Project Discovery Phase – What Is It? Why Do You Need It?

Project Discovery is a 5-step process aimed to prevent you from missed deadlines, bloated budget, and endless scope creep. It's a first and crucial step in your way to build software that actually fits the strategy of your business. Since you can't afford to skip this crucial step, read on to learn more about the process, its benefits and deliverables.

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April 20, 2021

TL;DR

Project Discovery Phase in a nutshell

What is a discovery phase in a project?

A discovery phase is a planning stage during project initiation, when team members gather information about the project, set up budget and form precise project boundaries. The goal of a discovery phase is to be able to make data-driven decisions and reduce all risks connected to product development.

Why do your need it?

A well-executed discovery phase leads to building a product that fulfils its purpose successfully. It allows for a development process to become aligned with business strategy and prevent pitfalls like budget overruns, missed deadlines, compromised quality, or scope creep.

What are the steps in discovery phase?

Project discovery stage can be divided into 5 steps:

  1. Defining business goals.
  2. Identifying how to measure the success.
  3. Conducting user research.
  4. Identifying customer journey.
  5. Investigating the competition.

Introduction

Let’s start with a few facts.

According to the MicKinsey research conducted in collaboration with the Oxford Industry:

on average, large IT projects run 45% over budget and 7% over time while delivering 56% less value than predicted.

How to prevent that?

The answer is: by focusing on the project discovery phase during the initial stage of product development.

Project discovery – what is it?

What is a discovery phase of a project?

Project discovery is a process of gathering information about a project to help people involved understand its vision, goals, and scope.

Usually, the process involves a number of experts including developers, business analysts, UX/UI designers. However in the perfect scenario, the whole team is involved from the start. This ensures better performance, elevates understanding of the scope, and fosters stronger individual commitment.

Project discovery stage is a groundwork for a data-driven approach during planning and executing software development.

The goal of a discovery phase

Depiction of project discovery objectives.

The knowledge gained during such research enables participants to create a tailored action plan to deliver the highest business value and achieve the key objectives of the project.

The main goal is to dispel any doubts and prove assumptions about a product.

Project discovery allows the team to identify the needs of the client, users, and stakeholders, as well as define the strong and weak points of the system or app. The more information are gathered during the discovery phase – the better.

<span class="colorbox1" fs-test-element="box1"><p>Discovery phase is also aimed to help eliminate uncertainties and reduce the overall risk of the project. </p></span>

Discovery stage helps to prepare a reliable scope for the project, set business and technical requirements, prepare project timeline and its documentation (software requirements specification), which then serve as guidance for software development team.

What does discovery mean in project management?

Since project discovery is the initial phase of product development, it allows gathering the information necessary for a project’s success before the process of software development project starts. This phase of a project allows for a wise management of development budget, time, energy, and talent. After discovery, the design and development process kicks off.

Project discovery – why do you need it before the development process starts?

Why is the project discovery phase important?

Imagine that you’re a stakeholder looking for someone to build an app for you. You have a good idea of what your app should look like and what it should do.

The deadline is tight and it seems you can’t afford a product discovery, so you hand a specification over to the software house and set the deadline and budget. Your contractor accepts the terms without additional questions and you’re going to receive your finished product in the next few months.

Those few months pass quickly and your app is finally done. All features are in place and working. The quality is great. It’s time to launch your project and wait for the first visitors.

After another couple of months go by, you look at the statistics and analytics and it seems that your visitors aren’t enjoying your perfectly crafted app as much as you expected. The conversion of your service is far from desirable. You spent your whole budget on an app that doesn’t return the investment and you have no money to develop it further as it doesn’t lead to many sales.

Something went wrong.

The key to success is understanding

Just because the project is built on time and within the budget does not mean it will succeed.

There are many other factors involved. Even the highest quality app made perfectly according to the specification won’t guarantee success when it’s not backed by proper knowledge and understanding.

There are many decisions that need to be made during software development, starting with the design of the user interface components and ending with the backend structure. A team of experienced digital product development specialists could serve you with loads of advice and suggestions for solutions you could never think of that could help build an app that is more user-friendly, faster and cheaper.

That isn’t possible if the team doesn’t understand the business vision of a project as well as its users.

The first step to make viable tech decisions

To make an efficient decision regarding technology, you need to understand business context well. IT and business matters shouldn’t go separately. To build a successful product, you need to break the boundaries between those both worlds.

Product discovery phase is a first step to build full understanding of business context and shared know-how between business, technology, and operations.

Benefits of a discovery phase in software development projects

Depiction of project discovery benefits.

