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The discovery process: it’s not a straight line

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We have good news, and we have bad news.

Most digital projects start with a discovery process. The bad news is, this isn’t quite as adventurous as it sounds - despite what the name suggests, you won’t be unearthing strange new worlds and civilisations on the Starship USS Enterprise any time soon.  

The good news is, that’s not to say it’s a mundane process - far from it! Discovery takes place at the beginning of a project, covering a range of project requirements from onboarding to defining objectives and scope. This leads into a plan or functional specification that serves as the springboard for the project team and the blueprint for the project manager. 

Sounds simple enough, right?

But this process isn’t static. Discovery is based on what you’re able to determine at that point in the process, and as the project develops, so too will your discovery. And that’s what makes it such an exciting process to get stuck into. 

To put it another way, there’s always more to learn and always more to discover - if there wasn’t, just imagine how boring Star Trek would’ve been. There’s no way they’re getting multiple series, films, and a theme park out of that borefest! 

So just why is this culture of continuous discovery so important, and how is it best embraced when launching a new digital project? Let’s explore…beam us up, Scotty!

Initial discovery

Beginning at - well, um - the beginning, the initial discovery phase can often be overlooked and underrated in a digital project’s life cycle. 

It can be all too tempting to skip over this process and dive right into execution, but this short-sighted approach is a one-way ticket to failure in the long run. That’s because this initial discovery stage serves as the very foundation of your project - it’s central to your planning and plays a pivotal role in your ability to deliver a project successfully. 

At this stage of discovery, the focus is on getting to know the project, product, and audience. As such, it usually involves bringing together key stakeholders like the client, project manager, and technical team, in order to define the goals, objectives, scope and requirements of the project. 

As Captain Picard once told us, “there is a way out of every box, a solution to every puzzle, it’s just a matter of finding it”, and it’s this mantra you should adopt at this stage of the process. In the initial discovery phase, you’re gathering information, conducting research, and analysing data in order to determine what needs to be achieved and how you will accomplish it. More specifically, your focus should be on:

  • Aligning stakeholders around the project vision and objectives 
  • Identifying the resource requirements (cost, time, manpower, etc.) 
  • Verifying the validity of the product (is it possible and is there a demand in the market?)
  • Determining any potential risks 

Diving into the project’s context and finer details at this point allows project managers to set a clear path, which prevents miscommunication or conflict later in the project. It also helps to minimise value risk, usability risk, business viability risk, and feasibility risk, reducing the chance of costly changes or delays down the road. 

Though it might sound like a lot of work upfront, the initial discovery phase can be invaluable when executed properly, optimising your resource utilisation and increasing the likelihood of delivering a successful project that meets expectations. 

Like mapping out your route before beginning your journey, discovery is a proactive approach to project management and delivery that ensures you’re more prepared, more informed, and better focused - providing it’s not considered a ‘one and done’ task.

Continuous discovery

Captain Kirk taught us that, “sometimes a feeling is all we humans have to go on”, but instinct, assumptions, and gut feeling won’t get you very far in the discovery process - and that’s why continuous discovery is so important. 

Much like referring back to your map (or your navigation board, if you’re on the Starship Enterprise) to confirm you’re still going in the right direction, a continuous approach to the discovery phase ensures you avoid wrong turns and dead ends, and are able to re-route and take detours when necessary. 

After all, regardless of how thorough your research and planning in the initial discovery phase was, things can change. In fact, the context of a project can change significantly throughout its lifecycle, from new competitors to shifting market trends, and so continual discovery ensures you can remain agile enough to adapt to this accordingly. 

Remember: the whole purpose of the discovery phase is to build knowledge around the project. But you only know what you know; just because you’ve run a discovery workshop at the beginning of a project doesn’t mean you uncovered all the information you need there and then. On the contrary, more information is all but guaranteed to become visible as you move through the product cycle - discovery isn’t just one straight line.

From identifying and defining the problem to gathering requirements and setting goals, the success of a project’s deliverance relies on the accuracy of your knowledge building at this stage. Or, to borrow the wise words of Spock, “insufficient facts always invite danger”. Sure, ‘danger’ in this context is an under-delivered project over a hostile enemy from another galaxy, but the point stands

So, how does continual discovery ensure your facts are sufficient and your project management is well informed? It’s all about adapting it into an agile methodology. 

By consistently gathering data, feedback, and insights from end users and stakeholders throughout the lifecycle, you begin promoting a culture of continuous learning. The focus moves away from simply delivering the product, and instead shifts towards delivering value by using your new learnings to inform the product’s evolution and innovation.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that this evolution and innovation simply means adding new features. In fact, it’s quite the opposite - continuous discovery is more about the refinement (or even removal) of features that we initially deemed to be necessary but later learned were not. This also helps project managers to avoid falling into a common build trap of developing new features for their own sake, rather than focusing on the needs of the user. 

Remaining fixed on a concrete idea proposed in the initial discovery phase requires you to meticulously plan, well, everything before the project even gets into full flow. Continuous discovery, on the other hand, grants you significantly more flexibility and adaptability. 

