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The Product Shop – Episode 4: Product Discovery, Planning and Building with Connected



We’re joined by Amina Saigol, Senior Product Strategist at Connected as we reflect on her beginnings when she first stepped into the tech and product world, how Amina has used her past experiences to help guide Connected with clients through the product discovery phase and learning what you can do to manage expectations with stakeholders when planning and building new product features.

Amina: I’m a Senior Product Strategist at Connected. I’ve been here for about two years and I’m originally from Pakistan. I grew up there until I was 18, then I left for college to the U.S. where I did four years in Providence and then ended up in Canada. When I ended up here, I was very new to the Canadian market and decided I needed to do my Masters to get a lay of the land and build my network. Through my Master’s, I ended up in innovation consulting and strategy, which led me eventually to Connected. 

Michael: Before we go deeper into design thinking could you tell the listeners what Connected is.

Amina: Connected is an end-to-end product development services firm, and we specialize in discovering and delivering software-powered products. We partner with some of the most ambitious product leaders at Fortune 500 companies to validate, risk, and accelerate their organizational product development efforts and ultimately enable them to build better products.

Michael: Did you know that you wanted to go into product or was there any interest around that? 

Amina: At Brown, I studied economics and international relations, so I wasn’t really thinking about product back then, but I was thinking about working within business, primarily within consulting. I think through a liberal arts background and studying outside of econ and IR other subjects like psychology, anthropology, a lot of these close to the humanities kind of courses I took really made me think more about what kind of things we use every day and where businesses intersect with everyday products. The tech scene has obviously been booming for the past 10 years so naturally from consulting I found my way into tech consulting innovation.

Michael: Then you landed up at Idea Couture and then Connected. How was your time at Idea Couture what were your biggest learnings from there? 

Amina: After Brown, I did my Masters at Queens. And interestingly at that time during my masters, I took an innovation management course and that was one of the first times I heard about design thinking. Just that framework of thinking about users front and center. Instead of just looking for consulting jobs coming out of my Master’s, I started looking at more innovation management type of consulting specifically and Idea Couture popped up as one of the leading firms at the time within the Toronto scene so that’s where I focused my efforts and eventually started there. 

 I think that the great thing about Idea Culture was that we really worked at the very upstream efforts of a lot of the big Fortune 500 companies. So thinking about their newest products. Thinking about their strategy for entering new markets, engaging new audiences, and doing a lot of design thinking focused strategy, workshopping, and user research to inform a lot of the business decisions they made which I think created a really great foundation for me to enter product.

Idea Couture gave me breadth to the discovery mindset but I wanted to gain a little bit more of the actual delivery of upstream innovation strategy and apply it to a product and deliver something to market. That’s where I made the jump to Connected because Connected really is an end-to-end discovery and delivery product firm. So whatever work I do with clients, I eventually see come to market, which is the exciting part. 

Kate: You kind of described my transition into tech too. I didn’t do a Master’s of International Business at Queens, but I did do a commerce degree at Rotman and there was a course,  in fourth year it was design thinking, which was really cool. 

It was run by the CEO and as well as a Rotman prof of Bridgeable, the service design consultancy in Toronto. It was the first introduction to design thinking and we did a project with Scotiabank Digital Factory around creating an app. Around the same time, similar to you, I did commerce but I took a class in consumer behavior and it led me into Taplytics when the Sales Director at the time reached out. 

It was encapsulated, at Taplytics, both experimentation and shipping MVP’s and I think the service design and experience design kind of lends itself to building a great foundation and understanding of user behavior that kind of lends itself to product. So I can resonate with your experience too, of moving from a commerce background and into user research, user design, and tech. 

Amina: I think just generally working in product, you have to be so multidisciplinary. If you have the background of coming from, either humanities, social sciences, and being a critical thinker, you can bring in a lot of these different pieces and make sense of a bigger picture strategy or product or whatever it may be. Just generally being able to adapt and think critically in any industry or field is really what excites me and I’m happy to do it currently. 

