What is a Discovery Phase and why do I need one for my website, app or portal project?

Undertaking a new digital project is usually a significant investment for most organisations and one that is expected to provide a decent financial return. But as with any investment there comes risk, and as someone who is responsible for that project, you’ll want to minimise that risk as much as possible.

From ensuring you choose the right partner to avoiding overspend and delays. It makes sense that you wouldn’t start building a house without plans or launch a product without researching your market, yet so many organisations still start work on their digital projects without undertaking a discovery phase.

At our company we have a four-stage UX process. The first stage is the Discovery Phase, followed by Behavioural analysis and insightStructure, content & design and then Testing and refinement. In this article we explain what the discovery phase is and its benefits.

What is a Discovery Phase?
The discovery phase is where you undertake all the research you need in order to fully scope and plan your entire digital project. It should always be the first step in the process. The discovery phase aims to gain a detailed understanding of stakeholders and the end customer in order to produce a better performing product.

Within the discovery phase it is vital to understand in depth, the needs of the business. What are the fundamental business goals that must be achieved? What are the aspirational targets? What are the different needs of the various stakeholders across the organisation? How is success defined and how can any potential barriers be overcome? What dependencies are there to ensure a smooth delivery? Bringing together stakeholders from across the business, from top management to customer facing staff will help ensure that from the outset, objectives and priorities are clear and agreed upon by everyone.

For every digital project there should be user research. This is about learning and understanding the needs, wants, attitudes, expectations and frustrations of your consumers and prospective customers. It is only by gaining this information will you be able to truly create a user-centred experience. Far too many companies take a best guess or make assumptions on who they think their customers are and what they want. With such an important investment, why take this risk?

Within the discovery phase other research is also undertaken to help build a complete picture of the landscape in which your digital product sits, this would typically include a competitor analysis, an existing site review and raw data analysis such as web analytics, click trails and heat mapping. Expert advice from a UX professional who can provide up-to-date knowledge of industry best practices is also a valuable source of research and insight.

Outputs from the Discovery Phase
The outputs from the research are used in consultation with stakeholders to directly determine the scope of the project, including what type of solutions are needed, the features and functionalities required, the best platforms to use, cost, success criteria and timescales. 

While this approach doesn’t reflect the ‘Agile’ method of development, whereby projects are divided into sprints and changes in requirements are welcome, it does mean that ideas, challenges and issues are identified up-front and an accurate costing can be provided. Whilst clients seem to like the idea of an ‘Agile’ or flexible approach, the fear of unknown cost proves often too high-a-risk to take in reality. Web development will always need to come with the ability to adapt, but keeping the risk of significant changes to a minimum is usually the preferred option for those with a fixed budget in mind. As such, undertaking the discovery phase at the start of a digital project helps to manage this situation. 

What are the benefits of a Discovery Phase?
• The project requirements can be validated based on evidence not assumption.

• A balance is achieved between the business goals and the needs and wants of the users

• An understanding of users expectations is based on their exposure to competitor landscape.

• As part of a UX process, the project is clearly defined at the outset with expected costs and timescales.

• Avoid needing to make costly changes during the development stages.

• Opportunities to explore ideas and tap into expert advice to see how ideas can be brought to life, plus consider new or different technologies.

• Test drive your agency partner relationship during the discovery phase to ensure they are a good fit. If they can’t perform at this stage, you can review your relationship before starting the full project.

Project delivery
Once you have your discovery phase underway, it is a good time to consider who should be delivering the rest of the digital project. Whilst bringing in an experienced agency to lead the discovery phase is essential to ensure you have access to all of the expert digital knowledge and insight, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are best placed to implement the solution.

It is at this point that you can assess the agency to ensure they are equipped to deliver the rest of the project. Do they have the skills to analyse the insight, define the structure and content, provide the design and do the testing? If so, can they also take the rest of the project through to development and launch? Do you enjoy working with them?

Ideally, it is best to select an agency that is capable of continuing the journey with you as it is important to ensure changes don’t occur throughout the design and development process which could inadvertently affect the user experience. 

In summary
Whilst the benefits of undertaking a discovery phase seem obvious, the time or cost of it still seems to be stated as the reason for not doing it. The UK Government have recognised the importance of the Discovery Phase in project planning and have published guidance on how the process works.

I think the question for anyone managing a digital project should be asking themselves is, ‘What is the cost of not doing a discovery phase?’

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