Research and Discovery

What and why

Discoveries are crucial to setting design projects off in the right direction by focusing on the right problems and, consequently, building the right thing. They are often referred to as ‘product discoveries’ (although I’m not keen on this name because it can set the expectation that this phase is about discovering requirements for a given product).

In order to be effective, a discovery should be broad and technology- or solution-agnostic. When teams carry out a discovery on a product they have already decided to build, it no longer is a discovery, but, instead, it becomes a requirements-gathering exercise or a validation exercise where teams seek to confirm that their solution is the best. The discovery is off track when teams are asked “How do we make [insert name of solution] work for users?” or told to “Go find out what the user needs are for [insert name of solution]”.

A discovery should start with a broad objective such as like: “Go find out about this problem, just how big it is, and what the opportunities might be.”

Well-done discoveries ensure that any solutions proposed later are desirable to users, viable for the organisation, and feasible with the technology made available.

A discovery should result in the following:

Understanding of users
Through user research, the project team achieves an understanding of who the users are and how they are affected by a particular problem, as well as what they need, desire, and value from a solution (and why).

Understanding of the problems to be solved and of the opportunities
Through investigative work, the team understands how and why the problem(s) occur, what effect the problem has on users, as well as on the organization. It understands the magnitude of the problem and opportunities for the organization, product, or service.

Shared vision
During discovery, the team works with stakeholders to understand overarching business objectives and desired outcomes and get answers to questions such as ‘what do we want to achieve?’, or ‘what does success look like?’. This approach, in turn, focuses the team on the problems (and later the solutions) that will have the greatest impact on that outcome. The team should also have an idea of what to measure going forward, to understand whether the solution is working towards the desired outcome.
A discovery starts broad and requires team members to investigate the context of the problem. The double-diamond diagram introduced by the UK Design Council — and reproduced below — illustrates the high-level process of a discovery: first, the team expands its understanding of the problem by researching its full context; armed with this knowledge, the team agrees on what the problem is, before moving to the next phase of ideating and testing in the Develop stage.


A discovery is needed anytime when there are many unknowns that stop a team from moving forward. Moving forward only on assumptions can be risky, as the team may end up solving a problem that doesn’t really matter — wasting time, money, and effort.

A discovery might also be needed when the team is not aligned in what it wants to achieve.

Discoveries are often carried out differently depending on the type of problem the team needs to investigate. Below are some examples of instigators:

New-market opportunities.

If an organization is looking to explore where to expand its product or service offerings, a discovery is often needed. The discovery might involve researching a new audience, performing competitive reviews, and investigating whether the size of the opportunity warrants entering the market.

Acquisitions or mergers.

When organizations merge, it’s likely that systems, processes, and tools will also need to be consolidated. A discovery could focus on common problems faced by each organisation, in order to find a common solution.

New policy or regulation.

This instigator is especially relevant for government organisations or organisations that operate in an environment affected by regularly changing regulation. Such a discovery would involve studying the populations affected by the change, reviewing the regulation to understand it, and assessing how business operations must change to support the new regulation.

New organisation strategy.

This driver of change comes internally from the organization (unlike new regulation, which often originates externally). For example, during my time in the UK Government, one government-wide strategy was to become ‘digital by default’, which meant moving away from expensive, paper-based processes to efficient (digital) ones. Discoveries in numerous government departments focused on understanding the needs of their users, as well as the extent of paper-based processing, in order to ensure that a shift to digital was, in fact, efficient and user-centered. Another common strategy is to provide common platforms for those areas of an organization that do essentially the same thing, in order to help the organization become more consistent in what it does, and efficient. Discoveries in these situations would focus on identifying common needs and backstage processes across multiple products and services in order to potentially consolidate them.

Chronic organisational problems.

Perhaps sales have been low this year, or satisfaction has been low for several quarters. Often organizations find themselves simply focusing on symptoms (e.g., adding webchat), rather than on causes. A discovery involves inward- as well as outward-facing research to understand why these problems occur and examination into causes to identify the greatest opportunities for improvement.

Copyright © Alin Buda. All rights reserved. Trademarks, brands and some of the images are the property of their respective owners.
Some images sourced from Pexels™ and Unsplash™.