Kate: Yeah. I think the coolest thing that I’ve pulled out from that experience doing that one course was thinking about the whole end-to-end user experience from not just with software and interacting with product, but how someone even gets to the product and interacts with it digitally. It was an interesting thing that I didn’t really think about before those courses introduction to design thinking and service design. 

Dexter:  Jony Ive had a really famous quote where he was talking about how ideas are always so fragile to begin with so they have to be nurtured and really taken care of before they really blossom into something legit. How do you go about doing that while at the same time weeding out some of the noise, because in that initial process, there are so many ideas floating around. How do you pick and choose which one you start with working on? 

Amina: At Connected, we have this approach or thinking called hunch maturity. Generally, when you think about a hunch, it’s something that you might have been informed by some kind of pattern or some early research that you might’ve done.

So you have a hunch that this type of product could be successful in the market versus a guess which is not based on any research or any validating background is just a guess. So we work with our clients on their hunches.

Thinking about the early stage, very high-level napkin sketch ideas that they might have, but taking them through rigorous rounds of business research, user research, technical research to figure out a few different options. What are your most viable, feasible, but also most desirable concepts that come out of that?

Through different stages of experimentation, validation, and disproving or proving some of the early hypotheses that the client might have, we distill down to the few different concepts that we can then prototype and test out and further move to delivery. Through different stages of product strategy, insights, and validation, you mature a hunch into a concept that is something that can be a product. 

Michael: How do you balance the hunch maturity and business viability with stakeholders?

Amina: The business viability lens is super interesting because that’s where the client really is an expert on their business. We really lean on them to inform what their goals are, what kind of metrics or milestones they’re working towards from a business landscape.

Where we come in and help is doing competitive research to see what else is out there and sometimes not even just looking at competitors, but adjacent markets. For example, I recently was supporting this financial fintech project and they were looking at FinTech players within the market.

Another area that’s doing a lot of user experience-focused work is now insurance. So we gave them a view of that lens to show that looking broadly, can also inspire new ideation, but also encourage ways to partner up with different businesses and think about not just yourself in a silo, but in a broader ecosystem of products. 

Michael: Could you expand more on what business viability means to you?

Amina: Business viability simply means is this product something that makes sense for this business to launch and do we have the business capabilities? So not just the infrastructure, but also the people, the talent, the partnerships to be able to launch this in the best way possible. So is it viable for the business?

Kate: I want to hop back to something you said about looking at adjacent industries when you’re looking to find either what competitors are doing, or adjacent industries, not in the same silo or vertical as the client that you’re helping to help with ideation.

Other than the FinTech insurance example, both are regulated industries in the financial service realm. Have you ever looked even further outside in different industries to pull inspiration or ideation from an e-commerce client to a FinTech client, for example?

Amina: Yeah, we do a lot of collaborative workshopping with clients, especially in the ideation phase and one technique that I personally like to use is doing either foresight scanning or relative competitive industry or adjacent industry scanning to bring in a lot of different ideas that completely non-connected industries might be having.

For example, if we’re looking at personalization as a concept within automated experiences. I look at personalization in completely different industries and how they might have built that into product. Even going as far out as social media, music streaming, but bring those ideas into inspiring new thinking around how might we build personalization within this experience.

Kate: I feel like sometimes we’re doing the same thing in terms of foresight standing or horizon scanning. In the past, I’ve done the same business models. We might be working with one client who is a media client, but they have a subscription aspect to their business or that’s their business model, but there are lots of different other types of businesses in different verticals and industries that have the same type of revenue stream or revenue model.

I found that super helpful. So it’s cool to see that you guys do that at a broader scale too when you’re looking at full go-to-market strategies for your products and clients. 

Dexter: Kate has an account on every subscription service on every news publication.

Amina: The research phase of a project I would say it’s one of my favorite phrases because you’re looking super broadly. You’re diverging, as we say, and then eventually in ideation or a prioritization workshop, you come back and converge and through bringing all those different ideas into larger teams. 

