Startup Product Roadmap. Phase 1: Product Discovery

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So you have an idea for your startup. Congrats!

Now what?

Now come the pain points: the sorrows of choice, the budget shortage, the hiring and firing, and many-many more routine steps on the way to a successful idea. But before you get to building software products, at startups, you need to go through the product discovery stage. It is the process that shapes your raw idea into a faceted concept and a business plan with clearly defined further steps. 95% of startups fail. So do not repeat their mistakes and pay attention to the discovery phase in software development. 

Product discovery: what, when, and why

What is the product discovery phase?

When does product discovery happen?

Why is product discovery important?

Top benefits of product discovery stage for startups

Product discovery: phases and process tips

Product discovery phases

Step #1: Alignment and goals definition

Step #2: Market research

Step #3: Ideation

Step #4: Prototyping

Step #5: Testing

Step #6: Transition to delivery

Product discovery process

Product discovery: the final note

P.S.

Product discovery: what, when, and why

What is the product discovery phase?

To define product discovery as a phase of product development, let’s start with what is familiar. Product development is frequently described in the following steps:

  1. Prototype
  2. Design
  3. Development
  4. Testing
  5. Launch
  6. Maintenance

The truth is, there is stage zero – product or startup discovery. This is one of the fundamental and yet underrated stages in turning an idea into a profitable business. At this stage, you and your team need to scrupulously review the original idea, research the market, compare the competition, and set out a plan for the prototyping stage. It is the grand master plan for the years to come, so the whole upcoming success depends on the thoroughness of details.

When does product discovery happen?

Unfortunately, sometimes it does not happen at all. But ideally, it should be the primary stage of every software development process for startups. As soon as you have an idea and decide to put it into life, this stage begins.

The main goal here is to define:

  • What you build
  • Whom you build it for
  • What tools and practices will be used
  • Which kind of/how big of a team you need
  • What the tentative budget will be
  • How big of a team is a must-have

In the end, you collect all the information in a Software Requirements Specifications (SRS) document  and get down to coding.

Why is product discovery important?

Remember Silicon Valley by HBO? The creators ridiculed the useless and under-researched startups that got some funding and then just slowly died away. Well, this series precisely answers the question “why” here – not to vanish in a couple of years after receiving the funding of more than $118 million as Juicero did. You can check the money-laundering Washboard that aimed to help people get quarters for laundry machines; except for every quarter, you would be paying 37 cents. CueCat developed a barcode reading device that appeared utterly useless to the shoppers. Most failed startups (and the examples are numerous) missed or improperly conducted their research and investigation of the upcoming product development.

The truth is, every startup idea seems like a genius one to its creators or, on the contrary, like something no one would ever want to pay for (recollect on the tremendous success of MSQRD). The product discovery phase allows for scrupulous investigation of the initial idea, the market need, and the combination of both for the efficient delivery of the end product. Moreover, while brainstorming the best outcome for the product concept, a team majorly de-risks its application or software, ensuring that the solution offers value that has not been covered by any other competitor. You will find unique features, focus on details and usability while also monitoring its utility and potential profitability. 

Top benefits of product discovery stage for startups

We have already gone through the anti-examples of young companies that did not pay attention to the research. But if you are still not convinced that product discovery is the path to follow, let us provide a couple of benefits you can acquire with the process. All of them are based on our experience with startup projects, and they have been battle-proven by our clients. So this is what is discovery phase and what it can do for your team.

  • Analyze, define and establish your target audience. Understand prospective end-user’s expectations.
  • Research the market and learn about the competition, trends, and current demands.
  • Set straight scope for the development, design, architecture, etc., and define the desired outcomes in your project.
  • Validate the concept against the market and see whether any amends need to be applied before full-scale development begins.
  • Ensure that you plan a solution that is useful for end customers and makes economic sense for your company.
  • Identify the risks, minimize them, and get a plan of response.
  • Save money by settling any discrepancies, potential changes, and overall plan of action before development begins. It is always cheaper to prevent something rather than deal with it on the spot.
  • Software discovery requires a cross-functional team to plan and test the upcoming project. Find this team, test them, and do not be afraid to change them if needed after the research is complete and the plan is set. 

Product discovery: phases and process tips

You already know what product discovery is, when it is important, and why a startup truly benefits from taking this step before product development. But this is just high-level generalized information that only outlines the startup roadmap. Now we are getting to a more exciting and important part of our article: the specifics of steps, tricks for an efficient process, and well-seasoned techniques from our team.

Product discovery phases

We rush to warn you that the below phases are not set in stone and must be adapted to your product, team, goals, and processes.

