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Problem Discovery Leads to Product Discovery

One of my favorite product thought-leaders tweeted about how product managers are told to “define the problem” and how the rush to define the problem is where things go wrong.

He said, “Before you define the problem, you have to observe, suspend judgment, resist even calling it a ‘problem’... just take it in.”


I recently spoke with a product leader who said they were looking for insight on how to best do “problem” discovery," but everything they found was on “product discovery.”


The Difference Between Problem Discovery and Product Discovery

The concept of “Product Discovery” has become very popular in the product management industry. From books to workshops to social media, product discovery is all the rage.


In essence, product discovery is the work of discovering the right solution. Engaging with customers on a regular basis to better understand their problems and solution options to reach our desired outcome. Product discovery is product design. Teresa Torres, a proponent of product discovery, says she has “long held the belief that product managers are designers.”


Alas, I disagree.


That is where the difference between Problem Discovery and Product Discovery comes into play. Product management is a business role. Product managers are not designers, architects, developers, or scrum masters. Product managers manage the business of their product.


Yes, your teams should drive continual discovery and have empathy for your audience. However, Problem Discovery and Product Discovery are two discrete acts—one about discovering the right problem to solve and the other about discovering the right solution to that problem.


The Business Role of Product Management focuses on Problems

In the business role of product management, product managers are responsible for discovering problems to solve but also the value of solving the problems. Clarity on which problems to address, and clarity of personas to help the team design the right experience and for developers to build the right product.

Product management lives in the Problem space — who has the problem, what is the problem, and why would they want to solve that problem.


A solutions team with designers and developers lives in the solutions space.


Of course, collaboration is key across both spaces. Product management should include people from design and development in their problem discovery, and design and development should engage product management in the solution space

Defining a Process for Problem Discovery

The most successful product management organizations have made Problem Discovery systematic. It is a natural process that all product managers embrace: Discover, Understand, and Validate.


Discovering Problems to Solve

The first step of the Problem Discovery process is discovering problems to solve. Product managers should be learning continually and always on the lookout to discover new under- and un-met problems to solve, new personas, and adjacent markets with similar needs. This can be done through reading, scanning social media, visiting message boards, going to conferences, and having conversations with customer-facing people in their organization.


But more important, successful product managers have frequent conversations with actual customers as well as potential customers. Buyers and users of the product. Real people with real problems.

A product manager who hasn't had a 1-on-1 customer conversation this week—without a sales objective—isn't qualified to be a product manager.

Product management requires continual learning and engagement with the market to identify potential new problems to solve. Not finding solutions for those problems, just identifying them.

The best companies have scoring systems for these problems and maintain a queue of potential problems to solve. One of these companies grew this queue from three months of work to over six years of work—requiring intense, brutal prioritization to determine which should next get funding.


The great thing is, as new problems are added to the list, they rise or fall based on their business value, ensuring the teams is always working on the best potential opportunities.


Understanding the Problem, Persona, and Value

Whether in person or virtually, product managers ask specific questions.

  • “Walk me through your process.”

  • “Where are the bottlenecks?”

  • “What is the worst-case scenario?”

  • “Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?”

Product managers must fully understand the problem and persona as well as the value of solving this problem. Dig into the sub-problems and value themes. Get inside the persona's head to understand what they are going through with this problem.


Record your sessions and take comprehensive notes. Bring your collaboration partners from Design and Development along so they get first-hand knowledge of the persona and problem.


You'll want to do six to eight interviews. When these are complete, start to identify all of your learnings. Write down what you heard, use direct quotes, and start mapping out the problem and value themes you identified. Work on documenting the processes and pain points, and update personas.


These findings provide clarity to your key assumptions and insight to the solutions team if you decide to move forward with solving the problem.


Validate Your Findings

The final step of Problem Discovery is to validate your findings. Your interviews have sharpened your assumptions around the personas (who has the problem), problem (what is the problem), and the value of solving the problem (why would they adopt a solution). But these are still qualitative insights with a handful of people.


To validate these quantitatively, you must test these assumptions; problem discovery surveys are the best tool for the job.


Take the problem, persona, and value hypotheses and turn them into survey questions. Use quantitative data to properly size the opportunity (TAM/SAM/SOM), understand how valuable this solution would be for your customers, and how vital it would be for buyers. Use this to build the case for how viable it would be for our business.


The validation phase is critical as it provides us with data and insight to use as we develop our business case and strategic positioning.


Problem Discovery Leads to Product Discovery

Problem Discovery and Product Discovery are not either/or questions; you need to do both.


Good Problem Discovery leads to a business commitment to invest in solving a problem. Commitment in time, resources, and money to continue to validate the opportunity and to do Product Discovery to help discover the ideal solution for that problem.


Problem Discovery ensures that our limited design and development resources are spending time on only the best opportunities—the opportunities that have the best chance to create value for your market and for your business.


You know you should be listening to the market, but where should you begin?

Client discussions reveal their problems but also yours: problems with your product, your promotion, and your selling approach. Clients will tell you—in their own words—ways to improve every step of your product development and delivery. And this information is highly valued within your organization.

Download our free eBook, Customer Interviews: A Field Guide for more advice. In this ebook you will learn:

  • Why you should interview clients

  • Who to contact

  • When to contact

  • How to conduct the interviews

  • Next steps



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