Project Discovery Phase: A Practitioner’s Look Behind the Scenes

Oleh Shmidt
TECHNICAL DELIVERY MANAGER
Yevheniia Sydorova
UX PRACTICE LEADER
Daria Iaskova
COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER

Whenever launching a new product or approaching the transformation of an existing one, businesses are concerned about doing everything right—aiming to achieve results that would be proportional to their efforts. But no matter how high they set expectations and how hard they keep moving, success is still dependent on the product’s ability to address user needs.

A study by CB Insights revealed that 35% of new products failed because the market simply didn’t need them. These figures clearly demonstrate the importance of the project discovery phase, which determines the future development flow and sets a foundation for the product’s success. In this blog post, we’ll explain the value of the IT project discovery phase applied to specific business cases and provide a handful of tools and techniques that help us at Trinetix ensure predictable digital outcomes for clients.

A good beginning makes a good ending, isn’t it? Let’s see.

What is the project discovery phase and why is it important?

As an initial stage of product development, the project discovery phase is aimed at defining genuine user needs and aligning further development process with them.

During the discovery phase, we got to know a client’s business and their customers in detail to further provide both parties with the best possible solution for their goals and challenges.

In fact, every discovery consists of three essential milestones:

  1. Understanding business needs involves collecting detailed information about the client and the future project. These include understanding the way the client sees an issue they are going to solve and possible limitations that might appear.
  1. Getting to know the end users. This stage is aimed at validating the client’s vision of customers and their needs with the product by interacting with them in real life as well as defining possible development risks and roadblocks.
  1. Developing an action plan means formulating a hands-on product development strategy based on the discovery findings. This includes covering key user scenarios, suggesting a mitigation plan for existing risks and limitations, and developing an MVP.

So, if we summarize the key milestones of a project discovery phase, it becomes clear that its main goal is uncovering real user needs to be addressed and finding the most optimal solution for them.

When is a discovery needed?

Although discovery gives a start to basically any IT project, there are specific scenarios that explain the role of a discovery phase applied to complex business tasks organizations need to investigate. 

  • Venturing into new market opportunities. When an organization seeks to expand its product or service offerings, a discovery phase involves in-depth research of potential new audiences, competitive landscapes, and an assessment of whether the opportunity justifies market entry.
  • Undergoing or accelerating digital transformation. In this case, the project discovery phase is aimed at understanding user needs, ensuring the transition to digital is both efficient and user-centric. Similarly, the strategy of workplace transformation starts with identifying shared requirements and underlying processes for potential consolidation.
  • Responding to new policies or regulations. In this scenario, the discovery process involves studying the affected populations, comprehending the regulations, and evaluating how business operations must adapt to align with the new rules.
  • Tackling chronic organizational issues. Persistent problems like declining sales or customer dissatisfaction, it’s vital to address the root causes of those. A discovery phase combines internal and external research to comprehend the reasons behind these issues and highlights the most promising opportunities for improvement.
  • Mergers or acquisitions. Such changes presuppose the integration of systems, processes, and tools from the merging or acquired entities. In this situation, a discovery phase focuses on identifying shared challenges and finding unified solutions.

In each of these scenarios, a well-executed project discovery phase is the key to informed decision-making and effective problem-solving.

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How does an IT project discovery phase look in practice?

In essence, the process of discovery is a set of activities aimed at forming a project vision and developing a formalized action plan. At Trinetix, we use a bunch of such activities—this way arriving at a common product vision requires less time and becomes more efficient for both the stakeholders and the project team.

As an experienced digital partner, we are not limiting ourselves to specific methodologies and rules during a project discovery—we know for sure that modern business context and project diversity require mobility and creativity. Instead, we stick to lean product development that basically helps us build a unique customer-facing discovery strategy for each business case.

Key steps of a project discovery phase

While each discovery is tailored to a specific business need and project constraints, there is a generic flow to follow. Below we’ll provide a list of such steps with examples of project discovery phase activities that often come in handy to our team.

