Secrets of digital project success Part 1: The Discovery Phase

18th February 2014 by dan hamilton

You wouldn’t start a business without evaluating your market, you wouldn’t hire a manager without an interview, you wouldn’t build a house without a blueprint. Yet many organisations still launch digital projects without a discovery phase.

But before we delve deep into the whats, whys and hows, first think back to a project that hasn’t gone to plan; the time overruns, the additional costs, the pain of having to rebuild, fix and test whatever it is you were doing. Looking back, where did things go off track?

Chances are, even if you’re project went off-course in the implementation phases, the root cause can be traced back to much earlier, and probably falls into one of the following categories:


> The project goals and requirements weren’t properly understood at the beginning

> For whatever reason, things changed somewhere along the way


Indeed these fails feature in the Office of Government Commerce’s great list of the top 8 causes of major project failure and while your digital project may not be of the same ilk, the implications of success or failure can be just as serious to your business. Today we will explore how using a discovery phase helps to ensure you avoid the first and sets you up well to manage scope change.


A Common Myth


Some believe an analysis or discovery phase is surplus to requirements and just a way to waste a little money while delaying the project launch. Interestingly it’s often the same people that regret omitting this step almost immediately after a project fails to deliver it’s expected benefits.

While the discovery phase requires funds to be allocated up front for research and analysis it’s capable of delivering serious cost savings and benefits to a digital project. For some it is the difference between profit and bankruptcy, quite simply the importance should not be overlooked. How you ask?


“The discovery phase reduces the risk of failure, to ensure you launch with the right tools, to cement developer relationships and to maximise the potential of getting off to a flying start.”


It gives you and your team a chance to share ideas, to test the market, to explore every angle while your developers get to know your business inside out foreseeing and solving problems before they go live.


What is a Discovery Phase?


Now you know that it plays an integral part in any project, you may ask what it is. A discovery phase is a set time where you work with your team (including outsourced members and agencies) to develop a real understanding of what you expect your web project to achieve in terms of:




Your goal is to develop a blueprint; a story that has a beginning, middle and end. A story that can be told without any interruption and thus reduces the risk of overspend or even building the wrong solution. You need to agree on the results you want to create and see and then conduct a detailed plan on how you and your chosen development team will do just that.  A successful discovery phase typically can deliver:









The UK Government Digital Service eloquently captures what they expect a discovery phase to deliver.


Why You Need a Discovery Phase








But that’s not Agile?!


All this analysis and planning may sound very not agile, in fact it may feel akin to a waterfall project. The truth is the discovery phase can be used as a first sprint to establish a product road map with initial user stories, perhaps even a non functional prototype. This approach, also known as Just Enough Design, is practiced by some of the leading agile project delivery organisations such as Thoughtworks and your authors Emagineers. It is a perfect opportunity to get users, technology providers and business stakeholders on the same page. And remember, just because you’re establishing requirements and user needs now, it should be acknowledged that these needs will evolve and mutate as more information becomes known, or external events happen.


The Good, The Naive and The Ugly


Do All Digital Agencies use a Discovery Phase? The simple answer is no, but often they should. Beyond projects with simple objectives (and when was the last time you had one of those?), no marketer, designer or developer can understand your business enough to give accurate estimates without detailed analysis. With insufficient information estimators are forced into “Best Guess” scenarios. How do different agencies deal with this?


The Good: Good agencies are smart enough to realise when they don’t understand the full picture and will propose a discovery phase as a way to achieve better outcomes for both the client and themselves. Some agencies may agree to work without such a phase but will factor in the unknown by way of serious cost and time contingency; while the very best will not be willing to risk their integrity by compromising the chances of project success.


The Naive: Not all operators are experienced or savvy enough to acknowledge that a project at hand may be more complex than it may first appear, and even with the best intentions are likely to underestimate both the time and cost resources the project really requires to be successful.


The Ugly: The third category of agencies are those that are experienced enough to recognise they should be doing a discovery phase, but are either unscrupulous or desperate enough to ignore the risks to win the work. Typically they will bid below fair value for the project on the assumption that they will be able to charge the client for changes or overruns down the road when they have won the work.


By picking a digital agency that recognises the importance of understanding what you really need, it ensures that all parties are on the same page and working towards a common objective. When all heads come together it also solves problems before they happen while getting to know your target market inside out, making positive predictions come true.


The Reasons Good Digital Agencies Insist on a Discovery Phase


Of course the benefits for your business are tenfold but a good IT professional will also benefit considerably. In this phase they will learn more about your company, you, your team and your customers removing the risk of producing a project that really doesn’t satisfy your customer’s needs.

They can also see if together you form a good working relationship, one which ensures everyone receives the results they desire. Not only will a good IT professional listen to you, they’ll listen to all stakeholders of your company to ensure every aspect is considered, from your marketing department to sales, to your customer service centre.

Understanding needs from the coal face like this helps your agency incorporate features that make management easier.  They’ll also be able to collaborate with you and give you their professional advice on how to make your website a success, explaining how to get the most out of features and showing you which add ons deliver the best return. The best


Why Your Customers Benefit from a Discovery Phase


During the discovery phase you’ll build a plan of the whole architecture of your website. This isn’t just your landing or product pages, this is your whole wireframe, how your business spreads, connects and integrates across the web. From social media to guest posts, to remarketing, retargeting, affiliations, online stores and content management systems, without a discovery phase, you basically walk in blind just hoping they all fit seamlessly together. Chances are you’ll need to make many changes, and you’ll also receive quite a few complaints after launch.

“Your customers love you investing in a discovery phase.”


It not only shows that you care about their satisfaction it shows you’ve ensured their user experience is smooth and pleasant. Of course, they won’t know about your meetings, your road map or your site architecture but they will experience a great website that offers the ultimate usability from the day it’s launched.



Launching your Digital projects with a discovery phase is one of the most important things you can do to set them up for success and majorly reduces the chances of failure.  Want to know more about how we deliver digital success? get in contact

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