Product Manager Framework: Directed Discovery


5 Reasons Why You Should Use Directed Discover

The word “Discovery” has been used in the product world for many years. It usually refers to the inquiry process product teams use to understand problems that need to be solved for the end user. Lots of brilliant people have written on the topic and provided insights on the “How” that we all benefit from today. I also know there are a lot of amazing practitioners out there, heads down, trying to solve complex problems who have yet to share their experiences. They work in all types of companies and use a wide variety of practices to build their products. Some of them are very successful at it. Some are really struggling with building something valuable. But no matter what position we are in, it’s important to understand the “why” behind the discovery practices we employ. So today I’d like to share the “Why” behind the discovery practice I have built over the years: Directed Discovery.

1. It Creates a Common Language

I don’t ever use sporting analogies, but here it goes. Every year a coach gets a bunch of new players. These players all have varying degrees of knowledge and skills. In today’s fast-paced industry this is especially true for product teams. Each team member comes in with varying degrees of knowledge and skills around discovery practices. In order to reset, and get people on the same page, Directed Discovery provides a way to get the team all thinking and speaking the same language. It’s just like teaching a player a new playbook. It creates conversational domain and provides guiding principles that people can use to understand how to work together collaboratively. It allows teams to see friction points and understand when they are touching the fringes of confirmation bias.

For example, here is a process we use as identified by a common vocabulary: Nate: Is the experience new? Have we ever done this before?

Gilbert: No.

Nate: Cool, let’s run this through the “innovation track.”

The Innovation Track:

· Why do we want to build this? (Strategy/Vision)

· Who are we building this for? (Persona Development)

· How would we build this? (Voice of the Customer)

· How do they use what we want to test? (Customer Preference Test or Prototype Observation)

· Do they continuously see value in it? (Customer Confirmation Test)


2. It Level Sets Your Team

No matter where people are in their lives or careers they usually come to me in one of two states. The first state is a person that has been in product management for ten or more years. She has worked for many organizations and has used every practice known to product teams, with varying degrees of success. She’s got lots of habits, both good and bad.

The second state is an individual with limited experience—maybe only a few years practice. He is looking for a framework that can be used to develop successful products, but hasn’t really found what he is looking for. No matter what the background, I find that teaching Directed Discovery gives both types permission to completely reset expectations around not only the practices we use as a product team, but also how we work together.

Many of the practices (like ethnography) are new to them because companies have struggled to adopt them, and cross-functional teams, into their ways of working. The beautiful part of this is it places them on equal footing. When we get into the details and begin to practice they don’t feel intimated. Time-wise it can take a few months for the team to confidently form these new practices, but as they do so together, they form trust and co-create faster than I have seen with any other way of working.

3. It Keeps Us Honest

When product teams work solely by following a business requirement document, it’s easy to let personal bias creep in. Without the context of talking to the user to make decisions, personal bias may be all a team has to lean on. But the problem with that (in addition to the fact you are probably not solving the right problem in the first place) is it creates friction over decisions as each bias and person pushes for what they believe to be the best interpretation of the solution. Directed Discovery replaces this bias. It gives the team a user-centered philosophy and backs it up with practices and organizational design to match. All decisions are made on what the team has heard directly from a group of representative users. So, when they design and iterate on the solution, it places the user at the center of it. It’s really that simple. When you do this, the user breaks the tie.

4. It Is Measurable

Every step in Directed Discovery has a measurable output and outcome. For instance, when a “Voice of Customer” discussion guide is created for an innovation track experience, each of the questions has a measurable answer. When a “Customer Preference Test” is conducted repeated reactions directly influence iterations.

As new features are deployed data is gathered at scale through “Customer Confirmation Tests,” and is quantitatively tracked to make experience adjustments and inform the next version of the design. And once a product is in general release its performance is tracked to understand the value it is bringing to users and the impact it has to the platform. This measurement helps the team always understand the full weight of what they are working on, the difference it is making, and where to go next. By removing ambiguity, the team understands the role their work is playing in both the platform, and the broader business success.

5. It Builds Beautiful People

This is my favorite part. It takes humans to develop products. Some products have really ruined people. Mostly because of the pressure to deliver and the process they use. Directed Discovery does the opposite. It builds beautiful people and products. It fosters learning, empathy, passion, communication, care for one another and collaboration. It provides autonomy for individuals to thrive and contribute, and structure for teams to bond and trust one another. It allows people who love to solve problems and create amazing experiences do it to the height of their ability. It allows them to continue to grow, teach others, and bring success through their contributions. Directed Discovery is like a rising tide; it lifts all boats.


Discovery can at times seem endless. Developing products is messy. We need to have scaffolding to know when we need to be course corrected. Course correction is hard, because it means admitting we didn’t perfect it the first time. But the reality is no one gets it perfect the first time, so we need to make space and create practices around iteration. These processes need to be grounded in a common language, scientific thinking, knowing each other’s worlds, and knowing the customer.

As we iterate, we need to know if we are getting better or worse. I needed to know this for myself. I needed a way to direct myself through this complicated world of developing product for millions of users. This is the way Directed Discovery came about. The blue sky of discovery without structure was too broad for me and the teams that I lead. This humble framework solved our problem, providing a way to understand when we are off the rails, and how to get back on track.

Enjoy what you’ve read? Good, because there’s an entire book full of this stuff. I’ve been working with two masters of product Martin Eriksson and Richard Banfield on writing a book that all product professionals can benefit from. Partly out of curiosity and on the back of our own experience, we’ve interviewed almost one hundred product leaders. Their insights and experiences will open up the conversation and take the lid off the mystery of great product leadership.


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