Step 1. Defining business requirements and setting expectations

During the initial stage of a discovery, a project team is responsible for collecting all existing business requirements including the project goals, objectives, target audience, and key stakeholders—all of those should be documented and used as a foundation for the future project. Here, the parties involved also discuss possible timeline, budget, and technical limitations that exist from scratch.

At this stage, it’s essential to align stakeholder expectations and minimize the risk of misunderstandings between the parties involved.

TECHNIQUES AND ACTIVITIES

Stakeholder interviews

Interviewing stakeholders helps the project team to acknowledge the scope of the issue and assess the feasibility of potential solution by:

  • identifying the organization's key business objectives;
  • collecting data and insights on how user-related issues impact behind-the-scenes operations; 
  • exploring past solutions to get a historical perspective and offer some lessons for the project's approach and execution.
Elevator pitch

Traditionally used for concisely describing a business idea, the elevator pitch technique can also help the project team aggregate the initial information in a brief catchy form that can be elaborated further on for defining the solution or scope of features required to address the business needs.

Step 2. Conducting essential market research and user studies

Once the expectations are aligned, the project team needs to elaborate on the information collected and build assumptions that will be further tested in real-life situations. This is a fundamental discovery step that defines the key functionality to be developed by matching the information received from stakeholders with the needs of end users. 

Here the project team is in charge of diving into the context in which the product is going to be used and uncovering hidden opportunities that derive from typical user actions and behavioral patterns. 

In some cases, the project team has direct access to end users and can conduct in-depth interviews with them. But often the only way to study the end users is through research of the market and product’s target audience. 

During this stage, the project team also develops wireframes and builds a product prototype to be validated with the end users.

TECHNIQUES AND ACTIVITIES

User interviews

This common UX practice helps teams build empathy for end users by understanding who they are and what their genuine needs and current experiences are. During this activity, an interviewer from the project team asks open-ended questions, listens to users, and takes notes.

How might we (HMW) questions

HMW questions are a popular design thinking tool that helps project teams ideate on the right problems and generate creative ideas. Some examples of such project discovery phase questions are:

  • How might we ensure more people use mobile loans?
  • How might we help employees stay productive when they are working from home?
  • How might we keep customers updated on the status of their online orders?
User story workshops

User story workshops normally start with defining personas (typical users) and involve brainstorming user stories for them together with stakeholders, product owners, and development teams. During these workshops, participants work to shape the overall project direction. At the core of this approach is the utmost empathy that is necessary to understand who the users are and what is their pain.

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Step 3. Prioritizing and preplanning

Once the project team defines the essential features, they need to share this knowledge with the product executives and other roles involved. In fact, they need to present the results of their research to the project’s stakeholders and get approval to further proceed to preplanning.

During this step, the project team outlines the project scope and, together with the product team, sets the priorities based on the value each feature is going to bring to the product and the efforts that will potentially be spent on development. 

Based on identified priorities, the development team suggests an optimal product architecture that considers both limitations and key priorities.

TECHNIQUES AND ACTIVITIES

Value vs efforts matrix

This visual tool helps project teams prioritize tasks or features based on their perceived value to the project and the estimated effort required for implementation. In this matrix, each task or feature is plotted on a graph, with the vertical axis representing the perceived value, such as user impact or strategic importance, and the horizontal axis indicating the estimated effort, which can include time, resources, and complexity.

Customer journey map

This visual technique is used throughout the whole discovery phase. During prioritization, it helps project teams to understand and illustrate the end-to-end experience of a user with a product or service and decide on the crucial features. It typically takes the form of a visual representation or infographic, detailing each touchpoint and interaction a user has throughout their journey.

Step 4. Mitigating risks and developing a project plan

When the priorities are clear and the team has an understanding of the future technical realization, they need to detect and announce any possible risks. Here the team also suggests a mitigation strategy and develops a reliable contingency plan.

The results of this step and the whole discovery process is a delivery plan that typically covers the development of a minimum viable product (MVP) and a full-scale or extended version of the product based on the priorities set. 

TECHNIQUES AND ACTIVITIES

Risk register

A register of risks is used to systematically identify, assess, and document potential risks and uncertainties that could impact the project's success. It serves as a structured document, often in a spreadsheet format, where each identified risk is detailed with information such as its description, potential impact, likelihood, and proposed mitigation or response strategies.

