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Product discovery: generic vs specific

I was working on a product vision lately. I was struggling with it and I couldn’t understand why. Problem areas seemed to be obvious, product category and competitors were identifiable so as perfect customers. And yet the overall vision appeared blurry, too generic and well, quite dull.


I looked at it from dozens of different angles, tried all techniques I knew but something was still missing, something crucial.

Usually in those situations, I tend to get back to basics.

  • Who’s having a problem? 
  • What problem they’re having? 

But these questions were leading me to the same, quite specific solution areas I already had. It became clear I needed to take a step back.

I guess every product manager has some core principals that guide them in their work. One of such principals for me was formulated by Kathy Sierra: people don’t care about your product, they care about their context. People want to become better at something they’re doing and your product might help them achieve their goals. That’s it. No one wants to be great at using a digital camera, they want to make stunning photos.

Remembering this principle led me to a realisation - I don’t know enough about a wider context of my customers.

Yes, I am doing discovery, continuously. But I am always asking about rather specific problem areas that in my focus at the moment. It was working well to improve certain features and product areas but it failed to inform a broader product vision.

I realised I need to do a generic discovery.

What’s the difference? 

Generic discovery is understanding the wider context of your customers or people who might be your customers. It’s research without an agenda. Well, not quite. You still need to prepare and ask the right questions. But instead of asking about specific situations and struggles, you ask about ... well, life. You ask what the typical day for your customers is like? You ask what was the best and the worst day they had at work in the last year? You ask them to share war stories, company or industry lore. You don’t look for anything specific, you are open and perceptive. You want to be surprised.

It might look like a relaxed chat. You want a person you’re talking to open up, be honest, even if it hurts your ego. You need to be open and honest in return. You need to make your goal clear: to understand their context. Even if you will not be able to help.

How to make a generic product discovery?

Why would someone dedicate their time and effort to lose chitchat about their work-life with a stranger?

  • You care. First is simple - you care to ask. You want to learn and you want to help. Good intentions could get you quite far. 
  • Some people like to speak. Aren’t we all? Use it then, shut up and listen. 
  • You can help. Even by simply listening. Countless people realised that part of a solution is articulating a problem. And an even bigger part of understanding is formulating yourself. 
  • You've paid them. Who doesn’t like to earn few additional bucks? 


Few tips for a generic product discovery

Don’t theme or frame it. Leave it as open as possible so the conversation might take you to surprising places.
Ask about the recent past and present. The most important is what’s going on now and the most memorable events in the past. Fantasising is cool but only as a bonus.
Try understanding the person, not only the function. We talk business context here, but far too often we forget any business is just a group of people doing something together. Take an effort to learn about the person behind the role, their motivation and personal challenges.

Useful questions


  • Walk me through your typical day
  • Tell me about the last time something or someone pissed you off
  • Tell me about the last time you wanted to shout “hell yes!” or break into a celebratory dance 
  • How do you describe what you do professionally to your grandparents?
  • What was the last thing you learned? 
  • If you didn’t need to worry about money, what would you do? 

Sum up

Discovery goes in different shapes and forms. You could discover a specific problem or solution space. Or you could make a generic discovery that focuses on understanding the wider context of your customers. Generic discovery is important to come up with a product vision and to inform your strategy.

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