Daniel McKenzie

digital product design


The “discovery phase” is one of the most misconstrued areas of product development and of the designer-client relationship. It is the project phase most often eliminated and yet, so crucially needed for the success of a product or service.

Frustration runs both ways: designers are disappointed when the client doesn’t value the discovery phase. Client’s attitudes of just “seeing what sticks” or “build it and they will come” can seem naive and reckless to designers.

On the other hand, clients may interpret a discovery phase as “busy work”, a “nice-to-have”, “paralysis analysis” or even worse—a means for the designer to squeeze a few more dollars out of their budget! There might also be a feeling that designers are “artists” and their place isn’t in the conference room helping to strategize the best way to build their product or service. Whatever the reason or bias may be, there’s often confusion around what added value, if any, the discovery phase brings to a project.

Think of the discovery phase as laying the foundation for everything that follows: features, page flows, screen details, branding, copy, coding, launch dates, user traffic and ultimately, business success. Designers like to call this phase of product development “discovery” because what they’re doing is finding out what really matters. Most importantly they’re confirming that what matters to the client is in-line with what matters to the client’s users and customers. Through a discovery process designers are able to rule-out certain directions that show potential for failure and help increase chances for building a successful product. A professional designer isn’t just interested in creating something that looks good, but also something that functions well and that resonates with users and customers.

Some fears clients may have are that a discovery phase will take too long, cost too much and will only produce “opinions”. The attitude might be that any discovery phase should be done on the designer’s own watch and that it’s really for their benefit anyway.

While it’s true that a designer will need to spend some time getting up-to-speed with the client’s business, this is not their biggest challenge. More time will be spent understanding what the users’ needs, behaviors and attitudes are. You might be asking, “Can’t Marketing just provide that information?” Marketing can usually provide demographics, brand assets, copy and sometimes even survey results relevant to the project. However, Marketing may not have answers to specific questions around what kind of experience users are looking for. Also, what customers say is not the same as what they do. A discovery process may also include observing users in their own environment to gain more insight into what the user is thinking. Lastly, Marketing is often good at providing qualitative measurements, but not quantitative measurements such as how the user or customer “feels” about a particular feature.

Clients who wish to see product building initiated immediately may be aggravated by any extra time and money spent doing research. However, in the long run doing your homework could save a lot of time, money and maybe even the company’s life. Not only could it save a company from launching a product that nobody cares about, but it could also save a company from wasting resources in the more expensive coding phase of product development where the burn rate goes up. Another thing to keep in mind is that a discovery phase can easily be customized to match your budget and schedule. In this case, a little bit goes a long way and is exponentially better than doing no discovery at all.

The goal of the discovery phase obviously isn’t to share with the client information they already have (although it might help to confirm it). Typical deliverables include a competitive audit, personas, user scenarios, a project plan and a design brief.

A competitive audit is a deliverable that provides the client with information on what the competition or near competition is doing, what users are already accustomed to, and any areas for differentiation. It’s putting a magnifying glass to the competition and might even go so far as conducting usability testing of their products and services in order to find out what their customers like/dislike about them. Competitive audits are typically delivered with three sections with the first including a summary of the findings and recommendations; the second being a summary of each competitor’s site plus screenshots; and a third being a comparison chart which acts as a tally sheet for who has what. The idea is to not only identify what the competition has, but what they don’t have.

Beyond documentation, the discovery phase also is a time to create some great tools to aid the design process going forward. User experience designers find it helpful to use personas, or fictitious characters that personify user scenarios, to unify the product development team around a central vision and give a voice to the user. Personas are only half-made up—that is, they’re based on audience demographics and research. A product or service might have multiple personas each representing a different category of user. Nevertheless, there’s always 1-2 primary personas. Personas help the product team focus on who really matters versus trying to satisfy everyone. The persona’s demographics, needs, behaviors and attitudes are laid out on a single sheet of paper and taped to the wall for quick reference. It’s not uncommon for team members to challenge each other by asking what a particular persona would do in a given situation.

Lastly, a discovery process gives the designer time to gather technical specifications, prioritize and rate features, create schedules and summarize everything in a design brief—all which is important for demonstrating there’s a process, rallying the troops and making sure the design or build doesn’t go sideways.

