The Project Discovery Phase: All Details Explained
A considerable percentage of software projects end up with budget bloat, scope creep, or failure altogether. And in many cases, this is because their development starts in a rush or without due research and planning. How can you mitigate such risks? Well, by not skipping the discovery phase in project management.
It is well-known that having a brilliant idea isn’t enough to achieve project success. Being full of enthusiasm, you might rush into development too early or, even so, invest in creating something no one likes or uses. In fact, recent statistics suggest that in 35% of cases, startups fail because there’s no market need for their product or solution. It’s the second reason for failure after not having enough money (38%).
But is there a way to reduce such risks? Of course, decent project management with a discovery phase can be a way out. What is discovery in project management and the discovery phase deliverables, you ask? This article is your project discovery 101, covering all the main things you need to know about this vital step in software development.
What Is the Discovery Phase?
Let’s assume you’ve purchased a plot of land for construction and would like to build a house there. Most people would start by examining the territory and testing the ground. They’d consult with specialists regarding how to approach the construction properly or whether it is worth building the house in the chosen location altogether. It’s very unlikely that you’d just bring in all the building machinery, equipment, and brigade on site to start building your house immediately without due research and planning. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck with constant do-overs and a costly long-delayed construction site that’ll be a real pain.
Why did we bring this up? Well, guess what, software development is no different. This is exactly why the discovery phase of a software project is crucial from the business perspective regardless of whether the project is carried out in-house or in collaboration with an outsourcing partner, dedicated software development team, and so on.
What is the discovery phase of a project? Also called scoping, it implies conducting research and doing preparation work before beginning the actual development process, project execution, and launch.
In due course, the development team involved in the discovery stage and scoping:
collects data on the market and competitors;
defines the target audience;
figures out the main pain points, user needs, and goals;
tests out hypotheses;
settles on the project vision and value proposition;
lists the objectives, goals, deliverables and success indicators clearly;
identifies possible roadblocks, limitations, and bottlenecks;
lines out the scope of work ahead with tangible milestones and priorities;
shortlists the tech stack and specifies system requirements;
finalizes on design according to research;
decides on the features;
estimates the budget and deadlines.
When is the discovery phase held? As a rule, this integral step lies between project initiation and project planning in the development lifecycle. And it is a crucial one in project management, partially predetermining the overall success of the product-to-be and helping to avoid pitfalls and wasted resources.
Who Is Involved in the Project Discovery Team?
Just like with any software development project, your pool of specialists and web development team structure will vary. But it makes sense to involve more than one person in the project discovery phase so that you get diverse opinions from multiple professionals and various perspectives. This way, you’ll have a complete picture and make better decisions.
Here are some of the most common roles of a team during the discovery phase:
Project Manager (the main coordinator of the project who manages all the processes and is responsible for communication);
Business Analyst (in charge of research from competitors and user needs to putting together the vision of which features are needed, how the end-product might work, and which issues might arise);
UX/UI Designer (investigates the users’ pain points and demands, thinks about the ways to bring it all to life in terms of interface usability and design elegance via mockups, wireframes, and prototypes);
Developer (reviews the technical side of the project, suggests alternatives and the best fit ways to approach the development of specific features or notes the lack of possibility to bring them to life, creates the product architecture);
QA Engineer (sometimes included in the discovery process to share assumptions on possibly problematic areas during the solution execution and testing phases).
Such expertise sharing, brainstorming, and collaborative effort not only allow for shortlisting the requirements and making estimates during the project discovery phase. It also unites the team and brings them all on the same page. This means that all participants get a holistic view of the entire project and why this or that feature is there.
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Your idea may sound promising but will it meet expectations? When a project is in the initiation step, you can’t be sure that all your assumptions are correct. So it is essential to do research and test your hypotheses to adapt your vision and plan the project more efficiently. In other words, this is a smarter approach that takes data into account instead of basing your ideas merely on predictions. What will you gain from the discovery phase of a project?
Benefits of the Discovery Phase in Software Development Projects
There are numerous project discovery phase benefits, so let’s go over some of the most important ones.
1. Is discovery related to research? Certainly! Such assessment includes studying the market, the existing competitors, and the industry in general. It’s all about idea validation, as there’s always a chance that you’ll find out there’s no use creating the project or that your vision has to be altered so that the product fits the market better. Having such knowledge, you safeguard yourself from project failure.
2. When you understand your users and their needs, you have more opportunities to bring value and live up to expectations.
3. You can make better choices when choosing an appropriate tech stack and may allocate issues or potential obstacles at an early stage.
4. In turn, this helps build a solid project development strategy. You’ll have a mess when your plan and priorities shift all the time. So, by conducting initial research, you avoid unnecessary commotion and focus change too often, therefore streamlining development. This roadmap will put the project on the right track.
5. Most importantly, the discovery phase in project management gives way to a better return on investment. For instance, you can decide to drop the excessive features you don’t need, shorten the time to market, and figure out ways to cut costs or alter the team composition.