For example, rather than running one big discovery workshop at the start of your project, you could instead run smaller discovery sessions (also known as discovery sprints) throughout the project’s lifecycle. Not only do these short, focused bursts of information gathering and testing allow you to validate your initial outcomes and introduce new learnings that benefit the project, but they also ensure you’re doing it at the right time.

5 top tips for discovery

So we know why the initial and continuous discovery phases are so invaluable to your project, but how do you actually go about it? Fear not: we’ve compiled our top tips for conducting more efficient and effective discovery when carrying out your next digital project.

Build the right discovery team

Discovery teams can come in many shapes and sizes, and there isn’t one set way to build your team. But as a rule of thumb, the discovery team involved in any digital project should at least include a:

  • Project/product manager 
  • UX designer 
  • Developer 

Should your resource allow it, you may also want to introduce further team members like a researcher, analyst, or even a data scientist, depending on the extent of your research. But it’s not simply a case of ‘the more the merrier’. In fact, having too many team members needlessly involved at this stage may lead to information overload, scope confusion, and communication breakdowns - the exact opposite of what you’re trying to achieve at this stage. 

Instead, your priority should be involving those with the expertise to collect and analyse data, and those with the ability to find design and development solutions based on these learnings. This includes those team members with technical know-how who can explain what is and isn’t feasible, and those with the operational expertise to make informed decisions (that pivot when necessary) continuously throughout the project.

Communicate clearly with stakeholders

Nothing derails a digital project quicker than the misalignment of stakeholder expectations and the miscommunication of what’s to be achieved. But these common pitfalls can be successfully avoided by ensuring clear communication channels between you and the project stakeholders throughout the discovery cycle. 

Look to include all the relevant stakeholders early and often to ensure everyone is on the same page from day one, and seek feedback for them throughout the continuous discovery phase. Keeping these communication lines as open as possible also means you’ll benefit more from the unique perspectives and expertise of the stakeholders, enabling you to understand the product, company, and market on a deeper level. 

Remember that these communication lines aren’t a one way street, either - it’s just as important for you to communicate with stakeholders as it is for them to communicate with you. Ensuring you keep all relevant parties in the loop, especially as things change throughout the continuous discovery cycle, is paramount to setting stakeholder expectations at the right level and minimising disruption further down the cycle.

Conduct comprehensive research

As we’ve already touched upon, this phase is all about building knowledge, meaning research is at the very heart of discovery. The more comprehensive your research, the more insights you uncover, which can be hugely influential in shaping a project’s direction. 

With this in mind, look to embrace a wide range of research methods to make the biggest impact at this stage. We’re talking research methodology like:

  • Market/competitor analysis
  • User personas 
  • Customer feedback surveys
  • User behaviour analysis

Employing various approaches to both market and audience research throughout continual discovery not only helps you uncover the most common user pain points and key project risks, but it also helps validate the product and highlight the biggest areas of opportunity. Best of all, this is all informed by the wants, needs, and expectations of the user, meaning project decisions always remain purposeful and well-informed.

Create prototypes (with feedback loops)

Use your findings to inspire ideation, but remember that discovery doesn’t end there

To generate more innovative ideas, enable a more accurate feasibility assessment, and better align your product with user expectations, prototype and test your ideas

Don’t be fooled into thinking this prototype should be all singing and dancing, however - quite the opposite. As part of your continual discovery, feedback loops and iterations should be built into your approach, creating low-risk prototypes like wireframes and low-fidelity mockups and then testing them with methods like fake door testing and usability testing techniques. 

By opting for quick and visual prototypes over fully-functional MVPs, you’re able to gather feedback more efficiently, see the progress of your discovery more clearly, and make the process of approving or removing features as easy as possible. After all, this agility and flexibility are instrumental to continual discovery. 

Just remember that this is an iterative process, so ensure your feedback loops are constantly collecting input and data - and just as importantly, remember to act on it! Unless you're actively making adjustments to your product and project scope based on the user and stakeholder feedback you receive, your project will fail to deliver on the objectives you identified. Not only does this make the continual discovery phase all but redundant, but it also causes great disruption to your project budget, timeline, and deliverance as a result.

Create prototypes (with feedback loops)

Documentation is arguably the most crucial element of continual discovery, so be sure to document everything across the project lifecycle.

Projects are only successful when everyone is on the same page and working towards the same goal, and as we hope you’re aware of by now, discovery plays a pivotal role in achieving this. But as you uncover more learnings throughout the continual discovery process, this becomes harder to achieve, making documentation a non-negotiable when aiming to keep everyone informed and aligned. 

The most effective way of doing this is not only to record your findings, feedback, and decisions, but also to ensure this documentation is centralised so that it can be accessed by anyone who needs it, at any time. This documentation then serves as the go-to comprehensive resource for anyone involved in the project, and is also a handy record of expectations and decision making, should you need to refer back at any point throughout the project lifecycle. 

The success of your project outcomes is dependent on the success of your discovery, which makes investing time, effort, and resources into this phase crucial. But remember that the discovery process is not a straight line. To ensure your team can deliver a well-focused, well-planned, and well-executed project that achieves its objectives, arm them with knowledge and understanding through a continual discovery process that informs, refines, and unites across the project lifecycle - in the words of Spock, “our best defence is knowledge”.

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