4 Common Surprises Experienced During Design Discoveries

There are many misconceptions about design discoveries, but these four common ones have consistently surfaced among our clients explain why they're so invaluable when creating a great experience.

It’s time to get started on that next big CMS redesign project and you’ve been tasked with finding a vendor. Proposals begin flowing in that provide estimated quotes, but one vendor tells you that an accurate estimate can’t be determined without first doing a “discovery.” You might feel a little annoyed by this because all you want is an estimate of how much the vendor will charge, allowing you to weed out the ones that don’t fit within your budget. Discoveries are often met with hesitance, but companies are often surprised by what they learn and then realize these newfound “discoveries” that surface throughout the process are not only necessary but make the project that much more successful.

What is a discovery really?

First of all, discovery is not about just gathering project requirements that your team has already identified. It’s so much more than that. Discoveries entail interviewing all stakeholders and conducting workshops to get a third-party perspective on your team’s workflows, processes, pain points, and how both internal and external users engage with the site. This research and workshopping phase is also used to understand your goals and oftentimes, to refocus your goals to more effectively align with what you and your stakeholders ultimately are wanting to accomplish.


Design Research and Workshopping

All of these elements provide the critical foundation for determining what the best possible design solution is for your organization, including an accurate project cost estimate. After all, it’s never fun to be in the middle of a project only to find out that it will cost you far more than anticipated. Not to mention, the delayed completion date that goes along with that. The good news is that this is all totally avoidable.

Discoveries uncover the unexpected

Having completed many discoveries, we’ve witnessed a variety of scenarios and situations. Nevertheless, there are some common surprises we’ve seen repeatedly during the discovery phase over the years that justify and confirm their importance. Had these not been addressed prior to beginning the project, the process would have taken longer, cost more than planned, and overall, been a massive headache for all parties involved.

1. Not everyone is always on the same page.

The most important outcome of a design discovery is to ensure all stakeholders come away with a shared understanding of what problems need to be solved and the strategy required to solve them. Many companies looking to design an experience have goals that target their site’s external users but often forget about the internal users who work with the site every day. There are always several internal stakeholders involved in the decision-making, maintenance, and editorial functions that come with operating a CMS.

As part of our design discovery process, ALL stakeholders are not only interviewed separately but are also brought together to go through a series of exercises that create a level playing field to ensure a shared understanding. As with most companies, decisions are made at the executive or management level, but those actually doing the work don’t always have a voice. Through interviews and group exercises, these disconnects—such as communication breakdowns, workflow issues, or a number of any other problems—become apparent and are often eye-opening. They bring about things that had not been thought of previously and often lead to changing strategies, developing better workflows, and improving relationships among all involved.

I just want to note that our two strategic initiatives as an organization got zero votes for importance by anyone. Apparently they’re not what our team thinks are important to the actual success of the site.

Project Sponsor during an on-site workshop

2. Pre-determined project plans don’t always paint the full picture

A company’s decision-makers have often established what they want and how they want to do it before hiring a vendor. They want the vendor to come in and implement their plans and strategies. In our experience, successful vendors will still always conduct the research and workshopping necessary to fully understand not only the plans shared with them, but, more importantly, to drill down further to make sure everything—people, workflow, processes, goals, and strategy—is aligned.

During the discovery phase, user interviews and testing often help reveal misconceptions about the project's direction. Companies launch these projects because they’re aiming to reach goals with their CMS set forth by the business strategy. To achieve these goals, plans are often devised by looking from the inside out, and not taking a deeper look into what their target audience wants. We’ve witnessed companies attempting to design from a demographic perspective versus user modes, which are the common ways users engage with a site depending on their intent.

For example, while working on a project for a client that provides an online directory of local services, we found that determining the needs and values a user would have based on their mode (e.g. a user in emergency mode looking for a gas leak repair service versus a user in exploration mode researching ideas for a kitchen remodel) allowed us to find the constants regardless of age, gender, etc. Taking this approach also enabled us to create an end-product that consistently provides a great experience. 

3. Valuable content created over the years can get lost in the archives

With the amount of content any given company produces over the years, it’s sometimes impossible to keep track of it all. Furthermore, turnover within a team adds to the chaos of knowing what all exists out there. And, most companies don’t just have one website; they also have a few or many microsites.

Discoveries often resurface valuable content that’s still relevant and can be used in their content marketing strategies. In many cases, we have found that organizations are often sitting on gold mines of relevant content that can still be used or refreshed. Not knowing this content exists sometimes drives companies to invest in recreating content unnecessarily.

4. Discoveries are far more productive than expected

Because there are misconceptions around what discoveries are and what they aim to accomplish, many clients have been amazed by how in-depth, yet efficient, they actually are. One critical part of this is to conduct discoveries in person as opposed to doing them remotely. Being onsite gives us valuable face time with and quick access to internal stakeholders during which time we're able to gain a stronger understanding of their dynamics, processes, problems, needs, and the overall big picture.

Once the discovery is complete, all necessary information has been collected and usually, wireframes have been started from the collaborative workshopping exercises. Completing this phase of the work efficiently and effectively via an onsite is what sets the project up for success on so many levels and speeds up the process overall since due diligence has been done.


Although many clients are initially hesitant about participating in discoveries, we have found that they always appreciate them afterward and come to understand the value they deliver. They are also often surprised at seeing how much better their projects can be than originally expected. Some clients have even adopted the best practices learned during the discovery process. Most importantly, as with our clients, discoveries set the right direction for creating a great experience for your internal and external users, and help you avoid suffering unwelcome costs and extended timelines along the way.

Special thanks to Jared Ponchot, Jeff Eaton, Jen Witkowski, Maggie Griner, and Marissa Epstein for their help with writing this article.


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