Of course, there may be times when a discovery phase needs to be augmented with usability testing or another form of direct observation such as a day-in-the-life study. A new product or service always warrants a thorough discovery phase. If anything, it’s used to reduce the risk of designing and building something that nobody cares about. A discovery phase is also appropriate for re-designs, as the competition has mostly likely changed as well as the attitudes of users. What better time to make sure you understand your users and make any changes than when re-designing your product.

In summary the discovery phase helps to:

  • Reduce risk
  • Unify the product team under a central vision
  • Provide context for the product team
  • Advocate users’ needs, behaviors and attitudes
  • Know the competition at a granular level
  • Justify decisions
  • Discover something the user or customer didn’t know they needed/wanted

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Design Thinking 101



  1. 1 David Gómez-Rosado

    Good analysis Daniel. I plan to link to your post in the future when justifying a discovery phase to clients (be them external or internal). One tip I would recommend to designers is to simply use the language of corpoeate enterprise: While “Discovery Meeting” may sound too touchy-feely or even frivolous to a business client, a “Planning” or “Kick-Off” meeting would sound more familiar, more aligned to their internal processes, and more results-oriented in their way of thinking. 

    Also, as an additional benefit for the “discovery phase” in your final bulleted summary, I would add “An opportunity for the designer to think from a client’s point of view. To become part of the internal mindset and understand the goals as one of the family”… They like that :-)

  2. 2 Chris Burd

    Consider calling it “business analysis”, if that’s a term that means something to them. Effectively, it is like the business-analysis function in software design, and has the same aim: to reduce the likelihood of underperformance due to an insufficient understanding of client needs.

  3. 3 Jeremy Dixon

    I agree with David’s comment. Just calling it something that fits the corporate vernacular will go a long way…I might suggest, “Strategic Planning” session as another phrasing

  4. 4 Brad

    Blog post does not show in IE7 PC.

  5. 5 Angela

    Good idea Chris. Most clients are business professionals, and they can relate to terms that sound more related to what they do in business. Saying “Discovery” may sound vague to them, but calling it a “Business Analysis” might more accurately describe it in their terms.

  6. 6 David

    Every project I’ve worked on with a discovery phase turned out to be a complete success. But I can’t say the same about every project that didn’t. This may be a result of budgets and/or mature clients (affording the luxury of this phase). But I still think it’s an interesting observation.

  7. 7 Justin

    Great article, I think I will pass this onto my general manager at our studio as well. I find I do this naturally when putting together a proposal for a prospective client, but it can be dismissed as much by management within the design studio as with the client (usually on the basis of cost). It has been the downfall of many projects that this phase is neglected which then generates extra development costs later on when the client asks for usability features etc, that could have been planned for in the first place…

  8. 8 mikeo

    we are going through a re-design and the discovery phase, or whatever you want to call it, is above all the most important aspect. first it gets the ball rolling and secondly the designer can get a feel for how the final product should look like and operate. skipping this step and the rest of the project is going to be hitting a moving target.

  9. 9 Naomi Synstelien

    Great article and follow comments!

  10. 10 Dillon S

    A good way for new designers to have room for the discovery phase without frustrating the client is to charge flat. As a new commercial designer I find this time crucial to create a polished finished product, but I do not want to frustrate or risk loosing my first clients as they are crucial to my portfolio, and will assist me in getting future work.

    Another good tip for new designers is find open minded clients, even if it means making less money. My first small business project I took for free because my client allowed me the space to grow into the project, and made and in the long term I created a good reference & added on to my portfolio.

  11. 11 Barbara Bix

    Agreed! The more we know about users the better. Deep insights into prospects’ and customers’ buying behavior helps design better products, develop better messaging, and as you point out easier to use interfaces. Too often, we spend too much time “talking” and not enough time listening to those we need to persuade. Imagine if we first knew their most pressing concerns and how they preferred to do business. Makes you wonder why such a small portion of the B2B budget is devoted to marketing research…

  12. 12 Dan McKenzie

    Thanks everybody for the feedback and great comments!

  1. 1 Tito Soto – Advanced Computer Applications Journal » Deciding Between In-House, Design Agency or Freelancer
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