Planning A Complex Website? Start with Digital Discovery For Optimal Outcomes

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Why Digital Discovery

We've been reviewing client feature requests and creating proposals and reviewing other agency proposals for 10 years and what we have come to understand is that all website proposals are pretty inaccurate. This is because they are based on no actual agreed upon plan. 

Clients want to get estimates for something that they don't fully understand and web teams like the ones you've been speaking (no doubt) want to estimate something that they don't fully understand.

To make matters worse neither party wants to fully commit. Web development companies don't want to get involved to help make the plan until they're being paid to do so (understandable). Client's don't want to start planning a site with a team that they are not sure they are going to partner with (also understandable).

Some marketing/lead generation website projects might be able get by with a rough estimate. However, for clients that have:

  • ​multiple digital properties
  • 3rd party software integration
  • lots of custom features
  • ambitious growth plans
  • experienced significant industry or organizational change since their last redesign

Or for those that just want less risk and a clearer budget and timeline the only way everyone can go into this kind of project with their eyes wide open and with a clear budget is if we engage in strategic discovery.

Otherwise there is too much potential risk and room for error (i.e. unpredictable costs and timelines) to give any sort of meaningful projection.

What is Discovery?

Discovery is a 2-4 week long architecture workshop where the client and the development agency can figure out our project together before actually committing to the project.

Does this sound a bit odd? It might.

If we hadn't been building websites for ten years it would sound odd to us too. After all, you've written a comprehensive RFP. You researched and contacted the best digital agencies. You have a marketing strategy, and you're the expert on your business.

So, the agencies should be able to figure out your project. Right?

Well... yes and no.

A good agency will want to learn from your industry knowledge, experience your frustrations and concerns as well as get deeper insights about your business. You know your business and your customers best. You understand the business case. 

Digital Discovery

As an agency, it's tempting to latch on to this initial, approximate vision. We care about your business goals,  and we want to show our value through solutions. But there's a problem. If we start throwing out solutions right away, we'll all miss something really critical: the knowable unknowns and the unknown unknowns (one or two might still slip through, but they can be planned into phase II work). 

If there are many of these new items in the long run, those unknown unknowns can turn into unpleasant surprises. Those surprises often come with an unexpected cost. And that's pretty painful for everybody.

Fortunately, there's a way to find these unknown unknowns. Through discovery, we use business and architecture best practices to reduce surprises and manage the unexpected. Discovery means:

  • Asking questions before providing solutions
  • Defining what we don't know
  • Documenting and prioritizing before creating
  • Creating a phased approach and starting with something lean before building something big

What are the benefits of Discovery?

The greatest benefit of discovery is that we learn new things about ourselves, the organization, and the real needs of each stakeholder involved.

Discovery is an act of humility. You admit the limitations of your knowledge. You work together to discover deeper problems. By asking open ended questions, you find out what's really going on underneath the surface of the business.

From these insights, you develop a meaningful plan. That's another benefit of discovery: creating order, structure, and priorities. A good agency partner will guide you through this process. They'll have a method for turning insights into action.

Throughout discovery, we'll get to test drive each other. You'll get to know how we act as an agency partner and get a glimpse into what the next 3-5 years will be like maintaining the website - not just the next 3-5 months while we build the site. We'll build trust and learn all about each other:

  • Are we active listeners? 
  • How do we respond to misunderstandings? 
  • Can we resolve disagreements among the teams?
  • How do we manage deadlines and expectations? 
  • Are we partner material?

Discovery answers these questions and more.

Design Discovery Team

Discovery works best when you involve key stakeholders. Does your CEO, CTO, CMO, or Sales team members need to participate in discovery? If they'll have input on the product, the answer is yes. We'll need to include them. The agency you select needs to understand their priorities firsthand. This yields unexpected and powerful insights. 

What are the drawbacks of Discovery?

Discovery demands delayed gratification from all parties. It's not ideal for agencies because they have to get committed and do a lot of work for no guarantee they'll get the business or that you will complete the project with them. 

