Product Discovery Marty Cagan

Prototype of the Day

In earlier articles I have written about several of the challenges that work from home has created for product teams, especially as it relates to product discovery.  I have also written about some of the opportunities that this same work from home has created.

One particular challenge that has been especially troublesome for many teams, is the temptation to revert back to simply passing artifacts back and forth between the product manager, the product designer, and the engineers.

The teams I talk to are well aware of the dangers of this, but they complain that the burden of trying to maintain a high degree of true collaboration, while dealing with the hassles of everyone being remote, have taken a real toll on many people and teams.

In this article I want to share a technique that has been helping with this problem.  To set your expectations, this technique does not eliminate the problem, and it does not replicate the intense collaboration we get with co-location, but it can help to return some of the collaborative energy to a team.

It is typical in product discovery that we have many prototypes, with many iterations of each prototype, that we use to explore alternative solutions and approaches to the problems we’ve been asked to solve.  And as you hopefully know, there are several important forms of prototypes we use.

Most of these prototypes and prototype iterations are created by our product designer.  And most designers today use one or more of the modern prototyping platforms.

Remember also that many of these prototype iterations don’t even make it past the product team.  The product manager, the product designer, or one of the engineers see something in the prototype that convinces them they should continue to iterate.

And for the iterations that do get tested with users (for usability and value) and stakeholders (for viability), we need to discuss what we learned and how we’ll address the issues.

This is the power of quickly fleshing out an idea in a prototype so we can see how the idea works out in practice, much sooner than if we had put the work on the product backlog and had the engineers build out the idea, only to learn it was a bad idea.

While this cadence of the designer iterating on the prototype and getting feedback from the rest of the product team happens easily, naturally and largely continuously with co-location, it takes some real effort to continue this practice when we’re all working from home.

With this simple technique, we schedule a daily time – even 15 minutes works – where we can all take a look at the latest prototype iteration and discuss.  Some teams like to hold this meeting at the end of the day so that if the group gets excited about something they don’t have to rush off.

At a minimum, this should include the product manager, product designer and the tech lead.  But I like to invite the rest of the product team as optional.

Could each team member look at the prototype themselves asynchronously?  Sure, but we lose much of the back-and-forth collaboration we’re hoping for.

The primary reason for the time is to keep us moving forward on discovering a good solution.  Discovery depends on being able to quickly try out approaches and solutions, so the prototyping is the key here.  Just talking with your colleagues every day is not the same as trying out product ideas and assessing the results together.

But secondarily, this high-quality team time has a way of keeping us focused on the prize, and feeling good about how fast we’re learning.

Scheduling any ongoing synchronous meeting should not be taken lightly, but if your product team is struggling to maintain collaboration during product discovery, I hope you’ll consider giving this simple technique a try.