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Why Discovery could be the most crucial stage of your project

Photograph of James Norton

James Norton

UX Designer

As a UX Designer at Ten4, I get to work at the very beginnings of the project lifecycle. Starting with research and discovery, and taking this through to prototyping, and design. This insight into the early stages of projects has shown me the clear benefits of a detailed discovery phase. And I’ve seen what can happen when it’s missed.

A large part of discovery is to provide a clear purpose and direction to the project and to the team. It’s also about finding the hurdles and pitfalls that might take the project off course, dampen efficiency or cause your website to depreciate faster.

Discovery helps you think long term and ensure you build in, rather than bolt-on...

Train at the platform edge with doors open and wheelchair access bridging the gap to the platform.

A great example of wheelchair access built-in to the Heathrow Express. It's definitely not an afterthought. Image © WheelchairTravel.org

There is always an element of discovery in our work, however small. With the right project, though, and the right budget we can really go to town. We’ve found that undoubtedly, more engagement in this stage results in a smoother process and better product. But why is that?

You cannot design alone (or by committee)

Not designing alone is a philosophy that rings out across the industry. “Alone”, however, doesn’t mean completing every design task in isolation – as a small team we often work independently. You cannot design alone is a mantra to ensure collaboration at key milestones. It’s often when we share ideas and feedback internally that a project makes the most progress. The same goes for client meetings and updates. Snippets of insight from those who know their organisation and users most, often prove vital.

A dedicated discovery project cultivates and harnesses those snippets of insight. Another key factor is, without discovery, and working with large teams, it can be easy to regress into design-by-committee. This brings its own set of problems. Discovery can act as an impartial voice of reason, to anchor the project against well-intentioned but ill-conceived ideas. It’s hard to argue with findings drawn from user research, stakeholder interviews, competitive analysis and so on.

Using data and insight to avoid guesswork

Like not designing alone, there are countless examples of why you should make decisions based on research and data over instincts and guesswork. Discovery can help find evidence to support or challenge your assumptions.

Using research we can gain a better understanding of users and the core objectives of the project. Insights defined at the start can reduce uncertainty and refine focus. Discovery is also an opportunity to get a grip on competitors and explore what functionality is worth investing in (or ignoring). Having the chance to diverge, explore, and test ideas early on can uncover long term, compelling solutions.

We’re humble enough to know that our best judgment is no match for real data

Our experience has taught us a lot. But we’re humble enough to know that our best judgment is no match for real data. To create exceptional websites that go beyond the competition and push boundaries, the solution must be bespoke, precisely targeted and founded on evidence.

Defining your goals to help you meet them

Defining your goals is a key outcome of discovery. It’s why this phase provides greater efficiency to the rest of the project. But what about the goals for discovery itself? We’re trying to reach a state of clarity, and it starts by asking the question, “what are we trying to achieve?”.

Our aim could be to define user groups for more targeted user experience, analyse existing content to make it work harder, or to better understand a company’s unique position to help it stand out.

With an aim in mind, we can tailor the most effective activities to carry out. Then we roll up our sleeves for the fun part.

Here are some of our favourite discovery activities...

User Stories and Job Stories

You may be familiar with User Stories. It’s a writing activity that helps build empathy with potential users:

Image of handwriting reading: “As a customer, I want to buy tickets online, So that I can see my fave band live"

As a __________ I want __________ So I can __________

These are useful statements that help identify different types of users and their motivations. You may find yourself writing the same opener over and over, “As a customer…”. In that case, it may be more appropriate to use Job Stories...

Job Stories are an evolution of User Stories that focus on functionality and information. They reframe the format as "When I...":

Handwritten image reading “When I click BOOK NOW, I want my seat selection and other preferences remembered, so I can check out faster next time.”

When I __________ I want __________ So I can __________

By using Job Stories we can focus on more in-depth functionality. This is because we either know the motivations of the audience already or are agnostic about who they might be (a lot of time the information you give will be the same, no matter who you’re talking to). In the example above, the users are customers of Saffron Hall. Research showed they tend to be repeat customers and many of them like to sit in the same place each time.

