User experience, Product management, Engineering, Leadership

Continuous Discovery

A process of ongoing research and analysis to identify new opportunities and insights.

Relevant metrics: Product Impact, Business Value, Evidence Strength, Cycle Time, Quality of User Experience, Customer touchpoints per month, Frequency of customer touchpoints, and Team involvement

In this article

What is Continuous Discovery

Continuous Discovery is a process of ongoing research and experimentation that helps Product Managers and User Experience professionals to identify and understand customer needs and preferences. It involves collecting data from multiple sources, such as customer feedback, surveys, interviews, and analytics, and using it to inform product decisions.

Continuous Discovery is an iterative process that allows Product Managers and User Experience professionals to continually refine their understanding of customer needs and preferences, and to adjust their product strategy accordingly. It is an essential part of the product development process, as it helps to ensure that the product meets the needs of the customer.

Teresa Torres defines good Product Discovery Habits within continuous discovery as:

Weekly touch points with customers,
By the team building the product,
Where they conduct small research activities,
In pursuit of a desired product outcome.

Where did Continuous Discovery come from?

The term “continuous discovery” is believed to have originated in the software development industry, specifically within the Agile and Lean Startup movements. It refers to an ongoing, iterative process of user research and product development that is designed to help teams stay closely connected to their customers and deliver products that meet their needs. The term has since been adopted by other industries and has become a popular approach to product development.

Teresa Torres is often credited with coining the term “continuous discovery” in the context of product development. She has written and spoken extensively on the topic and is considered a thought leader in this area.

Get the answers while you’re making decisions, not after

Continuous discovery is an approach to user research that product teams have embraced to infuse customer feedback into all product decisions. It entails conducting small, frequent research activities throughout the product development lifecycle instead of relying on one-time research activity at the beginning of a project. This helps ensure that the customers’ needs are met at every stage of the development process.

Product discovery, as defined by product discovery coach Teresa Torres, aims to identify what a product team should build based on the customer’s needs. On the other hand, continuous discovery refers to a sustained practice of product discovery that informs product development decisions continuously.

It’s a matter of how you frame your reserach questions

Rather than asking:

  • “How long will it take to research?”
  • “When can we launch?”

Continuous Discovery seeks to frame discovery tasks in a timebox. In this context, a more relevant question is: “What can we learn about [project] in the next 7 days?”

“What can we learn about [project] in the next 7 days?”

Every initiative, product, or project is filled with assumptions that, if incorrect, can result in poor business outcomes.

Asking “What can we learn in the next 7 days” encourages team to:

  1. Recognize the assumptions being made
  2. Determine the most efficient methods for verifying these assumptions
  3. Complete data analysis
  4. Implement tests
  5. Conduct user research

In this context, your mindset should be to always build to validate – not just release.

Project-Based Discovery vs Continuous Discovery

Traditionally, many software development processes involved linear workflows in clearly demarcated stages. The most common stages included requirements gathering, design, development, testing, deployment, and maintenance. This linear approach, also known as waterfall, can be limiting since any changes made to earlier stages affect every activity downstream. In contrast, agile methods are iterative, and teams work in short sprints that enable them to ship working software as soon as possible.

Agile teams often have little time for the big upfront research that project-based teams typically conduct. They need an approach that enables them to obtain the benefits of research without compromising speed and quality or burdening researchers. This is where continuous discovery comes in handy.

Methods for Continuous Discovery

Continuous discovery requires a mindset shift, but it is easy to adapt most research methods for this approach. Teams can conduct interviews, contextual inquiries, prototype tests, and other research activities with a few customers every week. For effective continuous discovery, the team should define and strictly adhere to the schedule of the research activities. For instance, if a team commits to interviewing four customers every Friday, they should follow this schedule on a regular basis without fail.

It is also essential that team members collaborate on the research activities. When teams delegate research to a single person or the same group of researchers, researchers may find it challenging to sell research insights. However, if engineers, business stakeholders, and designers actively participate in the research activities, they will be more likely to trust the research insights. Everyone in the team does not have to participate in every research session. Representatives of each role can take turns participating in sessions so that everyone benefits while their work does not suffer. This helps ensure that each member combines their customer knowledge with their domain expertise to contribute to product decisions.

Continuous discovery is a crucial approach for agile teams that are looking to meet the customers’ needs at every stage of product development. It helps teams obtain the benefits of research without compromising speed and quality and ensures that the customers’ needs are met at every stage of product development. With the right mindset shift and collaborative research activities, teams can adopt this approach and reap its numerous benefits.

