Product Discovery is Like Walking in the Woods, in Fog, at Night
On New Year’s day, four other men and I set off on a backpacking trip to hike a section of the Appalachian Trail. We started from Woody Gap, near Helen, Georgia, and eventually ended the trip by getting picked up on Highway 75, just past Blue Mountain Shelter.
We hiked about 32 miles over the course of three days.
By the end of the trip, we were all hurting, and soaking wet. We were basically hiking in a cloud for the last two days. I can still feel the cold, floating water particles brushing against my skin.
And that was in the interludes between actual rain.
Towards the end of day two, it was getting dark fast. One of my hiking buddies and I were trailing behind the others, and we still had well over a mile to go by the time night had settled in. We ended up hiking in the dark for almost an hour.
Yep, it was only an hour. BUT, this was my first time doing any kind of night hiking. My headlamp was dim. And as though all that wasn’t bad enough, we were still in thick fog. So both the light from my lamp and my friend’s headlamp was being dispersed and reflected in all directions. We maybe had at best a couple of feet of visibility on the ground in front of us.
Cold, wet, and not exactly sure exactly how far the shelter was, we had been hiking almost 14 miles for the day, and my feet and legs were blistered and beat.
We were less seeing our way down the trail, and more feeling our way.
And at that moment, we weren’t exactly sure how long we’d be out there.
As I’ve been reflecting on this experience, I’ve realized something…
The way I felt stumbling and feeling my way through that trail for an hour, only seeing a foot or two in front of me, is the same way I’ve felt at work over the last few months.
We’ve been in a season of product discovery.
And it’s messy.
For much of my career, I’ve had more-or-less well defined problems AND solutions put in front of me to work on.
“Program X, so that we can do Y.”
“Help build this widget, so that we can make money.”
That’s a slightly tongue-in-cheek description. But still, I think a fairly accurate summary of most software engineering assignments.
This time, however, my team has been given a customer problem. No solution prescribed. We get to come up with that part.
And just like that hour in the dark on the trail, it’s been messy, very touch-and-go, a little anxiety-inducing.
And also, just like that experience on the trail, it’s pretty dang cool.
We’re in a problem space where we have extremely limited visibility. So we’re relying on a lot of qualitative feedback to get signals that we’re going in the right direction. We know where we need to go. It’s just really hard to see how to get there.
And as we’re going, we’re building more sophisticated tools and solutions to track and gather data, so that we can build more confidence as we go.
It’s kinda’ like building a better headlamp while you’re walking down a dark path.
And thankfully, we haven’t had to build our own trail to get to our destination. Others have gone before us. We’ve been relying heavily on Teresa Torres’ Continuous Discovery Habits to give us tools and language to stay on course. It’s a definite must-read if you’re building digital products.
My friend and I kept going. One step in front of the other. And finally, we heard our friends calling to us. And we eventually saw light from the campsite in the distance.
We made it.
All we had to do was keep going.
And at work, through all of the uncertainty that’s come with working on this problem, we’ve identified and are beginning to deliver a solution that will take a step towards tackling it and providing value for our customers.
Now off to find the next solution.
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