Also keep in mind that product discovery is not linear. It is the time to think, be creative, plan, negotiate, and change the strategy. Sometimes, even on a daily basis. Furthermore, even though in this article we talk about product discovery as a phase in the whole development process, you need to be ready that discovery and delivery will go hand-in-hand as you are working on the product. Market demand will change, or your company’s goal might alter, so the product will have to be amended as well. As a startup product development company, we can tell you for sure that while discovery is a phase of a software project, it is a never-ending process.

Step #1: Alignment and goals definition

While it might seem that there are two steps in one here, in fact, they happen together because alignment comes through goals definition.

Alignments mean that everyone involved in product discovery and further development (all levels of the organization from PM to UX designer or tester) is on the same page. They all talk about the same ideas and keep up with the same rules. For instance, instead of focusing on the features per se, your team will work towards the outcome – creating value to the end-users. By settling any issues and unspoken rules amicably, you can ensure that the upcoming cooperation among the team members will be perfect. Usually, alignment happens in the process of goals definition. Should it not, a PM can easily step us during the software development discovery phase and outline some ground rules because commitment here is more important than 100% agreement.

Now, getting back to the goals, this first step defines the problem that will be solved by the new app or software and the respective goals/milestones that will get it to the market. Here is a shortlist of questions to help you get through it:

  • What issue(s) will your product solve?
  • Do you need to rush? / Is it a time-pressing matter?
  • Who is your competition (main and partial)?
  • Why should users select your product? (the UVP definition)
  • How will you monetize the solution?
  • Who is your target audience?
  • How will you attract new users?
  • Are you bootstrapping or fundraising?

At the end of this stage, you should have a high-level understanding of what you will be developing or the changes you aim to make in an existing solution.

Step #2: Market research

Now it is time to look beyond your team’s understanding of the problem. You need to research what the market has to offer to your target audience, check what’s good, what’s missing, and what you can adopt for your solution. While the development of a backlog for software discovery might be too much, consider creating the lists of features you love, you might like, and you believe are useless. Such lists will also help you refine your final feature list before the development.

When it comes to user research of the market – target audience, their likes or hates, uses and omits, we can offer several approaches:

  • Qualitative – directly observe how people treat different existing solutions
  • Quantitative – use indirect sampling to evaluate the same points but at a greater scope
  • Attitudinal – listen to what people say about the solutions, what they actually want and need
  • Behavioral – look at what people do and their patterns

After conducting these analyses, remember that the truth lies somewhere on the crossing of all four types. So only by combining user research and data science together can you truly research your potential audience and its preferences.

Step #3: Ideation

Ideation, by definition, is the formation of ideas. And this is exactly what this step means. As you already know what you want to do and what the market expects from you, it is high time to get the ideas on how to do it all.

The problem here is that people tend to be shy/lazy/uninterested/suppressed/etc., just underline the needed word. So when you say, “We want to get X. How can we do that?” you are likely to hear the crickets in return or get a single answer from the bravest team member. This is crowd psychology 101: everyone is quiet, so am I, or if we’ve got an idea, then why would I bother developing a new one? So when it comes to ideation, traditional brainstorming won’t work.

In the startup discovery ideation, you are likely to have talented and like-minded people with different opinions. So let your team speak one by one. You can opt for the traditional Agile brainwriting or transform it a bit and just ask the team to write three ideas each for every problem you got in steps #1 and #2. Give everyone a minute to think and collect the ideas (preferably on sticky paper). Then take the thoughts and simply classify them as you see fit. You now get a wide range of options to choose from for every problem. All you need is to discuss the options, vote, and select the right fit for your project.

After the ideation step, you need to have:

  • defined features and architecture
  • set of basic functionalities
  • roles
  • user journeys
  • prioritized stories 

Step #4: Prototyping

Now, if you have a very small team and no tech skill for prototyping, you can turn to Venture services or an independent development team for help. In case you have a full house on your own, it is time to implement all of your research into action.

It is essential that you do not mix prototyping with MVP; these are different concepts. An MVP is a working prototype of your final product. It is a clickable piece of software that has some basic functionalities to demonstrate the product value. A prototype is a step before the MVP; it is an app draft, its wireframes on paper. A prototype is developed to show the concept of your final product in order to validate the idea during the first stage of software development. Of course, if you have time, skill and budget to develop a simple working prototype, it will help you get to the market easier and better validate the idea. However, you do not need to race for a working solution. Focus on showing the product functionalities and tentative design (again, don’t spend several days to polish the buttons; they are not what you will be validating in the next step).

