer interviews doesn’t have to be difficult. Make sure to check our in-depth article on continuous customer interviewing that will be released within the next couple of weeks. Here we will dive into automating your interview process and discuss techniques for getting the right value out of it.
The interview snapshot is your quick template for storing interview insights. Check our article on continuous customer interviewing for more details.
Step 4: Map Out Your Opportunity Space
Armed with customer insights, we will begin filling out our opportunity space. We start by adding our identified opportunities (customer pains, wants or needs) on the tree. Opportunities should be based on evidence, e.g. tracked customer mentions, so we know they are relevant. They should be framed as an opportunity from the customer’s view, not a solution. And they should solve our outcome at the top. By using our outcome as a filter for our opportunities, we make sure that we are solving opportunities that will drive desired business growth.
The top opportunities are high level opportunities and often we will be able to break these into child-opportunities. These should be placed below the top opportunities. And if these child-opportunities can be broken down themselves, they should have their own child-opportunities. In the end, when we are solving an opportunity, it will often have several opportunities below it. And when we solve these child-opportunities we are one by one solving the top opportunity. Check the below tree for an example.
Step 5: Prioritize Customer Opportunities
When we have a well-defined opportunity space, it’s time to start working on solving some of these opportunities. We can’t address them all at once, so the natural thing is to prioritize them. We do so by evaluating how many customers a given opportunity are relevant too, how it important it is for them, how solving it will affect our market position and how easily we believe we can solve it.
Having a good idea of our opportunities’ relevancy, we simply start with the most relevant one. We however don’t want to start at the top, we go down the branch till we hit the lowest ones. That is our starting point. And as we solve the lowest ones of the branch we are automatically solving the ones above it.
Step 6: Ideate Solutions for Highest Priority Opportunities
Next up on our Discovery Journey is the solution part. Finally, we made it to the fun part (this is at least where most of us jumps when confronting opportunities in everyday life). Now we have set on our top opportunities and we want to start ideating on solutions for it. This is best done as a team exercise where everyone (PM’s, designer, developer etc.) gets the chance come up with ideas for solving an opportunity or several ones.
In our in-depth article we describe ways for attacking this, but for now let’s say we’ve set on a couple of solution ideas for solving our top opportunities.
Step 7: Uncover Solution Assumptions
Now, before we start building, we want to make sure we are building the best solution. This all starts with uncovering the assumptions we may have of our suggest solutions. Instead of building the product/feature to find out we built the wrong thing, we can start by testing our assumptions in small scale. If we get negative results, we have an early chance to adapt.
Assumptions about a solution can be things like “We believe customer’s want to use it”. It can be “We believe the solution will be profitable”. Or it can be “We have the capabilities to build it”. Uncovering these assumptions can be done by using something like a light customer journey map. We will have template for in our in-depth article.
Again, we want to prioritize your assumptions when we have a good feeling that we have identified most of them. We do so in order of the criticality for the solution to work, as well as our uncertain we are that the assumption holds true. In the end, we should end up with 2-4 big ones that we can test.
Step 8: Start assumption testing
When testing our assumptions we want to start small. Meaning, we do not want to built half the solution before we test it. And then realize it was the wrong solution and then need to start over. Take for instance the assumption “We believe that customers want to use it”. We can test this with quite low-effort through our continouous customer interviews. We can also make a smoke screen test, using a faux landing page to indicate whether it drives customer traffic. As we get positive validation on these tests we want to test in larger scale. Ideally, when we build the final solution, we have quite good confidence that it will hit home with customers.
So How Do You Actually Implement This?
It can seem daunting implementing something like the Continuous Discovery method, but it’s manageable when we start small.
- Identify your team, involve them, and start with one outcome. If you are a product leader, get them aboard. If you are not, talk to your product leader about the benefits you could gain as a team.
- Start talking to customers. If you aren’t doing already, start talking to your customers. Insights into the customer opportunity space will be the fuel of your Continuous Discovery process.
- Prioritize one opportunity. You want to get familiar with the process and gain a first win. You might also need to make some adjustments to fit the process for your organization (which is always recommended).