Maybe using your business metrics or business criteria as your prioritization criteria. Ideally, the way I would want to approach a product problem is by looking at it diversely through what’s being done in the market and what our users are looking for. But then does this make sense for the business, or why should this be slotted to the DOP for the client? 

Dexter: What products do you really like right now? Recently, have you come across something where you’re like, damn, I wish I thought of that. 

Amina: During COVID I really got involved in looking at Nextdoor. It’s a local neighborhood, social media app. It’s interesting because obviously people have Facebook, Instagram or other social media sites, but this one is super local-focused.

As people were home in the past few months and staying around their neighborhoods, this Nextdoor app, you put in your zip code and it shows you what’s happening within your community. I found a lot of helpful tips, services, even selling and buying furniture from your neighbors, and just being close to your neighbors. I even met people through the app as well.

Kate: When you’re trying to find a new vaccine, did you follow Vaccine Hunters, Canada?

Amina: No. So I followed it on Twitter, but on the Nextdoor app, we had even more localized updates like that. 

Kate: I joined Discord and then there’d be separate channels for different locations, like downtown Toronto, since it’s based on eligibility for your vaccine or if it was a hotspot or not was based on the first three digits of your postal code. Then I got added to a specific VAX discord and it has since progressed, not just for vaccine updates, but since everybody’s double vaxxed now there are different channels, like restaurant recommendations, neighborhood watch, marketplace.

I didn’t even know that Nextdoor existed, but I kind of found my way to a mini, localized group through Discord, which is kind of the same thing. It’s funny to know that all these people live within arm’s reach, so I’m definitely gonna download Nextdoor. 

Michael: Could you talk about some of the biggest challenges when it comes to product discovery with some of your clients.

Amina: There are actually two ways that we do discovery at Connected.

First, we do a discovery project. We work with a client all the way from early idea to user research and validation, and then the final concept. But then the other way that we do discoveries is we insert it within our delivery cycles.

For example, we’re working on a product which is already out there, it’s already launched. But there is a need for validating a new feature or uncovering either something new or thinking about a new value prop within the product where we do a discovery sprint to essentially feed back into the engineering cycle. That uses a bit of a different approach because in the upstream discovery projects we really start from scratch. Whereas here you already have a lot of these product constraints built-in, and it’s more about how can you stretch the product in new ways to provide more features or do something new for the user. 

Kate: Have you ever had a project or a brief that was given to that you’ve really struggled to get off the ground or find direction or where to go at the beginning?

Amina: I think the toughest ones are the projects where clients come in and already made up their minds, and say “we want to go through product strategy and innovation”. For example, they already know that they want a voice concept. So they’re already tied to this idea that maybe some executive at some point said, “this is what we have to do”, so we have to think about solutions and create something valuable for the client, but within a constraint already. 

I think the most challenging part of that is just making them think about the fact that we’re going to do the product innovation sprint. We’re going to go through user research, business research, also tech research and figure out if this concept really makes sense to fall within, let’s say a voice concept, or are there other ways that we can bring this to life.

Through that process, we kind of win them over to trust us a bit more by delivering an experimentation mindset. We show them everything that you want to test out or build, we’re actually testing, we’re getting live feedback from users and we’re either proving or disproving your early hypothesis of voice. 

Maybe it might make more sense that this is something that comes through an app experience versus a voice experience. But I think the thing that we really focus on is building trust from the client within the process so that they can get unattached from the early idea that they might have had and think about what actually makes sense holistically for everyone involved, not just their business, but also the user.

Kate: For sure I resonate with that too. It’s really hard sometimes when a certain team has bought us like experimentation. So the development teams, maybe the product teams believe in experimentation have bought into the experimentation mindset, but the whole re-education of even execs has been a struggle for us sometimes to actually speak to the value of experimentation when we do invest the time to get that user feedback, like live user testing.

I know you’re building trust within the process, but what else have you found helpful in doing that reeducation to a client that comes in as a really strong product or business? 

Amina: I think the great thing we do at Connected is we have those multi-disciplinary teams right at the beginning.