Step #5: Testing

You have collected a massive corpus of data, statistics, and ideas in the product discovery process. Before putting all this knowledge into action, it needs validation from the end-users (or the potential end-users). So testing, in this case, is not related to the Quality Assurance practices required when building software products at startups. It is about showing your prototype to the market and asking for its opinion.

Please also note that the testing step is similar in its nature to the research and alignment. Pure testing is set up to test a particular feature or functionality, but you do not have those yet. Instead, you are testing the idea, the concept of your future product (yes, with details and wireframes). So instead of just setting up A/B/C test sessions with the target audience, go with the qualitative, quantitative, attitudinal, and behavioral techniques described above. In this way, you can collect not only straightforward opinions on a product but also verify the prospective user flows, listen to the evaluation of features, and observe users’ overall feedback to the product.

After the testing step, your team should have a clear understanding of the re-shaped initial idea, its features, advantages, and core components that matter to the end-users. With such a mind map in mind, the development and future product development after the discovery phase would go much smoother.

Tip: In all the life cycle phases and process artifacts, it is pretty simple to lose the big picture of your testing efforts or, on the contrary, miss some details. To facilitate your idea verification against the market, we advise using the impact mapping technique. It can help with classifying, visualizing, and prioritizing the received feedback for further use. 

Step #6: Transition to delivery

Congratulations, you are almost done with the discovery phase of a software project! You have finished all the necessary preparations to step up and begin your full-scale product development. But, now all this information is scattered across different files, boards (physical and virtual), desks, minds, and even offices. The final step of an efficient discovery stage is documentation of this information – the development of a comprehensive brief called SRS. This document includes:

  • project goals
  • high-level description
  • scope
  • roles/teams required
  • target audience
  • user needs + research data
  • system specifications
    • functional and non-functional requirements (software, hardware, performance, safety and security, quality)
    • system features
    • external interface requirements

Once SDS is done, without delay, you should create backlog tasks, or at least epics, to give the initial basic tasks to the developers, designers, architectures, and QAs. After the backlog is developed, you can sit back and breathe out – the software development discovery phase is finished!

Product discovery process

This process needs to focus on predicting how a product will look in the end. And mind here that you do not have to define every button and pixel. The first stage of software development needs to consider the bigger picture of a product and should not be 100% right. Start with finding your place among the competition and then gradually focus on the details of every step, feature, and design tweak.

Timing: Since discovery is a continuous rather than one-time action, keep the discovery stage pace throughout your development. It can help to stay ahead of the competitors at all times. However, you are probably wondering how much time you need to devote to discovery development. Our tip is no more than two months. Do not set up strict time restraints as they tend to limit and stress out the process participants. But a tentative deadline can actually boost creativity and brainstorming.

Milestones: Set exemplary tasks for the team to get the process started and then react to the new ideas on the go. Do not try to introduce the frame for milestones here, and never punish your team for not reaching one. Startup discovery, as it has already been mentioned, is not linear. So even if you’ve missed a step or made a couple backward, in the end, you will reach your goal for defining the product development process.

Collaborate: A PM of any discovery development needs to keep everyone involved. Be ready that a designer might handle their own research while a developer, for instance, could need some push. Every team member has their own way of completing a task, so be patient about it. In the meantime, you should effectively manage collaboration in the team and ensure that people talk. Otherwise, you risk getting extremely useful yet detached from real insights on different aspects of a product. 

Product discovery: the final note

Every software discovery project is unique because any startup sets its special goal to solve a new problem. But regardless of the company size, age, market, and niche, the product discovery stage is a pivoting step in the development of an efficient solution. This short guide on the definition, characteristics, specifics, phases, and process of product discovery, along with our mobile app development tips, can be a firm ground for penetrating into the market with a great project. We wish you every success in your project and leave our contact info should you have any questions, doubts, or concerns. Do not hesitate to write us a line because we have already helped many startups to get their product going and know a trick or two to make your process seamless and pleasant for every participant.

To learn the next steps in the startup product roadmap, read our next articles in the series:

  • YYY
  • ZZZ

P.S.

The product discovery phase can truly change your startup for the better; you already know it. But there are two fundamental ideas that we’d like to stress:

  1. Not everyone needs product discovery. This phase is vital for companies that still hesitate about something in their product. They might not know their target audience and its needs, for instance. Or maybe they do not have any project documents to start the development. If your team has a clearly defined goal, path, and supporting SRS, then you have already gone through product discovery and no longer need to do so.
  2. Product discovery phase is not just for startups. Yes, you read it right. Product discovery helps to understand whether your idea works with the current market and users’ demands. This means that the principles outlined in this article can be of great help for the companies that begin losing revenue or feel that something is missing. Every company can turn to the discovery phase at every stage of its product development to either confirm its existing strategy or redefine it.

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