Deep Dive

Product discovery in early-stage startups

April 27, 2023

The founder

Nick is one of the Co-Founders at Dualo, a London-based technology company that’s launched a stakeholder-friendly research repository for digital product teams. Prior to Dualo, Nick was leading digital product teams at ASOS, Gousto, Thomas Cook, and The Telegraph.

We’d like to know more about you and Dualo. What is Dualo about, and why have you decided to start it?

Dualo is a stakeholder-friendly insights repository that helps product teams maximize the value and impact of their research by organizing, connecting, and showcasing their key research findings across the wider organization. We started Dualo because we noticed that many product organizations struggled with the accessibility of customer insights, often locked away in multiple reports and apps, making it difficult for people to make data-driven decisions across the business. Having worked in digital product development for over a decade, I've often encountered difficulty finding valuable user insights when making design and product decisions. That's why I was excited when one of my best friends and Co-Founders, Dan, approached me with the idea of launching Dualo.

The beginnings of Dualo can be tracked down to the start of the pandemic. My partner and I had taken a sabbatical from our jobs and were traveling the world when Dan called me before I got on my flight to India. He had left his job and was looking to start something himself, and I advised him to focus on exploring the problem area that he wanted to solve for and dig deep into it before we planned to catch up again. We got locked down in India due to the pandemic and spent eight weeks in a yoga retreat where we had the opportunity to reflect on our lives and what we wanted to do next. And when I returned home, Dan and I started working towards Dualo throughout the remainder of that year. We used the 2020 period to complete a big upfront discovery phase and design the MVP, and from there, we launched into bringing our technical Co-Founder on board. Now, three years later, we have a growing portfolio of customers and are building fast towards the vision we put into place together back then.

What is product discovery? Why is it essential in the early stages of a startup?

In essence, product discovery is the process of applying design thinking methods, including conducting research, to ensure that a product team is building the right solution for its customers. This process is essential for any company but particularly critical for startups in their early stages. Startups need to focus on building the right product from the outset, and product discovery helps ensure they're on the right track with this.

By researching the target audience's needs, the team can gain deeper insights into what their customers want and need. This knowledge is then used to build a product that directly addresses those needs and adds real value to the market from the very beginning. Product discovery is critical in the early stages of a startup because it helps ensure that the product being built will meet customer needs, and therefore have the highest chances of success in the market.

Product discovery remains essential for established companies, but its focus shifts. With existing products, companies may reach a point where the founders' initial ideas for the product backlog and what needs to be built to realize the vision is drying up. As a result, investing in designers and researchers who can deeply understand customers' needs becomes increasingly important. This approach helps optimize the existing product to best suit the customers' evolving needs.

When launching new products and services, companies need to start from scratch to some extent, even if they already have a pool of customers to test new ideas on. Nevertheless, the same principles still apply, starting with the problem, understanding the target customers' needs, behaviors, and desires as part of this, and ultimately building something that works for them and what they’re looking to achieve with the product. This approach helps to develop and diversify a company's product portfolio and grow the business in new ways.

What are the main steps of product discovery?

Product discovery can be divided into two phases: the first phase is about understanding the customer and defining their problems, and the second is about ideation and testing solutions. In the first phase, market and user research are conducted to define the user's problems and needs. This involves techniques like user interviews, surveys, and market analysis to gain a deep understanding of the problem area. The insights from this phase will inform the ideation phase.

In the second phase, potential solutions to the user's problem are generated and evaluated. Then, ideas are prototyped and tested with users for feedback on their usefulness and usability. This iterative process continues until a solution meets the user's needs and solves their problem effectively. It's essential to maintain a user-centric approach throughout the product discovery process. The user's needs and feedback should always be considered as part of any design decisions that are being made.

The industry has coined this process as the "double diamond" approach because it visually represents the divergent and convergent thinking that occurs during both the problem exploration and solution exploration phases.

Can you tell us about a product discovery challenge you faced while building Dualo and how you overcame it?

One of the most significant challenges we faced as a startup was finding an effective and efficient way to document and share our research findings. With limited time and resources, we couldn't afford to document every detail thoroughly. But we also knew that capturing the key insights and learnings from our user research and testing was critical to building and launching a successful product.

We had to be strategic and focused our documentation efforts to overcome this challenge. We prioritized capturing the top-level insights and data from our user interviews and testing, and quickly sharing these learnings with the team. Doing so allowed us to move forward rapidly and iterate on our product without becoming bogged down in excessive documentation.

The most significant lesson we learned was to stay lean and agile in our documentation approach while prioritizing the most critical insights and supporting data. By focusing on the high-level learnings and sharing these on an ongoing basis with the team, we could make informed decisions quickly, and efficiently advance our product.

How do you measure the success of product discovery? What comes next?