Even though it might be an early concept type of project where we’re not actually building anything yet, we still have an engineering presence so that we bring that expertise from down the line, is this something that will be possible. We’re always thinking through the lens of building the product in the right way towards the time of launch.

So first off we do that internally within our team and the second thing that we do really well is we spend a lot of time on qualifying and capturing a lot of the process that we have been working on and involving as much of the team from the client side as possible.

Unlike a lot of other services that I’ve worked with in the past, we work as a collaborative team with the client, so we involve them in our decisions. Not just the presentation stage, but through the whole process of involving them in the user research or actually making them conduct some of the activities of a competitive landscape or hypothesis writing and validation through the whole process.

Dexter: This might be a pick your favorite kid question. But of all the things that you worked on, all the projects that you’ve built, do you have a favorite one? 

Amina: I would say my favorite products are those that are consumer-facing where we’ve actually seen users benefit in their day-to-day use and we’re getting insights real-time from users versus platform products that also is something that we focus on. I personally like working on the user behavior side of things. 

Dexter: I think that’s for us too we’re a B2B SAS company, but most of our customers are direct to consumer. So it’s fun to see how the end consumer is interacting with the customers’ platform, which is running our software behind the scenes.

And then Kate’s noodling, downloading it and playing around with the features. 

Kate: You had a hand in creating this experience that people are either loving or hating. It’s cool to see how people are interacting with it. 

Amina: One of the more recent ones that I worked on was this fitness challenge experience. Slack app actually. So within that app users were using a daily fitness challenge within their company.

We had live data coming in from people every single day and we were making product decisions and feature decisions week by week on which new feature to launch so that people could get even more function and delight out of that fitness experience. It’s cool because it’s something that Connected has applied in-house. So we use this app now to do our fitness social challenges within Connected. 

Kate: Michael and Dexter had a standing calendar invite for a hundred pushups a day. 

Dexter: It’s still there. We may not attend it every time, but it’s still in the calendar. 

Amina: We basically took out a lot of that calendar, manual management, and turned it into a Slack app, which is where employees are anyway. One of the examples of a challenge was a steps challenge.

So every day completing up to 10,000 steps and you had a home page where you could log those steps in. It would also remind you to do that and within Slack teams. You could see how your team was performing compared to other teams.

You had an individual motivation and a team motivation to do it. There were also a lot of helpful automated tips that would come to you for doing more steps or the benefits of more steps. 

Michael: I like that idea a lot, we should definitely implement that into our company. 

Amina: I think the Slack app helped the whole company hit about 18 million steps in a month, so it was a big effort.

Kate: Other than the Slack app, have you ever been an end-user of any of the other products that you’ve worked on? 

Amina: I worked on an insurance experience for millennials. If you think about millennials, we don’t really think about insurance to a deep extent, unless it’s provided by our employer or something. So this was an experience for us to get more educated about how to think about life insurance and at what milestones in your life you might actually need to increase your life insurance. 

For example, if you get married or buy a house, you probably want to increase your life insurance amount because you have more people in your life to think about. But it was an online web experience to go through that education and learning journey, and then you end up with an insurance package which I actually ended up using.

Kate: Once you start booking your own dentist appointments, it’s like insurance is real. I realized that when I joined Taplytics. 

Amina: I think essentially any product that I’ve worked on, where it’s something that I think I can use for myself or in my life those are the ones that I personally enjoy the most. 

Michael: Do you have any big pet peeves about certain product experiences or features? 

Amina: I think user-centric design is all about that. Products that make you go outside of the product to do something are going to be annoying. Or products that have a lot more steps to actually get you to the value prop of what the product offers are not great experiences. Anytime I’m trying to do something and the product is not letting me it’s probably the biggest.

Dexter: What do you think is coming next? QR codes are back after they died for the last, like 10 years after people were trying to spin up QR codes. What’s the next innovative digital experience? 

Amina: I think we’re all gonna have chips in our bodies. You can imagine certain buildings now have elevators where they streamline which floor you need to go on and so you only get that elevator. But I think small builds where we can streamline more of our physical life is really cool and that’s something interesting to me to actually build service design for products that we interact with every day. I know I used the voice example before, but I think voice or more functionality within that, would be big as well.