- Measure your progress. As you are starting to see some traction on your opportunity and/or outcome, measure it to see the difference from your previous approach. If you do retrospectives, this might be the place to evaluate on results.
- Communicate your results. When you start to have success with the method, share it with the rest of your organization.
- Lead by example. Use your first successes as examples for the rest of your organization. Slowly extend the approach to other teams and keep iterating. This is a continuous approach, so we should take our learnings and feedback to continuously improve on it.
And again, if you want to give Continuous Discovery a shot, stay tuned for our in-depth articles on Continuous Customer Interviewing and The Opportunity Solution Tree.
Continuous Discovery in the Life of a Busy Product Organization
At EP, we are all about productivity for product people. So how does the OST fit into a busy product team? In our experience, depending on what you are doing today, implementation is time well invested.
The method will give you a structured way of chipping away opportunities as you drive your outcome. It suggests regular interviewing and lays heavy focus on collaboration and assumption testing. But in our experience, knowing your customers pay dividends. The return shows when you launch the product that meet actual needs. Collaboration will likewise pay you two-fold, as you will get more ownership and more perspective on ideation. Lastly, testing assumptions is almost always worth your time, if done in proper scale. This is what will prevent you from investing time and effort into products that doesn’t quite hit the mark. In our article about. Some tips to in mind to avoid inefficiency.
- Don’t get hung up about getting the complete customer picture from the start. Focus on getting off the ramp instead.
- Try to automate your interview process and don’t think interviews have to be one hour per session. Likewise make storing your insights easy. Focus on setting your process up in as automated a way as possible and maintenance should be low.
- Don’t pursue too many opportunities at once. You will risk drowning and slowing the progress that will give you your first important wins.
- In general, try not to get caught up in having perfect data before you progress with building your tree or start ideating.
- Set up small tests, build from up from there and don’t try to test everything. And remember to use the evidence you already have hidden in your organization.
If you want to read up on some real-world examples of using the OST and continuous discovery, you will have plenty to dig into by Googling. ProductTalk also refers to some examples themselves. Check out a couple of them below:
We have also used the framework at several occasions ourselves and are also building an OST on an actual use case in our upcoming articles.
Should We Consider Different Methodologies?
It’s always worth considering your options. That are lots of similar thought frameworks out there. Some include:
- Jobs-to-be-done. The JBTD framework is an excellent framework. It’s truly focused on how customers uses products and services, as well as their motivations behind doing so.
- Lean Startup. This method also focuses on understanding customer needs. It is somewhat more focused on the experimentation and iteration part to meet those needs though.
- Design Thinking. A similar process with a focus on understanding customer needs. Design Thinking is particularly focused on user experience and user centricity.
These frameworks can also serve you well, but OST does differentiate. It has a clear focus on driving your business outcome throughout the process. It has an advantage in its ability to visualize the opportunity space. It’s also a versatile and well-rounded framework that can work on just about any scale. That being said, we believe that the best method for you is the one that is fitted to your organization. That can be the Continuous Discovery method and the Opportunity Solution Tree. It can also be a combination of that, other frameworks and the specific approaches that you’ve found to work best in your product teams.
Some of the possible disadvantages of the method to be aware of is:
- As with all changes in method, it will require an investment in time and add complexity till you are familiar with it.
- The method does not necessarily fit all organizational cultures. E.g. there needs to be some level of autonomy in how product efforts are run. If you don’t have this now, start incrementally.
- You might require some measure of customization. Maybe more in some industries. If you e.g. have a lot of tender-defined requirements, you have to adjust for that in discovery.
Continuous Discovery is a powerful tool for creating winning products that exceeds your customers’ expectations. By defining a desired outcome and building a continuous interviewing process, you can effectively map your opportunity space and prioritize opportunities. Your desired outcome acts as your compass, as you test assumptions and find the best solutions for your customer opportunities.
With the above, you should be well-equipped to try out the methodology in your own product team(s). If you feel you need more information to go on, reach out to us, or pick up Torres’ own book, Continuous Discovery Habits.