Shaping the right outcome begins with this vital step
Discovery is the preliminary stage of work in any digital project. As the initial “phase 0”, it prepares everyone for the subsequent creative and production stages, but its purpose goes beyond introductions and getting to know each other. The aim is to define and validate the problem, understand the audience, and thereby determine the product’s true objectives.
Ultimately, the question discovery sets out to answer is: What are we trying to solve or improve?
The answer gives you a suitable place to start and a compass bearing for every key decision throughout the lifecycle of the project. It brings together your stakeholders and subject matter experts, and provides a shared vision of how this new adventure might unfold.
How the discovery process works
Discovery presents the earliest and fastest opportunity to correct mistakes if it looks like you’re steering your expensive ship in the wrong direction. We’ve seen a number of critical launch failures, costly e-commerce checkout gaffes, and stakeholder disagreements that set projects back months — all of which could be traced back to unheeded warnings about “fixing it in discovery” first.
We get it, there’s a sense of progress that comes with diving straight into the work. And it’s so pronounced that even the most disciplined stakeholder can be tricked into overlooking important research. But solution-first thinking is risky without validation and evidence, because you can miss those game-changing ideas and insights that lead to project success. It’s the difference between, say, “we need to build an app like Spotify” and “how can we connect better with our audiences”.
Skipping the discovery phase doesn’t save time or money. Even if all goes well, your planning, design and development team still need to know about your audience and objectives. If your assumptions were incorrect from the outset, you could find yourself wasting thousands (if not millions) of dollars building something that doesn’t serve its purpose, solve the problem, or meet an unmet need.
Skipping discovery isn’t a shortcut. You’ll still have to work through aspects in later stages, and it’ll come at a significantly greater impact to both schedule and budget.
What discovery looks like
Discovery can vary between projects, based on scale, current context and any pre-existing work (ie. learning from previous lessons). Typically, it involves one or more of the following exercises:
Stakeholder research to determine organisational constraints and pain points. By bringing your stakeholders along for the journey, you give them the opportunity to build a common language and vision, and collaborate on the rules of engagement. This plants the seeds of approval early in the process.
User research to understand needs and pain points, as well as usability and accessibility conditions. Depending on the nature of the project, you may engage in straightforward exercises like surveys and card sorting, or more involved activities such as workshops and interviews.
Mapping current systems and processes to contextualise the status quo, and identify synergies and opportunities to consolidate. Alongside this, mapping the current state of user experience journeys to determine where friction and barriers to conversion occur… the outcomes of which will offer valuable insights to share with both project leaders and producers.
Assessing the competitive landscape to find opportunities to innovate, improve or simplify what’s currently out there — this is especially important for new products, emerging markets, and impact-driven initiatives.
Deep diving into key problems and assumptions, usually done via focus groups, quantitative analysis, and in-depth consultation.
Data analysis to look for common trends, patterns and behaviours that help define the problem you can work to solve. This analysis can be quantitative (looking at stats and numbers) or qualitative (assessing motivations and hypotheses), or a combination of both.
By the end of all this, you should come away with:
- A high-level brief to outline the problem, desired outcome, and paths to progress
- A selection of user profiles, journey maps, and experience maps for guidance
- Optionally, service blueprints and process maps to take into prototyping and design
Stale problems need fresh eyes
Thanks to our old friend the Curse of Knowledge, the better you know your market, organisation or product, the harder it is to approach it without bias and proximity blindness. It’s why “T-shaped” and “unicorn” professionals are so highly valued within teams — because their breadth of knowledge and skills maintains the freshness of perspective needed for creative thinking and innovation.
The same philosophy applies to discovery. Typically, your stakeholders are too familiar with their space. They’re often too accustomed to “business as usual” to break through conventional patterns of thinking. Bringing in external professionals adds fresh eyes to a problem, covering new ground not yet explored by internal teams. What’s more, their “neutrality” often overcomes long-standing interpersonal concerns and office politics, fostering healthier communication and stronger relationships between your internal teams (even after the project is over).
Are there risks to bringing in outsiders? Absolutely. Just about every business averse to outsiders will have been burned by agents who “weren’t a good fit”, “didn’t understand the product”, or “didn’t understand how we worked”. Unfortunately, many for-hire parties lean too heavily on bringing fresh eyes at the cost of working with empathy. For all the benefits of outsider perspective, a lack of appreciation for the current state of play can have detrimental effects on project execution and outcomes.
So we’re clear: discovery work is empathy work. This makes it a vital first step when creating products that impact people.