There are several benefits of the discovery phase. It allows you and the whole team to:

  • make data-driven decisions instead of following assumptions,
  • work out the best user experience possible,
  • ensure that you and your vendor are on the same side before the phase of design and development begins,
  • discover the best tech and business solutions,
  • align business goals and strategy with technology stack and technological solutions,
  • gain an in depth understanding of a project, its target audience and the business goals
  • set the project timeline and establish core features
  • establish core user needs and provide best solutions for them,
  • gather user feedback from the target audience and real end users,
  • build and interactive prototype of an application.

Project discovery phase – why is it often neglected?

There are many reasons that companies give when refusing project discovery. Sometimes it’s a matter of a tight deadline, sometimes there’s a small budget, and some people think that project discovery is a luxury service and that it isn’t necessary to conduct it in every single project. In some cases, companies are sure they know enough and that it’s a waste of resources.

Possible consequences of skipping the project discovery phase

Neglecting the discovery phase can result in:

  • Scope creep – it happens because of the lack of measurable expected results which results in extensions and delayed release.
  • Climbing costs – improper budget planning and vague requirements generate changes increase costs.
  • Missed deadlines – not setting specific milestones results in missing deadlines, and no project boundaries with stretching timeline.
  • Compromised quality – not setting proper goals and constant changes because of that are the cause of rush and lower quality of software.
  • Not meeting your expectations – the lack of clear vision or clear understanding by the development team may result in building a product that won’t live up to your expectations.

Will skipping project discovery save you time and money?

Project discovery is a great chance for the development team not only to understand what should be delivered but also why it should be delivered. This one process helps to merge clients goals and business plan with users needs and wants with the know-how of a software development team.

Even though some may think they do not have time, budget or need for a discovery process, the example described earlier shows how much a project has to lose when overlooking this step.

You may think you save money by jumping right into development but without proper knowledge and when basing decisions on the assumptions many choices may turn out to be costly failures that need to be corrected anyway.

The same happens when the discovery phase is neglected to save time. There will be many decisions that need to be made that have a huge impact on the project. When made quickly without preparation, they may become the project’s future “to be or not to be”.

What are the steps in project discovery phase?

Project discovery phase starts with securing a budget for the process. Then it’s time to identify stakeholders and a person responsible for organizing and leading workshops.

Forming a project discovery team

Depiction of project discovery roles.

The discovery team should include various roles with diverse specialties and ranges of interest.

  • Project manager – conducts workshops and is responsible for contact between the team and you as a client.
  • Business analyst – prepares the requirements for the project.
  • UX designer – prepares prototype and wireframes, analyze the user journey to prepare user experience matched with the user’s needs.
  • Developer/technical expert – chooses the most viable tech solutions suited to solve your product’s business challenges and prepare technical requirements.

Project discovery – 5 steps

Depiction of project discovery process.

An example project discovery may be divided into 5 steps:

  1. Defining business goals
  2. Identifying how to measure the success
  3. Conducting user research
  4. Identifying customer journey
  5. Investigating the competition

As software development is a complex and very project specific process, similarly, every project discovery must be treated individually.

What activities can be included in project discovery phase?

Discovery phase activities are aimed to gather necessary data about the project and its background. The activities include:

  • market research,
  • competitive analysis,
  • target audience analysis,
  • building a prototype.

Discovery phase deliverables

Depiction of project discovery outcomes.

Discovery phase usually ends up with the following outputs:

  • Project requirements specification – description of a project with its business goals, core features, technology stack, architecture overview.
  • Preliminary UX prototype – a simple representation of your product and the core features, ready to be tested with end users.
  • Project estimates – reliable budget estimation and project roadmap.
  • Competitor research, market research and market demand.
  • The list of critical features.

Tools used during a successful discovery phase

There are many tools and solutions that could be used during each of the steps of project discovery – these include workshops, questionnaires, surveys, interviews, etc.

Depiction of project discovery tools.

There are also a few specific tools that can be used during discovery workshops:

  • Mind map – it’s a diagram that visualizes the project needs and helps to understand the scope of a project.
  • User stories – it’s a tool that transform business requirements into functional requirements explaining user actions and helping to determine what problem each feature solves.
  • SWOT analysis – it’s aimed to identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of a project.

Project discovery phase – a bridge between the idea and its realization

Although at first project discovery may seem a needless luxury, we’ve seen today that it’s actual essential to any project. This valuable process helps to:

  • make accurate decisions based on evidence rather than assumptions,
  • better define the scope and goals of the project and thus get a more precise estimate,
  • ensure a high return on investment in the development,
  • create a user-centered experience,
  • eliminate the need of making costly changes on advanced development stages,
  • gain better development insight thanks to consultation with specialists.

These and many other benefits make project discovery a great investment, that every project should take advantage of.

Marta Lichaj
github
UX/UI Designer
Bianka Pluszczewska
github
Editor

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