User research should be a continuous activity.
Software development is an activity of discovery. We must take action to reveal the reality of the problem at hand, the elements of the solution, and to reveal the work that is needed to design and create the software required. This is the process of discovery. – Woody Zuill
Starting from the early days of software, development methods have slowly evolved into the Agile based processes and frameworks that most of us know and practice today. Even though these modern and efficient development practices are becoming more popular and refined, we are still experiencing issues.
In my opinion, the issues we are experiencing come down to one key theme:
Discovery, learning, and design is not continuously integrated into the product development lifecycle
Products Are For People
Before I dive too deep into the concept of Continuous Discovery, I think it’s important to take a step back and get an understanding of what a product is and why we create them.
Here’s a basic definition:
“A product is a good idea, method, information, object or service created as a result of a process and serves a need or satisfies a want of a person or group of people.”
Based on this, a product can be literally anything… but the last part is really important. We create products for people. And just to be clear, the word “people” represents an entire spectrum of individuals in which a need is being served or satisfied by a product. For example; users, customers, designers, developers, managers, stakeholders, investors, etc.
So if we create products for these people, then it’s critical to have a solid understanding of who they are, what they want and need, and what they are trying to accomplish.
This is where user research comes in.
User Research is Critical
If you do a quick internet search, you’ll find a lot of fuzzy or overly complicated definitions on what user research is (or is not). So I wanted to offer my own definition in order to help break it down simply:
“User research is an investigative method focused on understanding people, the activities they are doing, the context in which they are doing them, and the outcomes they want or need to achieve.”
User research helps you identify and understand the answers to foundational questions like:
- Who are you creating this product for?
- What do they need/want?
- Why do they need or want it?
- Does our product fulfill their wants or needs?
- Is our product useful, usable, desirable?
Even if you disagree with my specific definition, the overarching goal of user research is to inform the design and development direction of a product. And while most people agree with the goal, there are a lot of groups that only do user research at the beginning and then view user research as a secondary task or sometimes unnecessary during the development phase.
Until they get feedback.
If you’ve had any experience in software development, you know it can be a risky and expensive endeavor. Especially if you are deep into development and have to make a strategic change (or pivot) due to feedback. The harsh reality is there’s no guarantee a product will be successful. The good news is user research can help you systematically reduce risk if it’s done continuously.
What is Continuous Discovery?
To break it down simply, Continuous Discovery is the act of on-going and collaborative user research throughout the entire product development lifecycle. Continuous Discovery embodies and promotes two of the four augmented Agile values that Kent Beck proposed to startups in 2010:
Team vision and discipline over individuals and interactions (or processes and tools)
Validated learning over working software (or comprehensive documentation)
Customer discovery over customer collaboration (or contract negotiation)
Initiating change over responding to change (or following a plan)
Typically paired with Continuous Delivery & Improvement processes and frameworks, like Dual Track Scrum, Continuous Discovery promotes up front, long term, and just-in-time research activities focused on learning. Ultimately, it helps teams identify, validate and prioritize high-value* items like the following:
- Wants, needs and desired outcomes
- Designs to explore
- Concepts to test
- Solutions to implement
- Opportunities for improvements
(*High-Value items can be for the people creating the product and the people that use the product)
What is Dual Track Scrum?
Dual Track Scrum is a parallel development practice that augments the traditional Agile based Scrum framework. Typically, discovery work is done through research and design spikes that fragment the normal Sprint rhythm. Dual Track Scrum integrates research and design activities throughout the entire product development lifecycle to help define the scope and regulate velocity.
Dual Track Scrum is made up of two components (or tracks) inside of a single development model:
Continuous Discovery Track
- A process that helps us understand and decide what is valuable
- Focused on learning
Continuous Delivery Track
- A process that allows us to develop and deliver value
- Focused on speed
Example Dual Track Scrum Model
This parallel process was originally introduced in an article published by Desiree Sy describing issues she and her team at Alias (now Autodesk) had experienced when trying to integrate user research after first adopting Agile methodologies. The article focused on how critical user research is to product development and how they were able to successfully integrate these “dual tracks” of research and development.
Taking the learnings from Desiree’s article and years of experience working with and consulting Agile product teams, Jeff Patton, Marty Cagan, and Teresa Torres have evangelized her core methods eventually calling it Dual Track Scrum; or also known as Dual Track Agile, Dual Track Development, Product Discovery and many others.
What are the benefits of Continuous Discovery?
The result of Continuous Discovery is efficiently creating and delivering products and services that are meaningful to users and effective for the business.
The ultimate goal of Continuous Discovery is to help to mitigate risk for the product, team, stakeholders, organization, and the people that use your product or service. Using some of the key principles of Lean and Lean Startup, Continuous Discovery helps teams:
- Create holistic product vision
- Understand the problem before building the solution
- Discover business, user and technology needs and requirements
- Validate assumptions and ideas
- Improve communication between users, stakeholders, and development team
- Validate and Prioritize the backlog
- Eliminate features with little or no value
- Reduce rework and waste
- Remove research and design spikes
- Increase product value
- Improve user experience
How do you implement Continuous Discovery?
The consultant in me would say “It depends”, but typically integrating Continuous Discovery starts with getting someone from leadership to be a user research and Continuous Discovery champion. This champion should be someone that has influence in company direction, understands the importance of user research and design, and will help with companywide buy-in and adoption.
After you’ve determined who your champion is, spend some time with them to outline company goals, strategy, the decision-making process, and then ask them to sponsor a small project with you and a cross-functional set of team members. Make sure this cross-functional team includes everyone that has influence on the product; decision makers, designers, engineers, marketing, etc. They don’t all have to be full time, but they do need to be available when required.
This small projects can lead to small wins and small wins will lead to increased buy-in from leadership and other people in the organization. Provide examples of the small wins within your company, while highlighting data for how that project increased sales or new customers will help you build a case for scaling Continuous Discovery. By showing how a small investment in a Continuous Discovery project translated into favorable outcomes for the company’s bottom line and aligns with company goals, implementation will become much easier.
Continuous Discovery is continuing to gain attention and momentum, but the practice is still maturing. In a future article, I’ll go into more detail about the questions and triggers that should spark discovery activities, go through a few specific Continuous Discovery activities, as well as how to integrate them during each development stage.
Add to the conversation. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experience with successfully integrating user research in your teams!
Product design manager @Handrailux . Sometimes I have ideas...other times I am brilliantly late to the party