By Seth Friedman, Senior UX Designer & Product Lead

Every product starts with an idea, but making a great product is about so much more than a great idea. You often have to take a lot of your initial assumptions and throw them out the window. This can be scary for some people, but it is an essential part of building a successful product. It can be not only valuable but really fun!

“Discovery” is the term we use to refer to a variety of tasks that assist in validating product ideas ad before starting formal design and development. By workshopping the product concept during discovery, we can collectively formalize a product strategy before moving forward with costly development, 

This enables us to remove risky assumptions and generate a plan to deliver on-time and on-budget. This is often the most crucial step in the journey to launch. It is where we do the detective work of validating the initial concept, in hopes of achieving an “Aha!” moment that confirms that the idea has value to users and the potential to make buckets of money.

Moving Beyond “Trust Me”

I’ve often found that a substantial portion of stakeholders look at the discovery phase as a waste of time. I’ve often heard a variation of this;

“Why go through this to verify something that I KNOW is true? I understand the business landscape, I came up with the idea, I’ve been told that this is a good idea by some other smart people, so trust me.”

The “trust me” approach is often seen as a way to be innovative and disruptive by spending less money up-front on discovery by going straight to design. In some cases they are right, but “trust me” is not a realistic approach when so time and money is at stake.

While there is an argument to be made for trying something out quickly and learning from failures, it has been shown, time and time again, that the insights uncovered during discovery can change the entire direction of a product concept for the better, and avoid a risky long shot.

This is the crucial stuff that lays the groundwork for everything that comes after, and without question, even the most well-informed founder should subject their concept to a rigorous discovery phase.

The UX Discovery Process Demystified

As we begin discovery, our overarching goal is to achieve a vision of the product that strikes the right balance of verified business objectives, clarity on tech constraints, and proven value for the end user. By validating the initial assumptions through discovery tasks such as analysis, research, and prototyping, we establish a solid foundation for the success of the product.

A persistent myth is that discovery has to be an expensive excuse to “waste time for a few weeks doing research.” There’s a perception in the tech industry (often by those who are new to it) that unless we are producing design artifacts (wireframes, icons, etc.) or developing something, it’s a waste of time and money.

The truth is that skipping the discovery phase is what injects risks into the process. Smart design strategies that include a discovery phase are the best antidote to false assumptions, time lost, and money wasted on creating a product that is primed to launch into a market that’s a poor fit.

Discovery can be scaled to any level, but whether it takes two months or five days, it should account for the following essential five steps.

  1. Identify Users
  2. Outline Requirements
  3. Vet Development Time
  4. Establish Scalability Factors
  5. Attain Consensus

1. Identify Users

The first step is validating that you do, in fact, have actual flesh and blood human beings out there that will care about your product and will use it. The best way to do this is to conduct interviews with a minimum of 5-7 users within the identified target demographic (i.e., professional women, aged 35-50”) or a use case (users who want to order food to pick-up).

Various tasks such as interviews, surveys, or even testing a paper prototype will help identify findings such as the type of value that users seek, similar products that they currently use, and opportunities to expand or pivot on those products; and even just plainly, “what do they think of the idea?”

By doing this, and empathizing with users, we can gain the most valuable insights into how to create a product that they will adopt, use often, and love.

While stakeholders may not have the ability to work with users face-to-face, they should, at a minimum, work with user experience professionals. UX professionals can use their experience to help define the target user, identify goals and pain points, and map out the user flow (how the user will move through the experience of using the product.)

As the user proceeds through each step of the experience, we can extrapolate what they will do and what they are thinking and feeling as they do it. This enables the team to create a consensus of how the user will interact with the product, which will then guide the work that is done throughout the design and development phases to follow.

Working with UX professionals to flesh out these details and document them will lead to not only a better understanding of areas of weakness but also generate new ideas about features and how to maximize the appeal to the end users.

2. Outline Requirements

Once you confirm that there are people who will want to use your product and you understand how to meet their needs best, it’s time to take a deeper dive into verifying the underlying business logic and detailing the features and functionality (F&F) for launch to ensure that only the most essential parts are included.

It’s common knowledge within the tech industry that almost any product, no matter how simple it seems at first, will have more complexity that will be uncovered once the concept has been scrutinized by experienced professionals.

