A Discovery Phase to Benefit Digital Projects

Posted By Ellen Cowan In Digital Strategy 06/27/2013
Web design discovery phase

Web design projects are intimate affairs. The client-agent relationship is meant to fully incorporate and understand the business, user experience and feature needs, which means understanding the host company’s values, personality, clientele business drivers, opportunities, constraints and vision. Building a Discovery phase into the relationship prior to beginning a project is a great way to make sure both parties find an appropriate balance and meaningful value from each other. It also allows for a true understanding of the pain points or needs that are driving the need for a vendor relationship. Addressing those points is paramount to the success overall. Clarifying all of this helps pave the way for long-term vendor/client success.


Many agencies refer to this as a period of time during which both parties get to know each other and understand their shared values. Working with DOOR3, much more happens. We include several strategic exercises to help position the opportunity optimally within both the business and "user" realities and constraints as well as opportunitiy and vision. We call this "mapping to the business and the users", and we do this work leveraging a blend of our digital strategy, user experience design, and application development teams.


The Skool recently posted a great blog post about the importance of building a discovery phase into web design and development projects to help keep the project sane. In The Skool’s opinion, such a relationship is best entered into prior to signing a contract for subsequent phases, but with the agency getting paid by the client. Such a phase helps both parties by establishing trust and understanding while allowing for a more detailed picture for creating cost estimates on the project itself. When used appropriately, a discovery phase can be a powerful part of an overall digital strategy. At DOOR3, we tend to also prefer a "stage by stage" approach to our projects, whereby we define the cost and tangible goals for Discovery, and then confirm together with our clients following Discovery whether our assumptions for the project are as expected or may have changed. This has been successful for countless clients over our tenure helping clients create best of breed digital experiences.

As the Skool article points out, some purposes accomplished during a discovery phase could include:

Getting to understand the client and client needs better

The Skool drives a sharp line here between what the client really needs, and what the client says they need. As expert consultants, it is web designer’s duty to find the actual requirements of a given project, and customize the solution accordingly. The article says, “Before you spend their money to “build something” per their request, you have to find out if you are building the right thing.”

Clearly defining the project’s goal

Whether building websites, mobile or custom web applications, many clients get sidetracked by features or functions, and lose sight of the ultimate business objective. Use the discovery phase to clearly outline underlying business objectives, and to keep focus squarely on accomplishing each one.

Creating a project roadmap

Web design and development have many unforeseeable obstacles. Creating a roadmap isn’t about predicting every twist and turn in the road, it is about setting the path to get from point A to point B. The Skool writes, “It is not a “fixed plan” but more of a framework for planning and checking in during the journey.”

Getting to know your client’s people

By understanding a client’s strengths and operations, agencies can customize operations for maximum effectiveness. Additionally, use the discovery phase to make sure that both sides will mesh well. If there does not seem to be harmony between the two sides, it might be better to avoid entering into a long-term project together.

These are good, and quite basic, although it alarming how many clients suggest that saving budget by skipping these steps. Certainly, a certain amount of this work to clarify goals, meet and greet and create an agreed approach happen prior to contracts, but there is no replacement for the essential planning work that is done with the Client's stakeholders and project manager and the specifically assigned project team.

At DOOR3, we would recommend the above but strategically more, and the detail of what "more means" varies from client to client depending on project and needs. We engage in a number of exercises related to mapping the business to the users and taking advtantage of opportunities while navigating through constraints. Some of these exercises include:

Requirements assessment and gap analysis

This is about poking at requirements and assumptions to be sure that there are no gaps that would put success at risk? Our clients are always surprised by the precision work (once referred to by a client as "dentistry") that goes into properly defining the features to the extent necessary to build them into wireframes and blueprints in the next phase. This work also include use case planning and test script planning in many cases. When working in a more agile fashion, there is less formal confirmation of requirements before information architecture and user interface work can begin, however in no case should the project continue past Discovery without a very clear understanding between all parties of the nuances of the "must have" requirements for Phase 1. (We often end up breaking up a project into Phase 1 requirements for the MVP (minimum viable product) and then keeping a separate list of "nice to have" requirements that will fall into Phase 2 or beyond.)

Technical assessment and gap analysis

In this work, we look at the existing technology opportunities and constraints coming into the project, and we make strategic recommendations based on the findings that can help guide the project in its most successful direction. One of the big differences between DOOR3 and other "creative" or "technical" agencies, is that we successfully marry both the creative and technical, and we do it at the point of usability design (user experience design). One cannot design an optimal user experience if there are known technical constraints that would prohibit the design. Or, in other words, we need to understand the technical contraints and opportunities and try to limit road blocks as much as possible in order to pave the way for the optimal user experience.

Technology roadmap planning

This work is related to the technical assessment and gap analysis work, but it looks at things from a higher, enterprise architecture level. Most of our work involves integration into existing or planned third party systems, such as ERP, CRM or proprietary back-end systems. Understaind the larger technical landscape and its opprotunities and constraints can help clarify the best approach to the application-level architecture. The essential quesiton is, how will what we are working on fit into the technology roadmap overall, and how can we help steer the choices for this proejct in a direction that will benefit that roadmap and play nicely? 

Product roadmap planning

Product roadmap planning is about how a project fits in with the digital roadmap overall? This is different than fitting into the busienss goals or the technology systems roadmap. This is about the planned digital experiences overall for this and related products. MaRSoffers a good explanation of the structure and value of a product roadmap. As they explain, "a product roadmap includes themes, timeframes of releases and descriptions of features that are being built and the problems the features will solve. It is designed to align your company’s product vision with the product’s external stakeholders. Stakeholders are people with an active interest in your company or product, including investors, prospects, customers, internal teams and boards of directors." They go on to explain that a product roadmap answers what you will do next, what your products' future capabilities wil be, what problems they will solve, and what features are upcoming in future releases. We look at this information because placing the current phase of work in this context is invaluable to promoting the optimal path to success.

Strategic UX consulting

What is strategic UX consulting? Admittedly, it is a term I made up. Many user interface design firms offer information architecture, wireframing and visual design services. But at DOOR3, user experience design means much more. Stategic services include Audience Analysis, User Flows & Storyboarding, Heuristic Evaluations, Usability Testing and Analysis, Best Practices Assessments, Competitive User Experience Analysis, Experience Mapping, Advanced Content Planning Exercises, and much more. For each client initaitive, we think through which of these exercises will best prepare the project and inform both DOOR3 and the client of the essential "goals" to work towards to achieve an improved, and ideally optimal, user experience.

variety of tasks and exercises, such as audience analysis, user flows, competitive analysis, and best practice assessments)

There are many great insights that can be gained during a discovery phase. Setting for the the right tasks, exercises, deliverables and goals for this phase can help make partnerships more effective ensure the program's success. 

(This article was written by Ellen Cowan with the help of her Trending Topics blogging friends.)

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