03 software design
Analysis & Design

The project discovery phase – a practical guide

date: 4 October 2022
reading time: 5 min

The product discovery phase is the initial stage of the software development process. Also known as the scoping phase, its main purpose is to collect and analyse information related to a project that will help to clarify the goals, limitations and general scope.

What is the project discovery phase?

A good project discovery strategy will be designed to collect information on the following:

  • the main vision and ideas that are behind the project;
  • the business goals;
  • business and technical requirements;
  • the budget;
  • the intended development process;
  • risk assessment and prevention.
The project discovery strategy plays a very important role in its overall success which is why a robust, detailed project discovery stage is required.

According to research carried out by McKinsey, 45% of projects exceed their original budget with a benefits shortfall of 56% less than initially projected. Not only that, it was reported that a staggering 17% of all projects turn out so badly that they end up being the downfall of their companies!

How to conduct a project discovery phase

So how can we conduct a project discovery phase successfully? By following these steps:

Step 1: Identify

First and foremost, build your discovery team. They should be as diverse as possible in order to bring different perspectives and attributes to the table. Typically, a well-rounded team as a minimum will involve a project manager, a UX/UI designer, a technical expert and a project analyst.

Once your team is set, identify all stakeholders in the project. This includes its owners, end-users, investors, developers and so on. Lastly, identify the business goals of the project. This helps to get a good understanding of the main purpose of the project, any possible issues that may occur, and will keep you focused on the end goal.

Step 2: Research

This is a critical stage in the product discovery phase as it helps the team get a full overview of what their competitors are doing, what customers want and need, and what the state of the market is. It can broadly be split into three sub-stages:

  1. Customer research

    Interviewing potential customers and your client is a really important foundation in understanding what kind of product or service is required. It helps to clarify any doubts, set expectations for the project and define the general scope of work to come.

  2. Market research

    Once you have defined the wants and needs of your customers, the next step is to study the market. What kind of demand is there for this type of project? Does this project fit into a gap in the market that could be exploited or is the market relatively saturated? In this stage, we can set the expectations for the project and begin to create achievable benchmarks. Running market research surveys is a great way of conducting this research and will be extremely useful in helping project managers make crucial decisions on the direction the project should go.

  3. Competitor research

    Lastly, it’s very important to look at what other companies are doing and how they are doing it. Are they working in a similar niche to you or have you stumbled upon a new area? Understanding what your competition is doing and the standards they are setting in the market will help you to define aspects of the project such as budget and pricing, quality control and end product expectations.

Step 3: Present your findings

After setting your goals and gathering all of your research, it’s time to present your findings to the shareholders. For the project to be given the green light, they must be made aware of its viability, any possible roadblocks, the current state of the market and the plan for moving forwards. This will allow the stakeholders to make a decision on whether or not to take on the project to completion, and if so, under what conditions.

Step 4: Budget and timeline

If the shareholders give you the green light, it is very important to establish the milestones of the project along with detailed budget projections. This will increase the viability of the project, and is highly critical to moving forwards. Alongside these, all potential bottlenecks must be identified and troubleshooting solutions need to be suggested at this stage to mitigate any negative issues down the line.

Step 5: Finalise the plan

Once you have gone through all previous steps, the final preparations must be completed so that the project can begin. These will need to be communicated with the shareholders in order to get the final sign off, and bear in mind that changes and adaptations are common at this stage so it’s important to be flexible.

If this is the case, it may be that several steps in the discovery phase need to be repeated so that accurate projections can be made once again. Identifying and correcting issues at this stage will save much more time than if they crop up later on.

What are the benefits of conducting a project discovery phase?

When carried out correctly, there are many benefits of conducting a project discovery phase. Some of them are as follows:

  • Risk management

    This is commonly overlooked or under prioritised by companies, yet improper risk management can lead to low-cost savings and missed deadlines if a risk analysis is not done in the discovery phase.

  • Cost control

    Money is the lifeblood of every project so it is essential that cost is closely controlled and budgets are not exceeded. 18% of all businesses fail due to going over budget and the project discovery phase can help mitigate this risk. With proper cost control measures in place, a greater return on investment can be achieved.

  • Defining goals

    The project discovery phase defines the scope for the entire thing and will help you to streamline the entire process.

  • UX optimisation

    Defining the users’ wants and needs helps to ensure the project is successful.

  • Good business decisions

    The project discovery phase allows you to make good, well thought-out decisions that are made based on data, not assumptions.

The importance of conducting a project discovery phase

The benefits of carrying out a project discovery phase are clear so there should be no doubt in whether or not to conduct one for your company. Not doing so puts you at risks to escalating costs, unreliable and unrealistic deadlines, never-ending scope creep and a project that doesn’t meet yours or your shareholders’ expectations.

When done well, the project discovery phase will allow you to control and set your business goals accurately, control your budget and increase ROI, mitigate risks, deliver immeasurable value to your clients and generally streamline all processes to their optimum level.

All digital product companies should engage in project discovery phases as part of their digital transformation and software development models as they will experience huge benefits in their project quality, user satisfaction and of course, financial rewards.

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