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Discovery: Understanding the Problem Space

Leading Product Innovation, the ITX Way is a new blog series offering an inside look at how Product + Design come together to deliver innovative product solutions. In this first post, we explore the role of product managers during an engagement’s early days, with specific focus on the Discovery activities that get us closer to solving the right problem for the right audience.

The product manager role at ITX has evolved throughout our 25-year history. Here, product managers are called innovation leads – more than nuance, the title emphasizes our belief that our clients manage the products we help them build; we are partners in that development.

To best understand the innovation lead’s impact, it’s helpful to drill into their involvement during key stages of the process – Foundation, Planning, Development, and Deployment. In this article, we’ll look at how innovation lead guides discovery activities to help their product team understand the problem space.

Dan Olsen, author of The Lean Product Playbook and guest on the ITX Product Momentum Podcast, offered this insight in describing the problem space:

“The trick is your job is to figure out the answer to those key questions: who’s our customer? What are their underserved needs? How do we meet them in a way that’s better or different? What is it going to take? It’s the product manager’s job to develop hypotheses and make assumptions in the problem space about needs and customers.”

The Foundation Stage is where this discovery work begins. But it doesn’t end here; at ITX, discovery occurs throughout the engagement as an iterative loop designed to reaffirm product vision or pivot as needs and circumstances change.

Too often, over-eager clients and product teams want to jump into hands-on-keyboard development work before first answering why, what, and for whom. When this occurs, the innovation lead will step in to make sure the team is solving the right problem for the right audience. Good thing.

“Research brings opportunities to discover all the things that you can actually stumble on and explore and understand,” said UX Design Manager Jon Daiello in a recent Product Momentum Podcast episode. “It’s really easy to lose that because you’ve already come to the table with what you think you know and what you think you want. That approach robs you of the chance to deeply hone in on what a problem is, and how do we craft something that fits well with that problem, so that we can bring your value proposition to the end user in a way that’s valuable.”

Slow Down To Go Fast

In Overcoming Barriers to Successful Product Discovery, designer Mike Thone and ITX Director of Innovation Paul Gebel write, “A healthy discovery process allows us to understand product-market fit and identify key user needs. Without first understanding key user needs and assessing product-market fit, a team could easily spend a lot of money building the wrong things and solving problems their users do not have.”

In other words, sometimes you need to slow down to go fast.

Discovery activities include –

  • Relationship building with key stakeholders
  • Conducting interviews with users and client-side SMEs
  • Performing competitive and comparative research, and
  • Analyzing the client’s business environment

Discovery occurs throughout the engagement as an iterative loop designed to reaffirm product vision.

Discovery is very much a team sport. The innovation lead may orchestrate the process, they lean considerably on their teammates to effectively deliver their shared responsibilities, for example, to –

  • Cultivate alignment, confidence, commitment around a product vision.
  • Foster collaboration among the product trio (Product, User Experience, Engineering).
  • Establish and nurture working relationships with client SMEs, stakeholders, and teams.
  • Emerge from Foundation stage with a clear product vision, and vision statement, to rally the team around.

Articulating a precise vision is harder than it looks. Some clients come to the engagement with a sound product vision that addresses those earlier questions about why, what, and for whom. At the same time, it’s not uncommon for clients to enter an engagement struggling for clarity around their vision. For those who do, the ITX innovation lead may offer to facilitate a 1-day workshop to help clients gain alignment around their vision, commitment to shared objectives, and confidence in the team’s ability to achieve it.

In our next post, we’ll discuss the power behind the product vision, exploring as product management coach Roman Pichler suggests, the product vision’s ability to communicate the change we want to bring to the world.

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Peter Sullivan is Producer of ITX’s Product Momentum Podcast and a student of Product and Design processes that work. As ITX”s Marketing Content Lead, he spearheads our efforts to deliver thought leadership that helps product makers and UX designers understand and shape the future. 

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