Setting the culture of Discovery

Ollie Francis

Ollie Francis

Digital strategist, UX designer & founder at Deckchair


Written by Ollie Francis

It breaks our heart every time we hear how a project went wrong or a team fell apart because of an agency’s inability to explore a project properly or question the fundamentals of what is being done and why.

Essentially what we’re talking about is ‘discovery’ and the difference of what happens when you employ a discovery mindset, or you don’t.

But what does ‘discovery’ really mean? Our version at Deckchair is ultimately about creating an environment that allows the truth to come out. This means getting the right people in the room with the client and digging into the problem that sits behinds the requirements. It often means asking difficult questions, pressing the client’s buttons to unearth the chaos and then extracting and boiling down the real reasons behind the project.

Discovery takes patience, stamina, self-control and openness. It requires that you leave your ego and previous knowledge at the door and let the full force of the problem hit you in the face. If you get it right it sets in motion a process that will make the project more successful and everyone will feel they are going in the same direction.

When done effectively, everyone at the end of a discovery session feels elated. There is a palpable euphoria in the room; things have been discovered, a direction has been found and the team has gelled. You are ready to save the world!

Agencies and their digital teams must employ and cultivate a culture of discovery internally and with their clients. By operating in this way and embedding a discovery process you will deliver more successful projects.

Monica Maya

Monica Maya

Digital Project Manager


Written by Monica Maya

Great article – so true on so many levels, in particular the points about the need to leave the ego at the door and the importance of discovery to get the team to gel with the client.

Many if not all the problems seem to arise from a weak or inexistent discovery process or because the delivery team hasn’t been involved since inception.

Some of the problems have included: client is unaware of the different stages a digital project goes through (discovery, UX, design, build, test, launch) and what these mean, estimating times and costs before discovery (how can we say how much something is going to cost/take when we don’t know what that is?) and imposing unrealistic deadlines/time allocation to delivery team, which results in unnecessary pressure and poor quality work.

And this is how I’ve addressed these issues:

  • I’ve always thought that honesty is the best policy, communicating with the client, educating them and being transparent helps create healthy relationships.
  • It’s never too late to have an immersion/discovery session, in particular when there are new members of the team that need to be brought up to speed or introduced to the client, or when a problem needs to be tackled.
  • Ensure the digital delivery team is involved from inception. The more involved they are, the more likely they will feel a vital part of the project and work in harmony.
  • Cost for Discovery, UX and design as one phase, then for build, test and launch as a second phase.
  • Daily catch ups (scrums) whilst designing/building, to ensure designs are technically feasible and again, to work and feel we are a team, because we are!
  • Review every phase/deliverables as a team and let the designer/developer present deliverables to the client. It’s their chance to take credit for the amazing work they’ve done.
  • Have regular catch ups with the client, I always try having weekly project status calls.
  • Educating the rest of the team, in particular Client Services, through lunch and learn sessions and by inviting them to daily catch ups, so they understand the planning and delivery of digital projects.
Will Dawson

Will Dawson

Digital Creative Designer at Six

Six website

Written by Will Dawson

Discovery is quite possibly the most important part of the digital process for me. I feel that diving into a project without the clarity of discovery is like trying to build a house on sand – you’ll get about halfway through and it might look pretty, but without a solid foundation it’ll probably fall apart.

A culture of discovery sets the agenda and an agreed direction between project team and client. It helps foster a collaborative and understanding environment through the recurring question of ‘why?’, and often allows goals of a project to develop that neither party initially expected.

As an open forum at an early stage, I find it the most opportune time to explore the rudiments of a client’s business, permitting ‘basic’ questions and immersion into their history, their audience and their future goals, which all contribute to how a project can be approached and eventually take shape.

Ultimately, for my role, discovery is the foundation upon which information architecture, wireframing and final designs all stand, and the quality of these successive stages in my digital process can only be measured insofar as the understanding of the aims that was fostered in the stages of discovery.

Andy Farmer

Andy Farmer

Founder and Director of MyOxygen


Written by Andy Farmer

In our experience clients are all too eager to jump straight into development. They’re over enthusiastic and often have a lack of knowledge about what it takes to manage the lifecycle of software.

An open ‘discovery’ approach can be difficult for our clients to embrace because they often develop in-house before reaching out to us and this leads to the project plan being in place long before we are able to get involved.

As our processes have matured we have realised that no project should start without a discovery phase – it’s crucial to understand upfront and in-depth what the problem is that we are solving.

It helps the client get clarity on the challenges and benefits; it helps us to see what success looks like, and how we measure that success. If the project is in the early stages then fundamental changes are much easier to enact.

One thing we frequently come up against is the Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) “issue” – where there is the need for corporate secrecy to retain competitive advantage. However this doesn’t have to affect the discovery process – we’re happy to sign NDAs if it means that the client is reassured and we can openly discuss the project with the full team early. It only becomes problematic if the NDA is specific as to what we can/can’t discuss regardless of signing it – that then can limit a team’s ability to fully understand and interrogate the brief.

Internally we are always aiming for transparency. We work in an open-plan attic office and meet with clients in the same room. When technical questions arise we involve team members immediately to get quick resolution with the person who is best qualified to answer. Often our engineers and designers accompany the project managers on client visits for similar reasons – it’s imperative that the team is involved upfront and throughout to ensure they all have the same understanding of the project requirements.

A penny for your thoughts...