Is the Discomfort of Product Discovery Preventing You From Building Better Products?
September 7, 2022
Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes
I don’t like to be uncomfortable, a sentiment I believe most people would share. But is this same aversion to discomfort preventing product teams from building better products?
While it’s human nature to prefer the easier, familiar and more comfortable option, it’s important to note that not all discomfort is created equal.
The first day of school, a big job interview, and asking a person out on a first date are by no means experiences that I or anyone else would categorize as comfortable. The difference is that on the other side of some discomfort, of that fear and unknown, lies the possibility of something more, something better, something you’ve never had before.
Product discovery is not all that dissimilar.
Many companies overemphasize product delivery, focusing on output over the outcome, and for a long time, I couldn’t figure out why. Our discovery services are designed to de-risk, validate, and accelerate product development by driving the desired outcome for customers that create value for the businesses, so why wouldn’t more organizations be interested? Then, I started thinking back to past engagements I worked on.
Product discovery requires bringing new ideas to light and often dismissing old ones. It’s where assumptions are gathered, proven and disproven, and in my experience, this can be a difficult and uncomfortable experience for people. And then it hit me – is the discomfort of discovery preventing companies from building better products?
Discomfort is usually taken as a sign to stop what you are doing, but not always. Sometimes it’s a signal telling you that you’re heading in the right direction and to press on, especially in product development. And by the end of this article, you’ll have a better understanding of who experiences this discomfort, what it looks like, and why it’s a necessary step on the journey to building better products.
Faces and feelings of discomfort
Many of the companies we partner with created the category in which they operate, from the leading maker of autonomous robotic cleaning products to the world’s premier at-home fitness tech provider. They’ve done some research, hired outside firms, compiled data and usually have a strong conviction that they know everything there is to know about their customers and have all the information to begin development. This can lead to an uncomfortable feeling of redundancy from the partner when we come in and start doing our own research. And if we find gaps, which is inevitable since there is always more to learn, it’ll lead to another type of discomfort.
Product discovery can feel like you’re standing still, and you need only ask any product practitioner, and they’ll tell you that time is a luxury and that they often don’t have enough. But that’s what makes it all the more important. Because, on the quest to find the right problem to solve, our research can sometimes lead the direction of products somewhere better, in terms of avoiding the undesirable or the wasteful, or even somewhere new, ultimately saving time and resources. However, this can be hard for anyone having difficulty letting go of the previous assumptions, especially if they were their own.
The discomfort of product discovery isn’t mutually exclusive to our partners, as, full disclosure, the complex nature of the process can take its toll on practitioners at all levels.
From the senior practitioner perspective, which I’m quite familiar with, the discomfort lies in approaching each new engagement by cultivating A Beginner’s Mind. By that, I mean we often come into engagements with a certain amount of knowledge, biases, and assumptions from past projects. When this happens, we need to widen our lens, and rather than only using our past experience to form a solution, we use it as a starting point for the entire team to share an understanding of the real problem space.
On the other hand, some practitioners might feel a sense of discomfort if product discovery is new territory for them. This feeling is just compounded if the work is being done in an industry the practitioner is unfamiliar with, which is often the case. This can be a point of discomfort for senior practitioners as well. And when you throw in the nebulous nature of product discovery, with every engagement being unique and approached with an equally unique set of tools, tactics, and methodologies, it stands to reason there’s a certain amount of discomfort.
Working towards a common goal
When you play on a team, you put your differences aside during game time, all working towards a common goal. However, it’s equally important that the team provide a proper environment, one that empowers, motivates, and reaffirms the team and the goal they are trying to pursue.
While you may not carry the solutions of past success forward, you certainly can carry the experience of learning something new with you. This allows us to stay not only confident but motivated as we approach the engagement with a beginner’s mind, trying first to determine the right problem before we put forward solutions.
And lastly, you loosen your grip on your assumptions because an assumption held too tight is a dangerous thing. Because you won’t begin to check those important boxes of desirability, usability, viability, and feasibility for building a successful product until you’ve embraced a culture that reframes assumptions and then use techniques like hypothesis-driven validation to test, observe, learn, and proceed accordingly.
The other side of discomfort
Much like the discomfort associated with the first day of school, a job interview, or asking someone out on a date, the initial discomfort of product discovery is only temporary. And as you work through the discovery phase and start building an understanding by framing problems, gathering evidence, testing assumptions, and gaining more confidence, you and your teams will find themselves with one of the most precious and valuable gifts a product team can have – purpose.
People are happier and produce better results when they feel a sense of purpose in what they are doing. It doesn’t matter if you’re one practitioner or a team of 100.
During complex and challenging times, purpose can hold its greatest value because it provides a focal point, a place where teams can converge and align after pushing through the unknown. Product discovery is about being okay with the feeling of not knowing. And while the ask of some relatively small and assumed discomfort in the short term can be difficult for anyone, when weighed against the exponentially larger potential discomfort in the long term, it makes a wise choice if your ultimate goal is to build better products.
A good product is never done as long as its users are still alive. Their needs, preferences, challenges, jobs, and lives are in constant flux, and in order for a product to retain value, it must be fluid enough to evolve alongside them. And for that to happen, you must treat product discovery not as a task you check off at the beginning of the process but as a mindset you embody; one that is continuously practiced.
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