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A project without a clear path will just go in circles

Image of a mowed circle in a field Credit: Artist Andrew Herzog, These Things Take Time

Embracing the Discovery Phase

Today I’m going to discuss a project phase that I only recently started including but now can’t imagine doing a project without it: the discovery phase.

The discovery phase is the dedicated time to adequately plan and scope a project with a client.

And I mean d e d i c a t e d time. Not a 30 min consultation call that can produce a proposal.


Before I added the Discovery Phase to Projects

2 Consultation Calls

Before I started implementing a discovery phase for my projects, my process looked a little bit like this:

  1. Prospective client reaches out to me about a possible project
  2. We book a 20 min get-to-know-you call.
  3. During the call we do intros and discuss the project a little bit
  4. After the call, I do research on their business and what they are looking for
  5. We book a 45 min call where I discuss how I think the project can be pulled off
  6. During the phone call all this other stuff starts coming up (We also do X and actually want Y) and I make note of it
  7. After the call I put together a proposal and scope of work for the project and send it off to the client to review

After an hour of speaking with clients I would produce multi-thousand dollar quotes.

Fortunately for my business this process has “worked” many times. Many clients have accepted my proposals and we’ve done great work together.

However, just using consultation calls will lead to inevitable issues with a project:

I was not able to accurately scope projects.

Clients can’t fully articulate the problems they are trying to solve.

They expect me to figure out what’s wrong with their online business in the first place.

It’s like a patient with a list of symptoms coming to a doctor for a cure.

Scoping a project after only 1 or 2 brief exploratory calls is the bandaid solution – not the cure.

Scope Creep Erodes Client Relationships

I’m going to share a scenario that has happened many times with my client projects:

We are midway through the design phase of a project and we start to really understand how the website will come together. As we start to understand the project better, we start coming up with new ideas. Great ideas. However, these ideas were not part of our initial consultation calls and they weren’t included in the original scope of the project.

This puts me in a tough spot.

If I provided a fixed bid for the project, I will lose money as I invest more and more time into new directions and ideas. It may lead to me having a sour mood and regretting that I ever took on the project.

If I provided an hourly rate for the project, my hours will quickly start to exceed my original estimates as we explore new directions for the project. My clients may get in a sour mood and regret ever taking on the project.

There are ways to mitigate scope creep in a project, but it’s still a tricky and uncomfortable situation. In the past I would lean on my excellent relationship with my clients to help them understand how the scope had grown and provide options for re-structuring the original quote. They typically would understand that the investment was worth it and agree to continue our work together.

But what if there was a way for you and your client to feel confident about the trajectory of a project?


The Discovery Phase

The discovery phase is dedicated time to frame the problem and the solution for the project.

It’s also a chance for me to get to know the client and their business better!

Here’s my new timeline for projects with the discovery phase added:

  1. Initial consultation
  2. Discovery
  3. Design
  4. Development
  5. Content Migration, Quality Assurance & Site Launch
  6. Post Site-Launch, Training & Documentation

After the initial consultation (step 1), I provide a fixed quote for the discovery phase and that’s it.

That’s because the trajectory and size of the project is so up in the air before the discovery phase.

This provides peace of mind for the client (they know exactly how much they are paying) and it gives me peace of mind (I’m getting paid to properly scope the project).

After the discovery phase, I’ll provide a fixed quote for design.

If the client chooses not to go forward with the rest of the project, I still think the work we did was really valuable. The client’s investment in the discovery phase will give them a rock-solid RFP and plan of action.

I can provide discovery as a stand-along service. (Reply to this email if you’d like to discuss this with me!)

After the design phase (I’ll write more about this soon!), I’ll provide a fixed quote for development through site launch.


What a discovery phase typically includes

Framing the Problem:

  • Stakeholder interviews (i.e. a conversation with everyone who cares about the project)
  • Competitor business analysis
  • User behavior analysis (from site analytics)
  • Audit of current site
    • Homepage & Other Key Pages
    • Site performance
    • SEO
    • Accessibility
    • Responsive Design
    • Hosting setup
  • Identify primary website audiences & their goals
  • Define, research & analyze the problems of the website

Framing the Solution

  • Come up with solutions that fit within the constraints of the project (timeline, budget, technology requirements, etc.)
  • Moodboard for site design direction
  • New information architecture for the website
  • Wireframes of key pages for the website

The discovery phase typically takes around 8 weeks and includes multiple (at least four) meetings and open communication throughout via email.

The process of framing the problem and framing the solution is a collaborative effort that involves everyone. It’s a chance to brainstorm and consider all the approaches we can take with a project. Once the solution starts to take shape, the path ahead for the project will be clear. A project without a clear path will just go in circles.


The Book I’m Reading and Re-Reading About Discovery

Book Cover for Practical Design Discovery

Dan Brown’s Practical Design Discovery (published from A Book Apart ❤️) is packed with ways to approach the discovery phase of a project. I have pages and pages of notes from this book.

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