Successful Product Design Starts With a Discovery Phase

As humans, we are wired to solve problems. We see that something isn’t working and want to fix it. If a product doesn’t deliver the desired outcomes (lack of customer engagement, reduced revenue), there is the need to make updates and changes (adding new features, redesigning or rebranding).

I see a lot of projects starting with a solution in mind. However, one thing that often gets overlooked is the importance of getting clear about the problem that needs to be solved. Just noticing something that’s not working doesn’t mean we fully understand what’s causing it. Suggesting a solution doesn’t guarantee that there isn’t a better option out there, one that benefits both the business and its customers.

What’s missing is a discovery phase: instead of jumping straight to a solution, take the time to define the actual problem.

What Is the Discovery Phase in Product Design

The discovery phase is the foundation for your design ideas. It helps to shift the focus from finding solutions to identifying the problem — and therefore reduces the risk of running in the wrong direction.

Shift the focus from finding solutions to identifying the problem to reduce the risk of running in the wrong direction.

You might be familiar with the model of the double diamond: it splits the design process into two core phases. The first phase is about identifying the problem (through discovery and exploring before coming up with a final definition), and the second phase focuses on creating a solution (through ideating and experimenting before the final product design).

The Double Diamond Model by NNG

In the discovery phase, the team conducts in-depth research, analysis, and testing to uncover insights that help to understand the problem. It’s a necessary step if you want to create a product that caters to the user’s needs and fuels progress.

Why the Discovery Phase is Often Skipped

If you hear the words “research” and “testing”, your first thought might be: “I don’t have time for this.” It’s the most common reason, why a discovery phase is skipped or not done properly: every project starts with some assumptions and existing knowledge — why invest more time to do research and slow down the project?

Let me give you two reasons to rethink your perception of research being a waste of time and budget:

Designing for the wrong problem

One of my clients approached me with the need to redesign their mobile app to increase online sales. After doing a first investigation, looking at analytics and their overall sales touch points, there seemed to be a much bigger problem: the market landscape had changed drastically, but their marketing strategy hadn’t adapted yet. The mobile app contributed just a sliver to the overall sales — and all sales channels were seeing a decline.

Instead of taking the time to uncover the actual problem in more detail, the team went ahead with the redesign of the mobile app. It took about 6 months, and lots of dollars were spent. Shortly after launch, the company ran into bigger financial issues, had to change its overall strategy and the app was shut down.

This is an example of designing for the wrong problem.

If you don’t take some time to gain clarity about the real problem (and its underlying causes), you risk wasting money on fixing the wrong problem. So instead of thinking of research as slowing down a project, see it as an option to mitigate risk.

A brilliant solution to the wrong problem can be worse than no solution at all: solve the correct problem. — Don Norman, The Design of Everything.

Cognitive biases

Every project starts with certain assumptions. But let’s face it, we all have cognitive biases. It’s easy to fall in love with our ideas, to look for confirmation of what we want to believe and to forget about our blind spots.

No matter how much you think you “know” the problem, it’s worth taking some time to ask questions and look at your existing knowledge from different angles before moving on.

The discovery phase helps you to “de-bias” and define the deeper causes of the problem you want to solve so you can come up with more targeted and innovative ideas for solutions.

What Are the Benefits of a Well-Defined Discovery Phase

A well-executed discovery phase will provide you with:

  • Problem definition: In the discovery phase you take a deeper look into your target audience, their behaviour and needs. This will lead to a clear understanding of the problem, its underlying causes and its importance.

  • Value proposition: You will also analyze your competitive landscape and identify room for opportunities and competitive advantages

  • Project scope & requirements: With a clear problem definition you can set a measurable project objective and define the requirements

  • Stakeholder buy-in: Having a clear direction will make it easier to get buy-in from your stakeholders and explain the desired outcomes

  • Realistic budget: The findings of the discovery phase will allow you and your team to make more informed decisions about requirements, resources and budget.

What Are the Key Steps in a Discovery Phase

Define your business objective

Identify your business pain points and desired outcomes. This is not your underlying problem yet — it’s your measurable guidance on what you want to accomplish with this project.

Use CaseYou have an e-commerce business and notice a decline in your online sales. The business objective is to increase sales by at least 5% in the next 3 months.

Collect existing knowledge

Especially in our days, we have access to so much data. Take a look at existing analytics, interview stakeholders and key knowledge holders to learn more about the topic.

Use CaseTake a look at your website analytics to identify major drop-offs. Heat map analysis can give you insight into the user behaviour on specific pages. In addition, talk to customer services to investigate any complaints or barriers.

Review your competitors

Take a look at your competitive landscape by using competitor analysis tools. Are there any new players on the market? Are there any new trends or features that you don’t offer? Is there a shift in pricing?

Look at forums and social media to see what your (ideal) customers are talking or complaining about. Compare your strengths and weaknesses to your competitors and identify opportunities.

Use CaseCreate a spreadsheet with your main competitors’ product features, prices and marketing tactics. Identify the gaps you need to overcome.

Identify gaps or assumptions

Based on your internal and secondary research, create a list of assumptions or hypotheses around the problem. Use this as a guide for your research plan: what uncertainties do you have that you need to validate?

Use CaseConduct an assumption mapping workshop with your core team (business analyst, developer, UX and UI designer). Share the current findings and map out any uncertainties and questions. Define the best research strategy to get answers and validate assumptions.

Conduct user research

Now that you know your knowledge gaps, you can start with user research. The specific method (interview, survey, usability test…) depends on what you need to discover. In most cases, user interviews will deliver the richest insights.

User research is your opportunity to dig deeper into your customer behaviour and needs. All previous steps focus mostly on the description of user behaviour with numeric facts. User research gets you to the motivations and needs that drive behaviour and decision-making. Research often reveals unnoticed aspects of your perceived problem.

Use CaseRecruit current customers and non-customers and observe them making an online purchase on your website. Have them compare the experience to their favourite competitor.

Turn data into insights

Turn your newly collected data into insights for your project. Discover patterns with the use of affinity mapping, identify the key themes and share your knowledge with your team.

Use CaseCluster your findings into key themes. You may have found some usability issues on your websites, certain needs and expectations around messages or features.

Define the problem and the scope of work

The insights allow you to define the problem you want to solve. You might discover multiple problems. In this case, you should prioritize your problems and choose your main focus.

Use CaseBring your team together and share your insights. Create problem statements using the formula [User] needs [Need] because [Insight]. Prioritize your problems with an effort-impact matrix. Define the scope of your project based on the most relevant problem.

The Importance of Teamwork in the Discovery Phase

The discovery phase requires a lot of collaboration and is not just a research job. Team activities you want to consider:

Assumption Mapping: Bring your team together to collect internal knowledge and unanswered questions. More on assumption maps here.

Personas & Empathy Map: Help your team to think through the lens of your customers by creating personas and empathy maps collectively

Customer Journey Map: Identify pain points and find opportunities for improvements by walking through a customer journey.

5 Whys & Problem definition: Identify underlying causes by analyzing the roots with the 5 Whys technique.

Over to you

What were the successes and failures of your last produce (re)design? How clear were you on the problem that needed to be solved? Were there any surprises you learned throughout the process? How could a discovery phase have been helpful for your process?

Interested in expanding your research skills? Sign up for the intro course “UX research for marketers”


More details about the discovery phase

Cognitive biases