When you need a digital solution delivered, your agency will typically recommend undertaking a “Discovery Phase.” But what is it and why do you need one?

Think of a website as entering into a long-term relationship and before you enter into that relationship you look at their Facebook and Instagram pages. You examine pictures they are in with other people to try to determine if it’s an ex. You might even spend $29 to perform a background check—do they vote for presidential candidates with soft Ts in their name like Perot or Tsongas? Did they ever do hard time, and if so what were they in for? This phase can be quite lengthy but it falls into the “look before you leap” school of thinking. It’s the same in the digital world.

A Discovery Phase is an intensive period of research and design undertaken at the very start of a digital project in order to achieve the expected end result. Usually involving UX designers, technical architects, and project managers, the aim of the Discovery Phase is to gain a detailed understanding of scope and budget, as well as the tech issues and how they might be solved.

What Happens During a Discovery Phase?


·      What is your competition doing?

·      What products or services can fast-track us to the solution?

·      What ideas can we borrow from other successful projects?

·      Who is the end user?

·      What are the project goals and objectives?

·      Who are the target audiences?

·      What are your differentiators?

Perform Analysis

We look at data analytics to understand how your members behave online. We will review the current website’s content, messaging, and brand, paying especially close attention to user flow and the use—or lack—of calls-to-action.

This analysis will help better define and understand user groups and current user behavior to develop personas for target audiences. This analysis includes examining pages from multiple technologies (browsers, devices, and screen resolutions).

Develop Wireframes

Wireframing is a quick and easy process for communicating ideas. A wireframe is essentially a rough sketch of the layout of each screen and can be created with pen and paper, online sketching tools, or more dedicated software tools.

Perform User Testing

To help evaluate your solution, nothing beats testing with actual users. Often overlooked, this feedback is invaluable and can help inform the optimal direction for your project. There are a number of ways user testing can take place, including focus groups, surveys, interviews, and guided screen recordings.

Develop a Timeline and Budget

You’ll want to map out a timeline and budget for the first release of the project, so all parties know what can be delivered.

Why Do You Need a Discovery Phase?

First, the project is clearly defined at the outset with expected timelines and costs, which reduces the risk that the budget will be needlessly spent further down the line. Changes made during the development stage can be costly.

Because research is undertaken, the Discovery Phase also highlights and eliminates any incorrect assumptions that stakeholders might have held prior to the process. The project requirements can be validated based on evidence rather than conjecture.

The Discovery Phase is also the perfect opportunity for you to test drive your relationship with your chosen agency. Committing to a full project only to realize that you aren’t a fit for each other could be a disaster, so this phase gives you a chance to review before proceeding full steam ahead.

Make Your Discovery Phase Proportional

The reason a lot of people don’t run Discovery Phases is that they view them as time consuming and expensive. However, a well-run Discovery Phase should be proportional to the overall budget of the project.

If your project has a small budget, then a Discovery Phase could consist of a single meeting with the critical stakeholders. However, if the project is much larger, it is essential to prepare more thoroughly and that can involve weeks’ worth of work.

Include the Whole Team

You are only going to benefit from the expertise of everybody if they all know the background of the project. 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 who swoop into a build halfway through and express dissatisfaction. 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.

Establish Goals and Define Success

One could argue that it is even more critical to a digital project to define its goals and what success looks like than it is to understand the user’s needs, although in truth the two are interlinked.

Without clear goals and definition of success, the project will be rudderless and vulnerable to scope creep. However, most importantly, without clear goals, stakeholders will have no way of assessing whether or not the project has been successful.

Of course, the ultimate way of determining success or otherwise of a project is whether it generates a return on investment. However, what form that return will take can vary and so it is essential to define that upfront. For example, it can cause conflict in a project if one stakeholder is expecting a financial return in the form of more sales or leads, while others are focused on improving the experience or engagement.

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.

The benefits of a Discovery Phase are obvious, and the outlay is a fraction of the overall project budget. However, this additional cost is often the reason stakeholders are averse to committing to a Discovery Phase. But rather than asking how much will it cost, perhaps the real question should be “what is the cost of not performing a Discovery Phase?”

A global team of digerati with offices in Washington, D.C. and Southern California, we provide digital strategy, digital marketing, web design, and creative for brands you know and nonprofits you love.

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