One half of dual-track agile

Marty Cagan recommends that the discovery track continuously generates product backlog items, while the delivery track continuously builds, tests, and deploys these items. As product teams move away from time-boxing and towards continuous delivery, dual-track agile using a Kanban process may be preferable to a Scrum process.

Teresa Torres recommends using an Opportunity Solution Tree, where you begin with a clear desired outcome, then discover opportunities that drive that outcome, then discover solutions that deliver on those opportunities. From those solutions, your team can begin to design experiments to test and refine the solutions, starting with low fidelity tests and then increasing fidelity as evidence mounts.

Why is continuous product discovery important?

Successful product development is a collaborative endeavor that necessitates ongoing communication with customers. Since a product is never truly complete, these customer interactions must occur on a continuous basis. The advantages of a continuous discovery process extend beyond the development of a product, providing businesses with significant benefits.

  • Evolving with Your Customer’s Needs. Given that there are always numerous ways to tackle a particular challenge, with each change made to your product, users may discover new needs and desires they had not previously considered. Continuous discovery allows for the development of a product that keeps pace with the evolving needs of its users.
  • Clarity in Backlog Prioritization. Despite the success of the previous release in terms of user adoption and satisfaction, the next round of prioritization and refinement necessitates determining what to build next. Regular customer conversations provide ongoing clarity on how to best prioritize your product roadmap.
  • Boosting Confidence in Decision-making. Even with a well-established product discovery process, research studies and interviews are still limited to a specific sample group. Thus, there is always the risk that the participants do not reflect the target customer base. Regular user research can improve decision-making by increasing the sample size and ensuring that the most pressing and widely experienced user pains are being addressed. As long as you are asking the right people the right questions, you can gain more confidence in your decision-making.
  • Aligning Customer and Business Goals. Successful product design and development entail balancing the goals of customers and those of the company. In an ideal world, the perfect solution for customers is the best driver of business value. However, in reality, this is frequently more nuanced. Continuous customer interactions, combined with a clear awareness of business objectives, improve the likelihood of striking a balance that benefits both parties.
  • Avoiding Assumption-based Development. Despite our best efforts to remain objective, assumptions made by product managers, UX designers, engineering teams, and sales departments are always present. Often, these assumptions go unnoticed, built on small sample sizes, confirmation bias, and personal desires. Continuous discovery enables customers to identify these assumptions, allowing for a more objective development process.

The Value of Engaging Customers

A key aspect of continuous discovery is the engagement of the team building the product with customers directly. To make this model work, the team needs to have a collaborative decision-making model, which is comprised of a cross-functional team of a product manager, a designer, and a software engineer. This team is jointly responsible for product decision-making, and they need to conduct research together so they can work from the same knowledge base. They also need to externalize their thinking visually to stay aligned.

A key aspect of continuous discovery is the engagement of the team building the product with customers directly.

The goal of weekly customer interviews is to discover opportunities such as customer needs, pain points, or desires. To avoid anti-patterns of continuous interviewing, it is important to talk to someone who is experiencing the need the product is trying to address and to ask the right questions. Instead of asking customers what they like to watch, for example, it is better to ask them about the last time they watched the streaming service. This approach yields more reliable answers and helps build products based on actual customer behavior.

With every customer interview conducted, teams take in a lot of data, identify different opportunities, and generate multiple solutions. To externalize their thinking and synthesize what they are learning in discovery, teams should use visuals. By using visuals, teams can free up working memory, allowing for easier processing and examination of information. This approach also helps build a shared understanding of what is in the minds of everyone on the team.

There are three main visuals that work in concert with each other in the continuous discovery approach.

  1. The experience map is used to begin discovering the opportunity space. Each person in the product trio should draw what they believe is the current experience of their customers. Together, they should then co-create a shared map that is a synthesis of all their individual perspectives.
  2. The second visual is the opportunity solution tree, which is used to generate multiple solutions to address the identified opportunities.
  3. The third visual is the prototype, which is used to test and validate the most promising solution.

By using these visuals, teams can better synthesize their ideas and make more informed decisions about product development.

Getting started with Continuous Product Discovery

To implement continuous discovery with a minimal weekly rhythm, it is imperative to establish systems that sustain the process. The following six measures can aid in incorporating a continuous discovery methodology.

Commit to continuous mindset

Product discovery is not a sequential phase that begins with project initiation and culminates with handover for delivery. It is an incessant process of discovery and delivery that must transpire in parallel. Consistently discovering and delivering is attainable by transforming assumptions into hypotheses, using hypotheses to formulate experiments, and employing experiments to refine ideas. In the words of Teresa Torres, the shift should be “from output-focus to outcome-focus.” This means not only discovering what people need and then creating a solution (output-focus), but also keeping a particular objective in mind, such as customer satisfaction or monthly recurring revenue, and continually testing assumptions to achieve those goals (outcome-focus).

