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Start your next digital project with a paid discovery phase

Great news! You’ve finally secured funding for that digital project you’ve been advocating for since forever ago. Perhaps it’s a new campaign, or even a complete revamp of your online presence. You appoint a digital partner, get designing / building and head off to take the world by storm.

Tom Davies

Article by Tom Davies

A familiar story?

At the start things seem great: things are happening, progress is being made, designs are being designed, code is being coded, Basecamps are being erm… Basecamped. Everything feels like it’s coming together. It’s exciting! The world is new again and full of possibility.

This. Is. Going. To. Be. Awesome.

But as the project plays out, all too often that feeling fades. Features are not quite what you imagined they would be once you see them in action, wires get crossed and budgets and relationships become strained. But you keep going, and at last the project launches, and… business results aren’t as positive as expected, or perhaps your users are less than delighted and drift towards the competition instead.

Where did things go awry? It seemed as if you did everything right: you had a great team, a fantastic idea and solid budget, and yet… while the project didn’t fail, it hasn’t met your expectations, or perhaps more importantly, those of your boss.

What if there was a way to avoid those missed opportunities? To provide better outcomes and increased business value, while at the same time reducing the risk of both cost overruns or even (gasp) project failure?

Well there is, but in the rush to meet deadlines it is frequently squeezed or skipped entirely.

What you’re missing out is a discovery phase.

Simply put a discovery phase is a period of collaborative research and analysis before the build phase of a project that explores:

  • What are the needs of your users?
  • How are those needs currently met by you or your competition?
  • How are those solutions currently performing?
  • What constraints (technical or otherwise) are there on what you’re doing?

The aim is to develop a high-level understanding of what your user needs, what the existing landscape looks like and a sense of the direction your project will head in, as well as what skills, assets and tools you or your partners will need in order to succeed.

Why you should do all this with a digital partner, rather than before appointing one

You know your business and your users, right? You don’t need to pay someone else to tell you what you already know. Heck you probably did all this for your last project and it still didn’t work out. Well, here’s the thing: when it comes to planning a user-facing project like a new website, your deep understanding of your own business is both your best weapon and your biggest blind spot.

From your position at the center of things it can be extremely difficult to set to one side what you know about your company or product, and instead view your organisation from the outside, as your customers perceive it. That user-centred perspective is critical to all aspects of project success, from creating an information architecture that your users can move through intuitively, to setting the right tone of voice for your content.

A discovery phase is all about eliminating hunches and subjective views in favour of data and thorough research. By running discovery with a digital partner, you’ll bring together your expertise with their wider perspective and UX thinking. That leads to the creation of a clear, shared understanding of both your objectives and your customers.

The benefits of a paid discovery phase

You’re already paying for research, so it might as well be good

Here’s a dirty little secret about the tendering process: where a client opts to forego paid discovery, agencies will commonly still conduct pre-contract research (in order to win the work) but they then factor in the cost of the work already done into their proposal.

This means you end up paying for research that is nowhere near as accurate as if it were conducted after the start of the engagement, as the agency has only limited access to your organisation and data when the research is done.

When the client chooses to pay for the discovery phase, both sides avoid the cost of this wasted effort and gain higher quality insight.

Reduce the risk of working with a new digital partner

A discovery phase is a great way to try out a new digital partner and see if you’re a good fit for one another, while keeping the commitment level low.

You’ll get to see how they work and communicate across a wide range of tasks: are they as collaborative and responsive as they promised to be? Do they show the level of strategic insight you need?

At the end of discovery, if the relationship has gone well you can proceed with confidence. If not, you have a natural break point at which you can finish on amicable terms, rather than having to complete the build phase with a partner who you may know by now not to be the best choice for the job.

If you do decide to open the project design and build to tender, you’ll be better equipped to create well researched briefs with appropriate budgets, which in turn will lead to better proposals from potential delivery partners.

Evaluate technology options before committing to a build.

Choosing the technology platform for your project ought to be a strategic decision, based on the best fit for your objectives.

Without a proper discovery phase, this too often becomes a decision taken by default, and your solution gets built with the platform your chosen provider uses for everything, or the one you already have in place.

During a discovery phase you can explore technology options with an informed partner who need not push one solution over another, and make an informed choice based on business value.

Get more accurate pricing

The thorny truth is that accurately estimating digital projects is difficult, really difficult. Clients quite reasonably want clarity when it comes to pricing, while digital agencies can be reluctant to committing to a price without developing a fuller understanding of scope than can be acquired from a typical brief or pre-contract discussions.

All too often, without a discovery phase your agency will either price higher than needed (in order to protect themselves from overruns), or too low (due to a lack of in-depth understanding) leading to awkward discussions mid-project where either key features have to be cut or more budget found.

A well run discovery phase brings together your expert knowledge of your business or sector with your agency’s broad perspective, to create a clear, shared understanding of your objectives. That permits both accurate estimating as well as early conversations about what’s possible and practical with the resources available.

A paid discovery phase leads to better project outcomes

Though you might think you know what you need from a project at the outset, the odds are you don’t, and nor can you without further research and dialogue. A discovery phase enables you to benefit from your digital partner’s thinking & experience early on in a project’s life when there’s still time to make best use of it.

While an agile or other iterative process allows you to adjust your project’s direction as you build, that alone won’t help if you’re building something no one will want, you’ve chosen the wrong partner to deliver the project, or your current resources won’t stretch to building what your users expect.

By completing a discovery phase with an expert partner, you can avoid your project falling prey to any of these all too common pitfalls.

Next time, in part 2, we’ll take a look at the activities that a well run discovery phase consist of, and what the deliverables and outcomes look like.

Tom Davies

Tom Davies is Technical Consultant at Kind