Tips for Building a “Continuous Discovery” Practice

Diagram showing a continuous interplay between discovery and delivery tracks within product development.

Once upon a time, we tried to figure out what products and features we should develop on an annual basis. We set a strategy and went forward. But after Marty Cagan wrote the blog post on Continuous Discovery in 2012, a number of product and UX teams started to think about a better model, if they weren’t already. This emerging model was about constantly looking for ways to improve products based on what customers actually need and using that to feed the product development process. This is the crux of continuous discovery. Many were experimenting, but now they had a label.

Organizations that have embraced this philosophy have reduced the time to market for products and reduced the cost of bringing those products to market. They’ve done so while delighting users and creating advocates, if not straight up fans. It’s likely that we’re preaching to the choir here, but we know it can be hard to get started and to continue increasing impact. So, here are a few tips to get you on the path:

1. Identify where research can make a difference

This will look different for every organization, but a good place to start is understanding what teams are currently working on and how they are planning that work. This will help surface the places where decisions are being made with limited information. These are opportunities to improve product decisions and the planning process by grounding them in what customers are trying to achieve.

2. Place links to research findings in the task tracking system

Products like Jira help keep teams aligned around what to design and build. It’s simple to paste a link in Jira so that teams doing that work can easily reference relevant findings. Again, understanding planning schedules and processes will help ensure that we’re able to deliver this information in a timely manner that is consistent and helpful.

3. Ask why

If it isn’t clear why a decision was made or why the team is working on this and not that, ask why. These are likely opportunities where customer discovery could help people make better decisions or establish clearer priorities. The more that teams can be held accountable to a strong rationale for their work, the more demand there will be for research.

4. Begin to include research in product delivery processes

Growing teams are frequently redefining processes and shifting the responsibilities and ownership over various parts of those processes. When this happens, it is an opportunity to help teams understand the value of continuous discovery and where research can make a difference.

5. Use their words

Each industry has its own words. Research is no different. We often get into using a vernacular all our own. But pay attention to the words that developers, product managers, and leaders use. Bring in vocabulary from support teams, the people on the front line delivering training, and customers. It’s easier to empathize when we can speak the language and probably helps us be kinder when teaching our language to others. And remember, the term continuous discovery was derived from CI/CD (Continuous Integration and Continuous Delivery), so you may just find allies in those teams given the philosophical link.

6. Design sprints

If the organization does design sprints, make sure that the people doing discovery work are included. Design sprints are a great opportunity for people with experience doing customer discovery to help others develop skills and get comfortable doing discovery themselves.

7. Invite developers and product teams to participate in research studies

Seeing the research process and contributing as notetakers can help provide more trust in and demand for research. It’s also an opportunity to help product teams build skill to do better interviews and document insights themselves. Democratizing research has its challenges but also has the potential to broaden the impact of research in your organization.

8. Look for ways to impact the organization outside of just the product

Most research teams are responsible for a growing amount of discovery on their own product(s). However, applying the fundamentals of research to internal projects can be a great way to socialize the value of research beyond the team. This puts us in front of other leaders and helps both leaders and individual contributors see the impact.

9. Start keeping research materials and insights in a research repository

This is what we do here at Handrail, so we obviously believe in the power of centralizing access to knowledge about customers. It is equally important to give broad access to everyone in the company. In our experience, great insights come from so many places within an organization. The more insights in the repository, the more likely it is that others will find information that’s impactful for them.

10. Be undaunted

When existing insights from research aren’t taken into account in the decision making process, it can be a hard pill to swallow. Growing organizations have had to make judgement calls for a long time and it might take time for some leaders to start integrating the research being done to make more well-informed, defensible decisions on strategy, direction, or features. Find opportunities for wins and grow the continuous discovery practice to have a greater and greater impact.


Every organization is different, so your mileage may vary. We’re curious to hear what techniques have worked (or not) for you! Have any tips or success stories you’d like to share? Feel free to drop us a comment, Tweet, or carrier pigeon if you do!


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