Product discovery is an ongoing process that requires you to continually test assumptions and iterate solutions. It’s essential to approach product discovery with a continuous mindset, avoiding dogmatic approaches that may limit your ability to uncover insights. Sometimes, it’s more valuable to start building and get feedback on a proposed solution, rather than conducting lengthy in-depth discovery.

Automate logistics, not the love

While it’s essential to approach discovery with empathy and care for your users, it’s also important to automate the logistics of your discovery process. This means putting your weekly cadence on autopilot so that you can focus on the discovery session with empathy, letting your care for your users’ needs guide the conversation.

Incorporating weekly research into an already busy schedule can be challenging. The simplest approach is to reserve a recurring time slot for discovery each week, starting with as little as 30 minutes. This way, discovery is incorporated into the schedule, rather than being a spontaneous addition. Additionally, allowing users to opt-in while they are using the product is an effective solution.

A pop-up message asking “Do you have 20 minutes to talk about your product experience?” is an easy way to solicit feedback. Another potential source is the Sales and Account teams who are in frequent communication with individuals who may be interested in participating in short usability studies. The primary objective is to reduce the product team’s involvement in the logistics, with their only responsibility being to show up during the scheduled weekly time and ask the right questions.

Don’t enter a testing session or interview with a rote set of questions to march through. Instead, put your weekly cadence on autopilot so that you can forget about scheduling. Then, approach each discovery session with empathy and let your care for your users’ needs guide the conversation. Automating the logistics allows you to focus on the user and improve your product.

Assemble a Discovery Trio

When teams begin with different assumptions and knowledge bases, reaching common solutions becomes arduous. Therefore, to overcome this obstacle, a cross-functional team should be formed, including a product manager, an experience designer, and a software engineer - a “product trio,” as Teresa Torres terms it. These individuals should concentrate on collaboration rather than on their specific roles. Together, the trio conducts continuous research, creating a shared understanding of customer requirements and opportunities to address their concerns. They should be empowered to conduct their interviews without the necessity of a centralized research team.

Enhance Research Questions and Techniques

As the frequency of customer interactions increases, the efficacy of those interactions should also improve. First, ensure that the individuals you are conversing with are well-versed in the problem you are trying to solve. Active customers are one of the best sources of feedback. The next step is to ensure that you are asking the right questions. Below are a few suggestions for conducting better research:

  • Be curious. Take time to examine the user’s experience in-depth.
  • Avoid leading questions. Using questions like “What made this a good experience?” may influence the participant’s response and skew your results. Neutral questions like “How was your experience?” are preferable.
  • Listen first, ask second. Often, we are so concerned with our next question that we do not listen to the answers.
  • Get rid of the jargon. Your language should be straightforward and uncomplicated. Avoid using internal jargon and industry-specific terms.
  • Test your questions. Before commencing an unmoderated study, run your questions by a few people to ensure they are easy to comprehend and clear.

People are prone to all kinds of cognitive biases and distortions. Therefore, according to Teresa Torres, it is advisable to focus on past behavior instead of ideal behavior. She calls it “excavating the story”. For instance:

Instead of: “What do you like to eat?” Try: “Tell me about the last time you went to a restaurant.”

Make Time for Product Discovery

One of the most significant hurdles in successful product discovery is finding the time to do it. The tech industry moves at a breakneck pace, with expectations for fast progress increasing every day. This puts a tremendous amount of pressure on product managers to ship features quickly, often at the cost of adequate product discovery. Here are some tips to make time for product discovery:

Give Yourself Enough Time

Don’t fall into the trap of skipping or rushing product discovery to deliver faster. Spending enough time to understand the problem is crucial to ensure that your new feature will impact your company’s key metrics. Delegating delivery to designers and engineers can give you the space you need as a product manager to focus on discovery.

Treat Your Users like People

Product discovery is never an exact science, but it requires a scientific mindset to succeed. It’s essential to avoid influencing participants toward certain ideas or outcomes during user interviews and usability testing. At the same time, making users feel comfortable with giving open and honest answers is critical to uncovering valuable insights. A relaxed, informal approach to conversations with users can help you make the most of your time with them.