As a founder, measuring the success of your product discovery is critical for the growth and success of your business. To achieve this, it's important to establish clear goals, from both a product and company perspective, and continuously align these throughout the discovery process. You should be tracking the usage and impact of the insights gained from your discovery work, how these influence the decisions being made across your organization, and evaluating the outcomes of those decisions based on their impact on the product and business goals.

It's also helpful to consider the learning velocity of your team by measuring the number of key insights being captured and shared each week. This can help to ensure the team is always moving forward when it comes to understanding and applying new learnings about your customer and market to the product. However, avoiding excessive focus on metrics at the expense of actual learning and value creation is essential at the early stages of a business - getting the balance right when it comes to turning insight into action is key!

Ultimately, the success of product discovery hinges on how much the team is learning and how effectively they can apply those learnings to drive forward momentum and growth. By improving the number of customer insights gathered and shared, the team can maintain a positive feedback loop and encourage continuous improvement across the business. Therefore, the focus should be on capturing and sharing as many valuable learnings as possible and tracking how these are applied and the results that follow, in the leanest way possible - though easier said than done!

How important is it to iterate on the product during the discovery phase? How do you decide when to move from one iteration to the next?

You'll know it's time to move from one iteration to the next when you have enough insights and data to confidently say yes to a decision that will improve the product. It's important to set clear success criteria for each iteration of the product, so that you know what you're aiming to achieve and can measure progress against this. As well as user goals, it's important to consider the impact on your product and business goals when prioritizing features and changes. Each product decision should be based on a balance between the customer insights you have discovered, how this influences your wider product roadmap, and the impact a change might have towards the business's current priorities.

How do you balance customer feedback with your own vision for the product during the discovery phase?

For me, it’s about keeping your ears out for customer feedback and your eyes fixed on the vision, much like driving a car to a certain destination with someone in the passenger seat to help with directions. We should always be listening to our customers and understanding their needs and pain points, but at the same time, we need to stay true to our product vision and where we’re headed in the long term. It's important to remember that customers may not always know what they want or need, so we should use their feedback as guidance, but combine it with our other insights and ideas to create and deliver a truly valuable and innovative product experience.

To balance customer feedback with our own vision, we should use a structured approach to prioritize and evaluate feedback. This may involve conducting further research to better understand our customers' needs and pain points, analyzing existing feedback to identify common themes and issues, and ranking this based on its potential impact on the product vision and business goals. We should also aim to involve as much of the product team as possible in this process to ensure everyone is able to input and is aligned on the direction of the product.

Our primary goal should be to create a product that meets our customers' needs, exceeds their expectations, and creates a ton of value for the business. And to do that, we need to strike the right balance between customer feedback and our own vision for the company and product.

What’s a frequent mistake founders make in the product discovery phase?

One typical mistake that founders make in the product discovery phase is not having a solid understanding of the core principles, processes, and techniques that go into good design thinking and product discovery. This often results in founders skipping over the product discovery phase or applying the wrong techniques in an attempt to answer a research question - both can be extremely dangerous!

Another thing I’ve observed in more experienced teams, is becoming stuck in a rut when it comes to the methods and techniques applied to learn about customers and test potential solutions. It's important to revisit your discovery process regularly and mix things up to keep things fresh, but more importantly to keep things effective, as what works for one period of product development may not necessarily work for the next.

What would you advise for 1st-time founders who are just getting started with their product?

Firstly, if you haven't yet started talking to customers, working out your ideal customer profile and documenting this is essential. This will help you spend your time reaching out to the right people and conducting effective interviews to understand the day-to-day challenges. Of course, as you speak with more people, the understanding of your ideal customer profile will evolve, and may shift, but it's important to have something documented based on your current knowledge of the market.

If you're already speaking with customers, it's essential to document the key insights from those conversations and share these across your team. This will help improve the understanding around your customer across the organisation, which will also help to improve the ongoing development of your product.

In terms of helpful resources, I would recommend people to check out the work of Marty Cagan, Teresa Torres, and Tim Herbig, if they haven’t already. These experts regularly share actionable materials and guidance to help teams develop their product discovery skills. 

For startup founders specifically, I encourage thinking about your go-to-market strategy and the market you're delivering your product and services to, as much as the product itself, from as early on in the process as possible. You can apply a lot of design thinking and discovery techniques in both these areas too, and it's important to treat your go-to-market, and market, as a ‘product’ that is also evolving and developing, to ensure that all three factors (product, market, and go-to-market) come together for a successful launch and scaling of your business.

More about Dualo

Dualo has just launched its new ‘Deep search’ feature, which allows users to deep search across multiple research reports (both primary and secondary) for insights. If you’d like to see the tool in action, you can book a demo with the team here.

About ReSkript:

ReSkript is an innovative platform that has developed a socially enhanced collaborative system building a seamless experience across joint professional online cooperative work on various documents. Its proprietary platform offers a range of collaboration


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