From clients we've heard that it doesn't feel good committing to an agency for something small that will take 3-4 weeks before knowing what we'll be building and what the price will be. The good news is we can go into this process with a ballpark range, but it will not be accurate until we're finished.

However, if we all truly care about the client's future, and the success of the project and the relationship these are small in comparison to the value that discovery brings.

What are the types of Strategic Discovery?

When you're designing a digital experience, there are two types of discovery: business discovery and technical discovery.

Business Discovery

Business discovery is critical for designing any digital experience. It's the planning phase of your project. Business discovery is especially important if we're working with a new partner for the first time. Once we have a working relationship, we'll get more engaged and have more of an understanding of who you are. But in the beginning, we'll both need to learn about each other.

Here's what happens during business discovery:

  • Audit your digital messaging and brand assets
  • Define project objectives, including KPIs (key performance indicators)
  • Audit your analytics
  • Conduct research
  • Create users & personas
  • Define user stories (key features)
  • Create content structure

Users and Personas
Business Discovery worksheet defining users & personas

Using the Agile Method in Business Discovery

At EDUCO, we use the Agile Method for business discovery. In Agile, we write user stories. User stories are a framing tool for defining website features. 

User stories answer three key questions: who, what, and why?

  • Who is the feature for?
  • What is the feature?
  • Why is it needed?

Here's an example of a user story from the redesign of Positvely Aware.

User Story
A user story in the myEDUCO Project Backlog

Technical Discovery

If your project is complex, you need technical discovery. That means one-on-one time with developers — the technical architects.

Too often, developers don't touch a project until they're ready to start development work. That's a mistake. On complex projects, you need developers to establish a reliable scope of work. This improves risk management and cost control for your project. 

Types of Digital DiscoveryTechnical discovery gives the developers an opportunity to learn directly from your team.

Here's what happens during technical discovery:

  • Audit your current systems or software
  • Define user stories (key features)
  • Create a project backlog with prioritized sprints
  • Create a technical plan for complex stories 
  • Investigate and test custom software integration

Using the Agile Method in Technical Discovery

At EDUCO, we use agile development tools during technical discovery. Agile tools give us a framework for defining, prioritizing, and delivering experiences. 

The Project Backlog is a critical agile development tool. It's visual plan that you present to project stakeholders for feedback. Once approved, the backlog is your project tracker. The team builds, tests, and completes stories in the backlog. You present completed stories from the backlog during the project demo.

During technical discovery, we create the project backlog together.

Here's an example from the redesign of bahamas.com

Agile Development Tools
The Project Backlog in myEDUCO​

Is Discovery just an estimate?

That is probably the most common natural reaction to the idea of digital discovery. Its more like hiring an architect to create a blueprint for a structure you want to build. 

Digital discovery is more than just paying for an estimate. Discovery engages your team, as an active participant, in the planning of the actual roadmap of what your project will require. It does happens to result in an accurate estimate and accurate timeline, but essentially it is the agreed upon plan.

Is Discovery right for my project?

  1. No - I don't mind surprises and doing things the same way. I don't mind scope changes and surprise costs and the surprise delays to my timeline.
  2. Yes - I want a more honest approach and a predictable and stable timeline and project budget without significant changes.

Discovery requires a different mindset and approach, but if we want a more meaningful outcome we need to engage in a more meaningful experience. 

Its no coincidence that agencies don't ask for as much info as we do during discovery. They'd rather just send a template (or possibly a somewhat custom) response to an RFP this is because engaging in discovery is harder and requires more time and energy, but the juice is worth squeeze.

The end result will be piece of mind that we've thoroughly planned the website and we'll know exactly what we're getting into. No more surprise costs or if we do encounter surprises we can plan them in to website as Phase II items or if they must be in Phase I we can discuss options to include within budget or if there is a unique way the feature needs to work we can discuss what that additional specificity might cost.

What to learn more about Digital Discovery?

Contact EDUCO

About the Author

Marty Vernon

Marty is Co-founder/Strategic Director at EDUCO. Connect with Marty on , , or Google+