Kate: How do you use voice today? I feel like I’m biased and can’t imagine voice being super incorporated into my life and how I use tech. Are you an Alexa user?

Amina: I am an Alexa user and we also have worked on products at Connected that have created voice experiences for the automotive industry. So that’s one place I think, where being able to use a voice assistant within your car more seamlessly. For example, if you set something up at home like set a destination, when you get your car it’s seamlessly integrated and there is a voice assistant that is ready to give you directions, and give you helpful advice as you might have issues with certain things within your car or rush hour. Just a more seamless integration in the automotive spaces I think is something that is being explored even with our clients that we work with. 

Kate: I didn’t think of that because it is the perfect storm or perfect environment for voice to do really well and people use it seamlessly, like you said, it just makes sense cause you’re not supposed to be on your phone. Even clicking buttons on the GPS or Apple CarPlay. 

Michael: I also don’t use voice a lot, but I have a couple of friends that do.  I’m wondering how the product adoption challenge is. Is it integrations? Is it being able to just say a word? I have a Sonos and I never say, play something next I just use my phone and I click the next song.

Kate: Do you think it’s more of us also being older and kids being more integrated and access to Alexa and Google Play because I’ve seen my little cousins and it’s built into how they operate. 

Michael: Maybe it just has to always be listening. 

Amina: I think the other thing is for voice to be broader in terms of the languages they offer. I’m from Pakistan and at home I go back and forth between English and Urdu and so does my whole family. I think when we can get to a stage where voice is able to go back and forth between languages is where it’s going to be really applicable.

Michael: Amina, do you have any go-to resources these days when you’re iterating on a product or a product discovery? What are the big resources that you’re always going to?

Amina: I read Medium a lot, there’s a lot of interesting frameworks and articles from actual practitioners on there. I also think even at Connected, because we have so much talent from all different backgrounds and experiences we have a big culture of being teachers and learners.

We share a lot of framework practices around there and I think one of the biggest tools that we do refer to quite often are the Strategyzer tools. So customer profile canvas and value mapping, essentially this framework that visually illustrates your product-market fit.

The business model canvas is another one from Strategyzer but we adapt them a little bit to be even more product-focused. Then generally, I am a huge fan of design thinking tools, like persona building, experience mapping, service design maps, and essentially for a lot of those, you have a basic framework that you use, but you do have to adapt it for the industry, for the product, and for the ecosystem that you’re working on.

Michael: What’s the best thing about working at Connected, right now. 

Amina: Connected is a great place to be, especially if you want to work for a lot of diverse industries and on really cool emerging tech. We have the appeal of the product focus, but also working with some of the biggest clients that you can think of and then just the culture at Connected of being super collaborative, multidisciplinary, and then being teachers and learners through it all. 

There is a lot of trust within all of our practitioners to come up with creative ways to solve problems and work together to really think about what’s in service of the product before any individual way of thinking or any individual opinion. We really think about product impact and of course, client impact as we work through our products.

Michael: If you’re interested in product, and you want to learn more about Connected, definitely talk to Amina. She’s got all the knowledge. 

Amina: We are growing very, very fast. 

Kate: That’s exciting, how big is the company? 

Amina: I think we’re around 150 now and hiring constantly. With the world coming back to normal, clients are in need of new product experiences. 

Michael: Well, everyone that was Amina Saigol from Connected. We hope that you learned a thing or two from Amina on what she thinks about when ideating and building in the product discovery phase. We’d like to thank the team at Connected for partnering up with us on this episode. Be sure to check out their website for some more resources on anything from product discovery, business viability, and even hypothesis-driven validation.

They’re quite the experts when it comes to building great product experiences so check them out. Again, we’d like to thank Taplytics for letting us host this show and if you’re interested in hearing some more episodes from people like Amina check out some of our older episodes, featuring companies like Shopify and Top Hat. We hope you enjoyed this episode and stay tuned for more.