The continuous discovery mindset

Product discovery never ends. Product discovery is an ongoing process that requires you to stay connected to your customers, no matter what stage you’re at. Continuous product discovery can help you gain more informed perspectives on your product. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you embark on your journey:

Start with outcomes, not outputs

While it’s natural to focus on what you want to build, it’s essential to focus on the outcomes that your users are seeking. Instead of just focusing on the solution, think about the impact it will have on your users and the business value it will bring. This will allow you to discover a solution that truly meets the needs of your users.

Rather than focusing solely on the product you are aiming to build, consider the impact of the solutions you are delivering to your customers and the added business value of your decisions. Starting with a clear outcome allows you to better understand the needs of your users and make more informed decisions.

Discovery to learn, not to confirm

The goal of product discovery should be to learn, not to confirm your ideas. Don’t approach research as a chance to validate what you already think you know. Instead, use discovery as an opportunity to test assumptions around what your users need and how to best address their problems.

Think of discovery as an opportunity to test assumptions around what your users need and how to best address their pains. Don’t approach research as a chance to validate your ideas. Use discovery to learn and understand your users’ needs and how your product can meet those needs.

Embrace ‘in-progress’, not perfection

It’s natural to want everything you deliver to be perfect. Still, the reality is that a continuous mindset is more interested in making things better incrementally, adding value over time. There is always room for improvement.

Your product is never finished.

A continuous mindset is okay with making things better with incremental value added. Your product is never finished. Don’t expect everything you deliver to be perfect. Embrace ‘in-progress’ and focus on continuously improving your product to meet the evolving needs of your users.

Think of Discovery as a tool, not a phase

Don’t think of discovery as something that only happens at the start of a project. Instead, think of it as an ongoing source of feedback and assumption testing. Make it a tool that you use continually, and not just a one-time phase.

Commit to a Continuous Mindset, not discovery dogma. Don’t get caught in the feedback validation trap. Sometimes it’s better to start building to get quicker feedback on a proposed. Don’t treat discovery as the thing you do at the start of each new project. Make it an ongoing source of feedback and assumption testing. Think of discovery as a tool that can help you gain insights throughout the product development lifecycle.

Relevant questions to ask
  • What is the purpose of using Continuous Discovery?
    Hint The purpose of using Continuous Discovery is to enable organizations to quickly identify and respond to changes in their environment, such as new technologies, customer needs, and market trends.
  • What are the benefits of using Continuous Discovery?
    Hint The benefits of using Continuous Discovery include improved agility, increased efficiency, better decision-making, and improved customer experience.
  • What are the risks associated with using Continuous Discovery?
    Hint The risks associated with using Continuous Discovery include data security, privacy, and compliance issues.
  • What resources are needed to implement Continuous Discovery?
    Hint The resources needed to implement Continuous Discovery include personnel, software, hardware, and data.
  • What are the potential challenges of using Continuous Discovery?
    Hint The potential challenges of using Continuous Discovery include the complexity of the process, the need for specialized skills, and the cost of implementation.
  • How will Continuous Discovery be integrated into existing processes?
    Hint Continuous Discovery can be integrated into existing processes by leveraging existing data sources, automating processes, and integrating with existing systems.
  • What are the expected outcomes of using Continuous Discovery?
    Hint The expected outcomes of using Continuous Discovery include improved customer experience, increased efficiency, and better decision-making.
  • How will the results of Continuous Discovery be measured?
    Hint The results of Continuous Discovery can be measured by tracking changes in customer satisfaction, efficiency, and decision-making.
  • What are the potential scalability issues with Continuous Discovery?
    Hint Potential scalability issues with Continuous Discovery include the need for additional resources and the complexity of the process.
  • How will Continuous Discovery be maintained over time?
    Hint Continuous Discovery can be maintained over time by regularly updating data sources, automating processes, and integrating with existing systems.

You might also be interested in reading up on:

People who talk about the topic of Continuous Discovery on Twitter
Relevant books on the topic of Continuous Discovery
  • Continuous Discovery Habits: Discover Products that Create Customer Value and Business Value by Teresa Torres (2021)
  • Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love by Marty Cagan (2007)
  • Empowered: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products by Marty Cagan (2020)
  • The Lean Startup: How Constant Innovation Creates Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries (2011)
  • The Startup Owner's Manual: The Step-By-Step Guide for Building a Great Company by Steve Blank (2012)
  • Continuous Discovery: Accelerating Product Delivery with Feature Flagging and A/B Testing by Giff Constable (2019)
  • Leading the Transformation: Applying Agile and DevOps Principles at Scale by Mary Poppendieck (2018)
  • The Phoenix Project A Novel About IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win by Gene Kim (2013)

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