Who Owns Product Discovery?

All teams are responsible for the customer experience. All teams need to coordinate to make it excellent.

In a blog post last month, I insisted that UX designers should be active, consistent participants in the OKR writing process. While sharing the post on Twitter (yep, Twitter) I added that if “anyone is talking to customers [in your organization], that person is likely to be on the UX team.” My friend and design leader Andy Budd responded with:

He’s not wrong.

These days, the training work we do is overwhelmingly attended by product managers or those aspiring to become one. While we do see designers in our classes, they are a minority. Further specialization has created more roles, as Andy alludes to, that also need customer contact. Customer success, support and service roles—not to mention sales, product marketing and customer experience (if that’s still a thing)—all want face time with the customer these days. The bigger your company is (or gets), the more likely you are to see all of these roles.

If you consider “talking to customers” in its most basic form as a part of your job, and this activity as a crucial part of product discovery, it leads to an important and not-so-obvious question:

Who owns product discovery?

The ideal prescription rarely matters

If you read material from Teresa Torres, Melissa Perri, Marty Cagan (or even Josh Seiden and me), you’ll hear a recurring refrain: Product discovery is a shared responsibility of product management, design and engineering. This trio goes by a different name at every company but the goal is the same: a cross-functional team learning together, building shared understanding and using the insights generated from product discovery to make better, more customer-focused decisions. Sounds awesome, right?

But when’s the last time you actually saw this happen at your job?

Don’t get me wrong, it definitely does happen. It’s just that this ideal configuration is rare.Which brings me back to the question of ownership. Note how the idealized descriptions of the team don’t account for all those other roles mentioned above. At some point, all of these folks who want to talk to customers, run experiments with them, observe them and conduct research on them are going to overwhelm them. This is a particular problem in B2B where the actual number of customers is much lower than B2C.

How much is customer insight worth?

If there’s one big, positive takeaway from this dilemma, it’s that companies, big and small, have realized the value in collecting insight directly from customers to understand what drives their behaviors and how we might improve our products for them. This is a massive step forward in building customer-centered organizations and moving towards managing to outcomes instead of output. With a company-wide understanding of our customers, we can set better goals that reflect realistic views of our market and our aspirations. In short, we can write better OKRs.

However, if the product discovery efforts of a company are divided amongst multiple roles with little to no coordination and knowledge sharing, the value of the insight declines and the cost of the effort multiplies while the risk of “burning out” your customers in the process rises. If this insight is so valuable to your ongoing success (and it is), how can we provide “ownership” to the product discovery work in a way that satisfies all the necessary stakeholders and roles?

So, who should own product discovery?

In her excellent talk “Scaling User Research”, Jen Cardello, VP of User Research and Insights at Fidelity, puts forward a tested plan that helps bring customer insight to the entire organization, and places some control on the quality of the discovery process, while at the same time empowering everyone in the company to “get out of the building.” You should watch the video linked above to get the full scoop.

Jen’s points that help unravel the answer to “who owns product discovery?” Here’s what she advocates we do:

  • Shift the focus of discovery work away from “what we do” to “the benefits it brings to the organization” so that the activities themselves aren’t precious. If the activities of doing discovery aren’t precious, then it’s OK if someone with another job title does the thing that I also do. The goal isn’t to “do research,” it’s “to increase learning velocity.”

  • Identify various “altitudes” for the discovery work and decide who will do discovery at each level. As an example, perhaps product managers work at a more strategic level doing discovery around the validity of the problem being solved and the ROI of solving it while design does discovery on more tactical implementation of the user experience.

  • Hold proactive, cross-functional discussions about what we would like to learn in the medium and long term. This allows various teams and roles to get together on a quarterly basis to discuss learning goals and who will do what activity to get that insight. While this doesn’t address reactive, timely discovery work, it does start to set some expectations for who will be doing what and where one should go to get specific pieces of data.

  • Democratize the discovery process by providing training for the various ways of “talking to customers.” If your group is an expert on the A/B testing platform, offer training in that platform. If you’re a user researcher, offer a class on conducting user interviews. Demystify your part of the discovery process, and you’ll empower others to take part at a level that will deliver quality insight.

Everyone is a stakeholder in the customer experience

No one group owns product discovery. Everybody in the company is responsible for an excellent customer experience and for knowing the customer. The tips above will help make discovery a more broadly accessible tool in your organization.

However, as Jen says in the closing minutes of her presentation, someone will need to drive the democratization of product discovery. At Fidelity, an organization dedicated to research and learning, Jen’s Insights and Research team drives this work. In your company it could be product leadership, design or even marketing.

The point is not who owns product discovery. The point is ensuring that learning about the customer is the path of least resistance.

What I've been up to

I am fresh off vacation and back on the road a bit this month for some rare in-person client engagements. I’m super excited to be teaching in person with the mighty Jeff Patton again after a multi-year break. We just did a live, 3-day version of our OKR + User Story Mapping workshop for a client in London. I’m also headed to Paris for an in-house keynote presentation. Finally, come say hi at Product Tank Amsterdam on Sep 20.

This fall is heavily focused on finishing up the manuscript for Who Does What By How Much?, Josh Seiden’s and my new book on OKRs. Our goal is to get it to market before the holidays.

Finally, we’re looking for distribution partners and resellers in Spanish-speaking markets to help get the word out about my OKR video course in Spanish. If this is something you’d like to partner on with us, please reply to this email and let us know.

Watch, Listen, Read

Watch: Invasion, Season 2 (Apple TV+) – I know, I know, another sci-fi show, right? What can I say, I have a type. :-) Season 1 started slow (you didn’t even see the aliens until Episode 6, I think), but it picked up speed towards the end. Season 2 is back with the ongoing efforts to fight off the alien invasion from the perspective of various people around the world. I particularly like the global POV of this sci-fi show. It’s interesting to imagine how other folks around the world would react to an event like this.

Listen: “Dub Side of the Moon” by Easy Star All-Stars – You like Pink Floyd? You like reggae? If you answered yes to both questions, you’ll love this record. I think this is a fantastically creative take on the Pink Floyd masterpiece.

Read: Roger Martin’s Medium posts – He’s one of the best-known writers and thinkers on strategy in the world. And he shares much of that knowledge for free on his Medium blog. As a bonus, if you tweet at him, he responds! Gotta love an accessible thought leader. Tons to learn there.

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