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How the FT uses customer discovery to design better value propositions

Spend time getting to know your customers

In his recently published book The Exponential Age, Azeem Azhar describes how technology is changing the world at a dizzying pace: “High-tech innovations are created at a dazzling speed; technological forces we barely understand remake our homes and workplaces; centuries-old tenets of politics and economics are upturned by new technologies.” These rapid changes in technology and consumer behaviour can feel overwhelming, particularly for businesses trying to keep up with innovative products and disruptive business models.

At FT Strategies, we have seen how this pace of change can tempt many businesses to rush to create new solutions – without necessarily understanding the underlying problem to solve (and whether it’s worth solving). This approach can be risky. Too often, teams can invest their efforts in building the wrong thing. Alternatively, they may lean towards “safe” and unambitious solutions. This is usually the path to those big expensive projects that miss the mark (don’t worry, we’ve all been there!).

Too often, teams can invest their efforts in building the wrong thing. Alternatively, they may lean towards “safe” and unambitious solutions.

George MontaguFT Strategies

This is where we believe Customer Discovery can help. By uncovering the real problem to solve, and choosing the right way to solve it, you can make bigger bets and create better solutions for your customers. In this post, we explore how the Financial Times and other businesses use customer discovery in order to design better value propositions. In these exponential times, it’s becoming even more important to slow down and spend time getting to know your customers.

American entrepreneur Steve Blank created the seeds for Customer Discovery during the early days of internet disruption in the 1990s. His famous injunction, “There Are No Facts Inside Your Building, So Get Outside”, lies at the heart of methodologies such as the Lean Startup. As opposed to an attitude of “If you build it they will come”, Customer Discovery encourages teams to spend more time in the field, identifying potential consumers and learning how to meet their needs. Over time, customer discovery has evolved into a methodology that pairs an iterative hypothesis-led process with ethnographic techniques such as interviews and observation.

How do we apply Customer Discovery at the Financial Times?

The principles of Customer Discovery are fairly straightforward. However, most teams and businesses see benefits in creating a more structured process. At the Financial Times, we have created a Discovery Process that contains five key steps.

FT flow diagram
FT flow diagram
FT flow diagram
FT flow diagram
FT flow diagram

The FT’s Discovery Process

  1. Kick off: a cross functional team (e.g. Design, Product, Research and Analytics) agrees what will be investigated in the ‘Understand’ phase of Discovery. The team must also define how the problem/opportunity fits with the FT’s strategic priority, and define a success metric.
  2. Understand: team members try to find answers to the objectives that you set out on the kick off phase. Depending on the objectives, this can involve activities such as: data analysis, competitor research, conversations with internal teams (e.g. editorial), and focus groups.
  3. Summarise: learnings from the Understand phase are summarised, and user problems are prioritised and framed. At this point, the team makes a decision as to whether the project should proceed, in partnership with our “Mission Control” team (a steering committee that has an overview of how initiatives fit with our wider strategy).
  4. Generate Ideas: the team immerse themselves in the user needs uncovered in the previous stage, and run ideation sessions involving stakeholders. The goal is to generate a wide range of solutions – at least 4 or 5. Methods include Crazy Eights, Co-Creation and Brainwriting.
  5. Design and run experiments: having created several solutions, the team takes a step back to identify the assumptions behind these ideas using a framework known as “The Four Risks”. Once the riskiest assumptions have been identified, the team identifies ways to validate/invalidate them quickly and cheaply. Value risks are typically tested with one-on-one interviews with users, often using low fidelity sketches of ideas. On the other hand, usability risks are assessed with clickable prototypes.

Once a team has followed these steps, a final decision is made as to whether they have uncovered a genuine user need and a suitable solution. If so, the project moves into the delivery phase. If the need/solution has not been validated, the team decides whether to stop, do more research, or test more ideas.

Customer Discovery will typically sit alongside other related delivery processes, or be embedded within them. For example, the UK’s Government Digital Service’s discovery process is a component within their Agile Delivery framework. This is available publicly as part of their Service Manual, a fantastic resource for anyone looking to design for public services in a more human-centred way.

What are the key methods?

While Customer Discovery projects are often informed by analytics and surveys, the richest insights typically come from small scale qualitative studies. The most obvious starting point is the customer interview. Within the FT, we have an experienced team of researchers and UX designers who run regular interviews with existing, lapsed and potential customers. We realise that many teams or businesses may not have this resource available. However, we have seen first-hand that it is possible for anyone to learn this valuable skill. The most important thing is to develop a questioning technique that mitigates bias; The Mom Test is a great introduction to this subject.

While interviews are the go-to discovery tool at the FT, we have experimented with Diary Studies. In this method, subjects keep a log of their daily activities as they occur for a fixed time period. Diary Studies allow us to explore a wider scope of questions, avoid recall bias in response and give participants time to process more reflective questions. A team at the FT recently used this method to investigate the question: “What does a habit-forming app of the future look like?”. The study helped us identify that our users need different media in different mindsets. For example, when speed is important (mornings particularly), distilled summaries are key. Meanwhile, every participant has ‘off limit’ times for the news (particularly in evenings and on the weekends), though they may still want to relax with a long read that doesn’t stray into the ‘hard news’ territory.

While getting close to users lies at the heart of Customer Discovery, there are many methods that can help with other parts of the process. For example, to help define your problem space and organise what you learn in interviews we use tools such as customer personas, user stories, and the Jobs To Be Done framework. In order to share best practice, the FT has created an internal community known as the “Discovery Guild”. Every two weeks, the Discovery Guild will meet up to hear from internal and external speakers explaining specific discovery methods and sharing insights from live projects.

What’s the best way to get started?

You don’t need to design a new business process in order to get started with Customer Discovery. One great way for businesses or teams to get used to these methods is to use an off-the-shelf process for a short project. The Google Ventures Design Sprint is a great option for many business opportunities, particularly when you are trying to create new value propositions. Design Sprints are a five-day process that see a cross-functional team of leaders and practitioners use a range of discovery methods to test new value propositions with real-life users.

Design Sprints are particularly well-suited to businesses who want to tackle a topic of strategic importance. For example, WeWork used a sprint to develop an on-demand booking capability to capture the revenue potential of unused space. Meanwhile, the United Nations has used the methodology to increase donations, by adding a “donate a meal” feature to their giving page.

How FT Strategies can help

FT Strategies has a wealth of experience facilitating bespoke Design Sprints for businesses. In 2021 alone we have helped dozens of businesses design and validate prototypes. Projects have ranged from designing entirely new products, to driving forward digital transformation with internal data tools. It can seem initially challenging for busy leaders to take a week out from their day-to-day activities. However, our clients typically describe their sprint as an enormously productive way to make progress on thorny issues.

We’d be delighted to hear from you if you are considering embracing Customer Discovery in your business. Whether you’re hungry to learn more from your customers on a live project, or looking to design a new process for your organisation, we’d love to hear from you.

About the author

George Montagu
George Montagu
George Montagu
George Montagu
George Montagu

George Montagu is Subscriptions Strategy Lead at FT Strategies. Before that, he spent the last four years guiding the FT’s data strategy as it balances revenue and risk. Most recently, he founded and continues to lead a cross-departmental FT team focused on the future of marketing & advertising in the context of restrictions on online tracking.

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