What Is a Discovery Phase and Why Should You Care?

Paul Boag

Our digital projects could be delivered faster, come under budget and provide better results by introducing a discovery phase upfront.

I get it. There are all kinds of reasons why we jump straight into a project rather than doing a discovery phase.

  • Maybe we feel under pressure to deliver.
  • Perhaps we are excited to get things underway.
  • We might feel upfront research is a luxury we cannot afford.
  • We convince ourselves we know enough already to start.

Even if we know we are not informed enough to begin work, colleagues, clients, and management may not agree.

However, before you jump into your next digital project, take a moment. Pause and ask yourself whether you and your whole team know all that is required. Because if you are not, then it is time to get everybody bought into the concept of a discovery phase.

The Role of the Discovery Phase

I'll be honest; I am not a huge fan of the term ‘discovery phase’. I don’t think it is descriptive and reinforces the impression that it is a luxury.

What a discovery phase is really about is researching and defining the scope of the project. In particular, it involves activities such as:

Unfortunately, all too often these activities do not happen. Instead, the scope of the project is defined merely by deliverables such as a shopping cart or contact form.

Of course, I wouldn’t blame anybody for asking why this kind of functional specification isn’t enough. Or in other words, why should a client expect to pay for you to carry out a discovery phase?

Why You Should Always Do a Discovery Phase

Imagine for a moment you are a client or stakeholder who has a digital project you need building.

You have had lots of discussions internally, and you feel you have a good handle on what needs building. You go to your digital team, give them your specification and ask them to get to work. But instead of leaping into action, they tell you that they want to do a load more research and to charge you for it! It is hardly surprising that a discovery phase is not always popular.

Why then is a discovery phase even necessary? There are four good reasons.

Leads to Better Solutions

A discovery phase is an opportunity for the digital team to get to understand the project better. By doing so, they understand the underlying drivers, not just the solutions proposed by the client.

Once the digital team understands the project background they can suggest alternative solutions. Solutions that a client (who is not a digital expert) might not even realize is possible. Solutions that are often either better, or cheaper, than that proposed by the client.

It Focuses on Objectives and Not Just Deliverables

Just because a project is built on time and within the budget does not guarantee success. Not even if the project delivers precisely to the specification. These are not the definitions of success.

Success is where the product built delivers on broader goals such as increasing leads or improving conversion.

Unfortunately, these underlying objectives are not well defined or articulated. Without that clear vision, it is easy for a project to lose focus and direction during production. A well run discovery phase should fix this issue.

It Highlights User Needs

Rarely is a functional specification, or client brief, written from the user’s perspective. In fact, it is frequently worse than that. We often define projects without any understanding of what the user wants or needs.

Failing to consider the user is dangerous. It is easy to build functionality or produce content that nobody cares about, which is an enormous waste of money.

But even if we have done some user research, it is vital that we provide the digital team with an opportunity to spend time with users. Without them really understanding the user they will make decisions during the project that will undermine the user experience.

It Provides Context

Finally, a discovery phase provides a context for the many decisions that happen on a daily basis during the project. It will reduce costly mistakes, misunderstandings, and unnecessary functionality.

The better informed the digital team are, the faster good decisions can be made and the better the final solution.

Four Tips to Get You Started Towards a Better Discovery Phase

Of course, as with anything, it is easy to get a discovery phase wrong, in which case it does become a waste of money. How then, can you make your discovery phase worthwhile?

Include the Whole Team in a Discovery Phase

The most significant mistake I see with discovery phases is the failure to make sure the entire team is involved. You are only going to benefit from the expertise of everybody if they all know the background of the project. “Need to know” is not an approach that we should be adopting on digital projects.

Make Sure You Include In-Person Time With Users

A big part of every discovery phase should be meeting with users. Once again, this is something as many of your team as possible should experience. If they cannot be there in person, make sure they watch at least some of the recorded interviews.

Do not rely on stats or personas to give you an understanding of the user. They do not enable you to connect with users and their needs.

Talk to All Stakeholders

A discovery phase can be invaluable in identifying potential problems that could derail a project further down the line. One of the most prominent examples of this is unhappy stakeholders. A manager or other individual who swoops into a build halfway through and expresses dissatisfaction.

However, we can avoid this if we speak to all the stakeholders during the discovery phase. Be sure to identify any hidden influencers and fully understand their perspective before work begins.

Make Discovery a Separate Project With Clear Deliverables

If you try to add a discovery phase onto the start of a project it can feel like a delay. But if it becomes a small project in its own right with clearly defined deliverables it can be seen as more palatable.

That is particularly true if you are an outside agency. A discovery project is an opportunity for a new client to try out the working relationship with you for a minimum investment. If it has defined deliverables, it would be possible for the client to go to another supplier at the end of the discovery phase if they were unhappy and not be any worse off.

In fact, I often recommend combining the discovery phase with some initial prototyping, as a prototype is a tangible deliverable that the client can embrace.

Beyond the Functional Specification

The real value of a discovery phase is that it moves us beyond the limitation of a functional specification. It provides context, which in turn encourages teams to be more creative in their approach to solving business and user needs. A specification defines and constrains. A discovery phase empowers and informs.

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