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Start your next digital project with a paid discovery phase

Anyone who has taken on a digital project before knows that, even with the best intentions, things can often go awry. Initial excitement slowly fades during the project and the final result can be underwhelming. Wires got crossed somewhere and the final delivery is not quote what you imagined.

Mat Hayward

Article by Mat Hayward

Perhaps, when you launch, results are positive, but nowhere near what you expected or hoped for. Maybe your users aren’t as delighted as you’d like them to be. Maybe they complain or go elsewhere.

So where might things have gone wrong? And why is this a far too familiar story in the digital industry?

The simple answer is, because we don’t spend long enough on discovery. The rush to meet deadlines, means this important part of the process is often squeezed or even skipped entirely.

What 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 the needs of your users, your organisations strategic objectives, the competitive landscape and any constraints/​considerations that should be taken into account during the project.

The aim is to develop a high-level understanding 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.

Benefits of a discovery phase

Achieve better results from your project

A discovery phase will help you understand what is most important to your organisation and the success of your project.

That knowledge, in turn, will help your chosen delivery partner to understand which deliverables to concentrate their efforts and your budget on. Meaning, everything that is delivered is working towards your strategic goals. And you haven’t wasted time and budget on superfluous components or activities that add little to no value.

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 breakpoint at which you can finish on amicable terms, rather than having to complete the build phase with a partner who you know not to be the best choice for the job.

As a minimum, by the end of the process, you’ll be better equipped to create a well-researched brief with an appropriate budget. And you’ll know what you are, and are not, looking for in a digital delivery partner.

Evaluate technology options before committing

Choosing the technology platform for your project ought to be a strategic decision, based on the best fit for your objectives, but too often this is a decision taken by your chosen digital partner, using the platform they use for everything, or the one you already have in place.

During a discovery phase, you can explore technology options with an informed and impartial partner, and make a choice that brings the most value to your organisation.

Get more accurate pricing

Estimating digital projects is difficult, really difficult.

Clients quite reasonably want clarity when it comes to pricing, while digital agencies can be reluctant to commit to a price without developing a fuller understanding of scope than can be acquired from a typical brief or pre-contract discussions.

Without a discovery phase, your digital partner will either price higher than needed (to protect themselves), or too low (due to a lack of in-depth understanding). This regularly leads to awkward mid-project discussions about budget vs scope. And frustration on both sides.

Bringing together your expert knowledge of your organisation and sector with your digital partner’s broad perspective allows for much more accurate estimating as well as early conversations about what’s possible and practical with the resources available.

Have a hand in the research you’re paying for

During the tendering process, if a client opts to forego paying for discovery, agencies will often 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 way, you end up paying for research that is nowhere near as accurate as if it were conducted together, as the agency only has limited access to your organisation and data when the research is carried out.

When you choose to pay for the discovery phase, you avoid the cost of this wasted effort and gain higher quality insight.

Discovery should be collaborative

Nobody knows your organisation and its audiences better than you do, so it may seem wasteful to pay someone else to tell you what you already know.

Unfortunately, when it comes to planning a user-facing project like a new website, your deep understanding of your own organisation is both your best weapon and your biggest blind spot. 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.

What to expect from the discovery process

Activities

A discovery phase consists of a range of activities that together build up a full picture of the context for your project. These could include:

Refining your goals & objectives

This is the key to making sure the project delivers on your investment. Your digital partner will work with you to examine where the project fits into your broader strategy, understand your proposed budget & timescales and review your sector landscape.

Using that analysis you can then define objectives for the project that are both achievable and which provide maximum value. You then devise reliable ways to measure that those goals have been met.

Conducting a competitor audit

Research to define the strategies, market share, offering, strengths and weaknesses of your direct and indirect competitors.

Reviewing your existing digital data

The best decisions are validated by data. We tend to use a mixture of analytics data, sales funnel data, user testing and benchmarking to uncover opportunities and pain points.

If you don’t have such data available, one of the first tasks should be to start gathering it during the discovery phase itself.

Assessing user needs

Documenting what your users need, want and expect when using your website, be they your customers or your internal teams. These needs form the core of a description of what your project must do well for the people who will actually use it day‑to‑day.

At Kind, we use a variety of techniques to do this, including:

  • Stakeholder interviews
  • Workshops & focus groups
  • Moderated and unmoderated user testing
  • Task analysis

Conducting an audit of existing content for suitability

Content is frequently neglected on digital projects, but is vital to a successful outcome. No doubt, you already have content, but is it up-to-date? does it follow your tone of voice guidelines? does the imagery fit your brand? is it suitable to be used on all devices?

Performing due diligence on technology options

You and your digital partner will likely consider not only what the best technology solution is, but also how it will be maintained and the predicted total cost of ownership.

Deliverables

Towards the end of a discovery phase, we will have amounted a wealth of research and raw data but, the main deliverables of a proper discovery phase should be an executive summary of key insights, along with a more extensive report that can become the foundation of informed specialist briefs for the delivery of the project. That report should include:

  • A statement of the goals for the project, and how they serve the business’s objectives
  • An informed description of the target audience(s)
  • A list of the actions and behaviours we want users to engage in
  • An audit of existing content & brand assets
  • An initial estimate of the time and resources that will be required to deliver the project

While a well run discovery phase doesn’t guarantee project success, it provides a massive head start towards ensuring that you’re building the right thing, in the right way, for the right reasons. You’ll also know if you have the correct resources in place to make that vision a reality, as well as the tools to advocate for more if you don’t.

Finally, having worked closely with your chosen digital partner during discovery, you’ll have seen how they work first-hand and be able to decide if they’re the right team to proceed further with.

Should you decide not to, the deliverables from the discovery phase will provide you with everything you need to select, brief and appoint another partner and for them to provide accurate estimates of time and cost.

Mat Hayward

Mat Hayward is Founder and Partnerships Director at Kind