Combined, these two types of story writing are a quick method to define users and their overarching goals, and explore functionality or find opportunities to help them.

Five people taking part in a website discovery session. Multiple post-it notes are stuck to the wall ready for assessment.

A discovery session in full swing — get the ideas up on the wall and organise them later

User Personas

Another exercise which can help build empathy is creating User Personas. Once we have insight on key audiences, personas can help the team visualise specific users. It’s important for us as designers to see problems through the eyes of others, and for our clients to do the same. Giving an imagined user a name, a job and listing their motivations and concerns can help us see problems and solutions from their point of view. While there is a make-believe element to it, we can use real data and insights from interviews, focus groups, or even simple surveys to build representative individual personas that accurately reflect the needs of many.

To use personas effectively, we refine and present them in a clear and relatable way. Placing goals, frustrations, and motivations all on one page, and giving the person name, photograph and other demographic information can bring the persona to life.

These personas then serve as a lens to look through during other activities and stages of the project.

Dot Voting

Dot voting is a simple method to pinpoint and prioritise where we should focus our efforts. It can be done by the design team, the client’s working group, a group of representative users or a combination of any of these. The idea is to allow each person to vote on what they feel is most important, worthy of time, or of highest priority. These votes can be cast on pretty much anything: job/user stories, sketches, storyboards, features and functions and so on. Anywhere you’re generating ideas as a group, dot voting can help define which are the most important.

It’s simple to carry out with dot stickers or coloured pens (virtual equivalents also work fine). Give each person in the group a set amount of votes. Depending on the size of the group and number of ideas, you can adjust the number of votes to get a better spread. Stick all of your ideas on a wall, or spread them out on a large desk, or on the floor. Then each person votes for what they think is important. Now tally the results for a prioritised list. It’s as simple as that.

Or rather, it can be...

We know that hierarchy can confuse things, and occasionally the largest stakeholder will want to call the shots. In this scenario, give the boss a different colour dot and have them vote last. Their vote carries more weight and is likely what you will end up focusing on, but at the very least they will see if they are out of step with the majority. And you still produce a clear ladder of priorities to keep in mind. This method encourages an element of diplomacy and democracy in decision making, ensuring all voices are heard.

Women assess user stories on post-it notes pasted to a glass wall

Dot voting ensures that ideas are assessed and prioritised democratically

Crazy 8’s

Crazy 8’s are one of Google’s design sprint ideation tools. This activity can help to generate lots of ideas fast. You take a sheet of A4 paper and fold it in half three times to create eight small pages. Then take a problem or an idea and sketch eight solutions in eight minutes. That’s it. The key is not holding on tightly to each idea. Once each minute is up, go to the next page, and keep that pen moving.

This can be a lot of fun and makes you challenge your initial thoughts, which can often be least innovative. There is a slight barrier to those who claim “I can’t draw!”, but the beauty is in the roughness. When reflecting and feeding back your ideas and process to the team you can explain your thinking. It’s important to create an open environment and not bash any ideas at this stage. After you’ve all presented, you can use dot voting and see where the best ideas are.

A woman sits at a busy desk and sketches ideas for website layouts

It doesn't matter if you think you can't draw, just keep that pen moving!

Content audit

Last but not least, a content audit. Over time we have become quite nifty at carrying these out. We've found that, particularly where masses of prior content exists, an audit can be a useful activity and help decide what to keep, rewrite, or remove.

We use crawling software to automatically examine and index an existing site to get an overall picture of its content. We can also append Google Analytics data to the crawl. This extra step gives us data on what pages and sections are engaging visitors most, and what might need a rethink. The insight from a content audit can be a powerful tool for later decisions, particularly around structure and future content production. Often something has to give when redesigning an existing website. Seeing the evidence that tells you where no one is looking can help make your new website leaner, easier to manage and more useful in future.

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Photograph of Dave Adcock

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