Rolling Wave planning

This approach acknowledges that, during the discovery phase, the team may not have full information about the product and enables them to adapt to evolving project requirements, embrace change, and make more informed decisions as they progress. It allows for a more flexible approach, ensuring that the product remains aligned with evolving needs and goals.

Project discovery phase deliverables

While the result of the project discovery phase is usually a delivery plan that serves the basis for product development, there are more deliverables that highlight the importance of a thorough discovery process.

  • Strategic deliverables include a final product vision including feature decomposition and a product roadmap, all of which are crucial for aligning the project with the organization's strategic objectives.
  • Design artifacts encompass prototypes, wireframes, customer journey maps, user flows, and other design-related materials that serve as the visual and user experience foundation for the project.
  • Technical documentation provides information about the chosen tech stack and architecture, ensuring a clear understanding of the technical aspects as well as the engineering cast needed for project realization.
  • Project management artifacts include documents related to risk assessment, team composition, and budget planning, which are key components for effective project management.

Project discovery use cases and best practices from Trinetix

Now, let’s proceed to the most interesting part of this article—sharing real-life stories and project discovery phase examples from our experience of collaboration with global brands. 

Case: Developing a unique product value proposition

BUSINESS CONTEXT
CHALLENGES AND LIMITATIONS
Our client was thinking of building a marketplace for finding matching business services.
The competition in the market was too big, and the client risked falling behind.

Discovery. During the discovery phase, our team focused on interviewing target product users and decomposing the process of business partner lookout to develop detailed journey maps based on user roles. This allowed us to identify a new opportunity by narrowing down the initial value proposition from aggregating the information about business providers to satisfying users’ requirements at a specific stage—requesting information about them. Further, we used this finding to improve and automate this process according to user needs.

The result. The discovery phase allowed the client to shape their product vision and create a unique value proposition that met the huge interest of their customers.

Case: Pivoting an innovative product offering

BUSINESS CONTEXT
CHALLENGES AND LIMITATIONS
A Fortune 500 company aimed to pivot sustainability initiatives under their brand’s name.
Building a new product from scratch required a deep understanding of the niche and user requirements with compliance and reporting.

Discovery. The discovery phase played a crucial role in understanding companies’ requirements with global environmental, social, and governance (ESG) standards and helped our team define key stages in achieving compliance and reporting on sustainability. 

The result. The exploratory approach we used during discovery allowed us to define a set of features and user flows for efficient sustainability measurement and help the client break into a new market. 

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Case: Unlocking the next level of user engagement

BUSINESS CONTEXT
CHALLENGES AND LIMITATIONS
A Big Four accounting firm was developing a brand health check solution and needed to engage users to leave their feedback on products and services.
Most of the representatives from the target audience were very unlikely to provide feedback.

Discovery. During the discovery phase, our team experimented with user engagement techniques as well as used empathy maps to understand users' inner motivation and barriers that prevented them from leaving feedback. 

The result. Our strategic user-centered approach to exploration along with the ability to think outside the box allowed us to create a functional proof-of-concept (PoC) that used gamification as a basis. The PoC was successfully validated with the end users and formed the underpinning for the client’s white-label solution.

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Each of the cases above clearly demonstrates the importance of a project discovery phase and its definitive impact on product adoption, the company’s potential revenues, and user satisfaction. While discovery is the very first stage in product development, it literally shapes the form of the future solution and builds a solid foundation for its success.

A proactive discovery-first approach to innovation has earned our team the trust of world-renowned enterprises and allowed us to embed research and strategic thinking into every digital adventure we are going through side-by-side with our clients. If you also want to make the most of value-centric discovery, let’s chat about your aims and expectations!

FAQ

Typically, the team involved in the discovery process usually consists of a Project Manager, Business Analyst, UI/UX Designer, QA Engineer, Software Developer, Solution Architect, and product stakeholders.
When discovery and user studies are underestimated, the project vision often appears biased and unobjective. As a result, the final product may appear impractical and result in a waste of time and effort.
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