What is Product Discovery?

What is product discovery?

by Jeff Humble

Dear Reader,

So, there's this secret term that product leadership uses to describe your work behind your back.

And today, I want you to be crystal clear on what it is.

It's a word they use to describe it when you do extra research to ensure you're designing the best possible idea.

It's a phase of work that you might call UX, but they call it something else.

They call it "product discovery."

What is Product Discovery?

The term comes from consultant and author Marty Cagan [source]. It was invented in 2007 to help product managers understand that their real job is discovery, not delivery.

Product discovery is the opposite of product delivery. It's deciding what should be built collaboratively (ideally) using whatever data you can gather or generate.
For designers, product delivery is designing the product, and product discovery is deciding what to design.

It's where you decide what problems are worth solving and which solutions are worth designing.

Since it's a term that comes from product managers, the scope of work is bigger than you might be used to as a designer.

When Marty coined the term in 2007, there was a perception that a product manager's job was to create requirements and tell everyone what to do.

Sadly, some product managers still act like that in 2024.

Some product organizations skip discovery altogether and make all the designers and developers deliver poorly vetted ideas. Product discovery is about letting the entire team vet ideas before assuming they will be 100% successful.

Since the product team decides what gets built, this can be very good for designers, who would have more say in the process.

What part of my work as a designer is discovery?

This is a bit awkward, but um...

If you're a UX designer, service designer, or a design researcher, all of it might be discovery.

Your entire process might involve getting ideas ready for delivery, a.k.a. handing them off to UI and devs.

Some things you might do in discovery:

  • Talk to customers and explore problems
  • Do quantitative research using your analytics tool
  • Send out a survey and identify problem areas worth solving
  • Create a lo-fi prototype and get feedback on an early idea
  • Design an experiment to test an assumption
  • Run a usability test to identify pain points in the interface
  • Reframe a problem into an opportunity

These are product discovery activities because they help ensure that you are "building the right thing" (product discovery), not "building the thing right" (product delivery).

Hopefully, you realize that product discovery is another word for the research that prepares us to deliver a well-designed experience.

To learn more, check out the full article:


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Until next time, y'all! ✌️

Jeff Humble
Designer & Co-Founder
The Fountain Institute

The Fountain Institute

The Fountain Institute is an independent online school that teaches advanced UX & product skills.

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