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When it’s ok to skip Discovery

Martyn Evans | March 2024

Discovery is often seen as fundamental to user-centred design. How could we possibly understand the problem without it? Here, our Head of Product, Martyn Evans, makes a case for 3 specific circumstances when ditching Discovery is not such a bad thing.

Card sorting

What do we mean by Discovery?

Discovery is a discrete phase of research in which you explicitly explore the “problem space”, and hold off thinking about potential solutions to the problems you unearth. It is often an essential step in the process of really understanding the needs of your customers and what’s most important to them.

It also helps you to explore the context or landscape, within which you are operating. For example:

  • what policy constraints do you face that might restrict how you tackle the problem?
  • what opportunities does emerging technology present?
  • what have others done when facing similar challenges?

Finally it can be a great way to engage stakeholders right at the beginning of the process. By involving them in early dialogue, listening carefully to their hopes and fears, and demonstrating that they can have a meaningful influence on what follows, you can build trust and get buy-in to both your approach and any potential solutions.

Discovery is mandated as the first phase of any digital project in UK government and an essential step in the Design Thinking Double Diamond process.

We’ve delivered many Discoveries at Unboxed. Some of them have been subject to strict governance and formal assessment (National Screening Committee, Back-office Planning System, National Chargepoint Registry), others have been far less formal and explorative (Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust, Newham Council’s Customer Programme), but they have all delivered significant value and informed next steps.

So why would we question whether Discovery is the right thing to do?

We're often challenged when proposing Discovery work when embarking on a new service or product initiative. Though I have to admit, we love making things at Unboxed and so are often happy to 'get on and build it'.

Our clients often see Discovery as unnecessary. They believe they know their business and know what they need - spending time on research seems like a waste. With tight budgets, a large chunk of spending on research means less money for actually developing the service or product they need. There are also pressing deadlines to meet, some of them arbitrary and driven by business processes, others more rational and based on actual dependencies or opportunities.

We have many convincing arguments against this thinking but I’d like to discuss three conditions which determine whether a full Discovery is needed or whether you can embark on a more accelerated path. These are: how well you really understand your customers, your confidence in any proposed solutions, and the risk associated with the problem/solution.

1. You know what your customers need

You might have lots of insight gathered from sources other than your own primary research. Maybe a team within your organisation, or even another organisation, has conducted customer interviews and ethnographic research in a similar context and that has informed your thinking.

Maybe your customer service team has data collected over time that gives you a really strong steer as to where you should focus your efforts.

Or maybe your design team has identified obvious issues with your customer journey and applied some heuristics to identify things that just need to be fixed.

When we developed the concept of, the issues faced by people wishing to purchase an electric car but with no driveway in which to charge it were extremely well documented. It was seen as such a barrier to EV uptake that the UK government was providing large grants to local authorities for them to tackle the issue.

Early adopters of EVs were extremely outspoken and the customer need was clear. Our founder was also our target customer and he had plenty of friends with the same need. The lamppost outside his door, right next to his car, seemed like such an obvious source of electricity. It was a scratch he just had to itch and the sensible thing to do was to start prototyping a solution. prototypes

2. You have a solution you believe in

We are often approached by people who have a big idea and are fully convinced it will make a difference. They know their business and who are we to challenge their belief? All we can do is listen carefully to their reasoning, ask good questions, and give them our honest opinions about the best way forward.

You may have a really well formed idea that can be clearly articulated in a compelling elevator pitch. Your proposition may be so well aligned with your customer needs and your organisational objectives that it is effectively a no-brainer.

Perhaps there are only minor technical barriers and you have complete buy-in from senior stakeholders and agreed funding to build the solution.

When we were first approached by (then start-up) company SH:24, they had an idea for a new service to provide online sexual health testing to reduce demand on physical clinics. The thinking behind the service was informed by years of experience working in public health and the design director was well versed in user-centred design, specialising in healthcare services.

They had already secured significant funding from a charity investor so they had already proved that the idea was sound. They knew that similar services were working well in other areas but also recognised that they were making some assumptions and were able to express them as clear hypotheses. With some lightweight user research we were able to validate the high level proposition and rapidly began prototyping the service to test the other hypotheses. Building an interface, creating the test kit and instructions, and testing real things with customers was the most effective and efficient way to learn what the live service would look like.

Unboxed brought the right people together quickly to help us test our proposition and rapidly turn our vision into a live service, designed around our users' needs.

SH-24 prototypes

3. The risks are known and manageable

The current situation may be so bad that you couldn’t possibly make it any worse. Anything you do will be an improvement for your customers and your business.

The required investment of time or money could be so small compared to the potential gains that it really isn’t worth overthinking.

You may be well aware of any potential risks or negative outcomes. You’ve assessed the likelihood of them happening and their potential impact and have clear mitigation strategies in place.

When working with Guy’s and St. Thomas’ NHS Trust, an idea emerged that the clinical team felt could help them keep track of patients with chronic rheumatoid arthritis without them having to come into the hospital for routine check-ups. They’d seen the effectiveness of SMS messaging as a way of reminding patients about upcoming appointments and knew patients were responsive. There was also lots of well researched evidence to validate specific patient questionnaires, known as Patient Reported Outcome Measures (PROMs), as being an excellent indicator of patients’ disease activity.

Using the GOV.UK Notify service to send out SMS messages was cheap and readily available and they already had licences to use the relevant PROMs. With a small investment in a “proof of concept” digital service, they could test the idea, gather invaluable data, and explore the value for patients and the clinical teams without any risk to patient outcomes.

Digital Accelerator

Despite being strong advocates for user-centred design and the importance of research in that process, we believe that there are situations where an immediate and accelerated phase of product development is the best way forward. Our Digital Accelerator is an ideal combination of lightweight customer research and rapid, iterative prototyping and testing that gets you closer to launching your new product or service, with minimal risk and maximum learning.

We’ll talk more about what it entails in our next blog post.


Don't wait, get started today!

Already have an idea in mind and you want to check its viability? Read more about our Digital Accelerator offering and get in contact today.

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