These insights are attained by participating in working sessions with stakeholders and building on user research insights to assemble a list of product features and functionality. This document will become the “bible” for the product concept as it evolves.

Once the F&F list has been drafted, it should be discussed and amended by the entire team until a consensus is reached and the most crucial items to include in the minimum viable product (MVP) are defined. It seems like a simple thing at first, but scrutinizing these requirements, pruning features, and trimming waste will ensure that nothing is designed or developed that may not be necessary.

The result can be an actual, clickable prototype, based on the agreed-upon features & functionality set, and created with as little effort as possible, to test with real people. This is hands down, the best and cheapest way to validate a business concept.

Nothing else, whether previous data or knowledge based on experience in the industry, will provide the same level of validation of a concept as watching real people use a product based on your idea. 

A competitive analysis can also be a part of this phase, as now that we have a clear picture of exactly what features will make-up the initial product, we can see who else has figured out this problem, and learn from their experiences so as not to reinvent the wheel.

3. Vet Development Time

Now that we have an F&F list, an analysis by developers will provide estimates on the amount of time and effort that is needed to develop each feature. This will further enable stakeholders to make decisions on what parts are necessary to create the MVP version for the least amount of money.

In this step of discovery, the stakeholders are empowered by the developer’s estimates to discuss with the team what features to keep and what features can be backlogged for future iterations. We want to ensure that a feature is truly needed by users, and not just a “nice-to-have” so that it will not be disruptive to the development process.

An amazing feature may take three times the development time, (with the corresponding price tag) but through a combination of research, development insight, and planning the right features can be identified before jumping into things.

Features and functionality can also be “horse-traded” via developer’s time and effort evaluations, to remove and add items and ensure that the essential features match up with time and budget restrictions.

4. Establish Scalability Factors

The digital world is continuously evolving, and while you can’t plan for things that you can’t predict, it is important to do enough research to establish a concept for how the product will scale over time.

This is the step where we rocket into the future, through research, data, and imagination to sketch out the rough parameters of how users will engage with the product in the next two, five, and even ten years.

Obviously, we cannot know what tech changes or new usage paradigms will disrupt careful planning, and maybe the goal is to make quick money and then just go obsolete, but every concept should involve some degree of future thinking and scalability planning.

There’s no need to spend too much time on this, but it does play an important role in ensuring that the future planning is being done to validate the investment of stakeholders over time.

Every product should have a roadmap, which is a tech-industry term for the predicted life of the product as it evolves to fit the needs of an always-shifting user base. This is our chance to, at least sketch out a concept for that roadmap, so we have some visibility before the launch of what’s next.

5. Attain Consensus

The last and most crucial step of discovery is gathering consensus. It is incredibly important that all stakeholders have the same understanding of the opportunities and risks in creating this product. One of the most vital, and frankly underrated factors for product success is a well-aligned team that has an agreed-upon path which is supported from the top down.

I’ve seen too many projects get scuttled by differences of opinion that are swept under the rug to protect feelings and soften political rivalries. It is better to argue it out early and get all thoughts and concerns voiced, assisted by professionals to guide the discussion, rather than charging forward with a divided team and a shaky foundation.

If stakeholders have conducted discovery work with an external team or agency that they intend to work with for design and development, then this step is about gaining consensus together, so that everyone is clear on the specifics before the start of work, and to eliminate misunderstandings and conflicts down the line.

Moving Forward

Once discovery is complete, whether, by an external vendor or an internal team, it’s helpful to assemble all the findings into some form of a report, which can not only outline all of the insights that were harvested but also point the way forward with strategic recommendations.

It is extremely rare to conduct a robust discovery phase that does not produce valuable results. Even speaking with a few users will often yield crucial clarity on the proper direction to achieve the goals.

Agencies like Dom & Tom have extensive experience running discovery engagements that can last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months and we are uniquely positioned to uncover insights that will enable teams to build better products and mitigate against significant risks that can derail development.

Stakeholders should never hesitate to contact an agency such as Dom & Tom to speak with experts and explore engagement options for any level of discovery to help create the best products.

To learn more about Dom & Tom and the discovery engagement options we offer, contact us today.

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