What If You Decide to Skip the Discovery Phase?
It is common for project owners to omit the discovery phase altogether. They:
could be allured by the desire to kickstart work on the software project as soon as possible;
are overconfident that the project is simple enough to be lined out as you go;
think that the discovery phase is a waste of time and money;
or maybe the step is bypassed because there’s a rush or pressure to launch the product without even a one-day delay.
Whatever the reasons are for cutting corners, neglecting project discovery phase may be quite a bad choice as unpleasant consequences generally follow. You risk facing various obstacles which will be harder and more resource-consuming to overcome than you might think at first. Here are a couple of points worth noting.
You’ll End Up Having a Useless Product
Once again, what if no one needs your product after all? Say, a competitor could have already implemented an unrivaled solution or won over your target audience who won’t switch to your product. Or maybe your solution won’t get the desired reach. What are you going to do then?
Although it could be devastating to admit that your project is vain, it’ll be even more disappointing to waste invested resources on building something useless. So maybe thanks to project discovery, you’ll decide to drop the project altogether or, alternatively, give it another brush to improve the initial vision and shift focus so that the product stands a chance to fit the market.
You’ll Face Additional Costs
If you don’t have a clear-cut plan of what you’re doing, you’ll likely go beyond your initial budget. For example, you might not have considered the additional workforce required. Or maybe the project timeline continuously extends because you change things around too many times.
How can you possibly make a profit or get the ROI you wanted in this scenario? Long story short, the skipped discovery phase may lead to budget bloat, which is never good.
You’ll Have an Infinite Scope of Work
Referred to as scope creep, this is a common problem when the number of tasks and the general workload starts piling up like a growing snowball. As a rule, this considerably stalls project launch.
If you want to avoid such chaos, the project discovery phase can visibly assist in getting things organized and become less vulnerable in this respect. What if you don’t need part of the functionality at all? Or you could have done it right right away instead of wasting time and money on going back and “duck taping” the imperfections?
You’ll Constantly Go Behind Schedule
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but scope creep and other “scaffolds” hamper project launch. You’ll keep on missing deadlines and face overtime and frustration. Milestones often depend on one another, so if you’ve messed up with one, it might stall the consequent steps. This is not what you’d want for your project, and the discovery phase can help to avoid that.
You’ll Have Compromised Quality
What happens when you rush things or choose the rough-and-ready manner? You lose quality. Of course, this doesn’t mean you should only present the project to the world when the whole list of exquisite features is out there. Feel free to show the MVP as long as it’s well-polished and then add on more complex functionality as time goes.
But does it always happen this way? No. In an attempt to make the deadline no matter what, you roll out a sloppy product, ruining first impressions (which, as you know, matter a lot).
Don't want to take the risk of skipping discovery?
The project discovery phase allows for mitigating many risks connected with the further development process and product launch.
How Upsilon Approaches the Project Discovery Stage
Let’s briefly go over the main points regarding the project discovery phase based on how we approach it on Upsilon projects.
1. Discovery Start
In general, the scale and duration of the discovery phase will depend on how big the software project will be. It is based on the input or how much you’ve managed to achieve during the initiation stage.
For instance, you might only have a vague idea about custom mobile app development or, on the contrary, possess a detailed shortlist of what your MVP should be like. No matter which scenario it is, the discovery phase begins by discussing the project and going further into the details of what the product needs.
Deliverables: reviewing what was achieved during project initiation
Average duration: several hours to several days
2. List of Priority Features for the MVP & Future Plans
Once the preliminary overview is complete, it’s time to settle on a list of features the solution should have, including the priority of their execution. As such, some functionality may fall under the “Present in the MVP” category, while the other features will be developed after the MVP launch.
During this step of project discovery, you also do industry research. You look for competitors and browse the solutions that are available on the market. List how some features you’re interested in were brought to life, noting their ups and downs as ideas for your product.
Deliverables: competitor analysis & defining the core product features
Average duration: 3 days to a week
3. Product Specification, User Stories & Information Architecture
After you have a better understanding of the competitors, it’s time to work on the product specification. It can be organized in dashboards, descriptions, lists, and so on to show the big picture of the project.
You may create use cases, proto-personas, and user stories showing the customers’ potential pain points and ways to address them. Plus, you can build the customer journey map that’ll show the entire path of a user’s interaction with the product. At times, this stage of the discovery phase may also include surveying potential customers or holding interviews with them regarding their product expectations.
Information architecture is also handled at this point. It helps to blueprint the key entities, how it all should work, what roles are out there, what features you’ll have, and how they should be connected with each other.
It is best to avoid major alterations at this point, especially those concerning the core features, so as to not roll back to the beginning of the discovery phase of a project.
Deliverables: have all the product fundamentals lined out clearly
Average duration: 1 week
4. Clickable Prototypes
Next, the UX/UI designers work on the design concept and visual representation of the project’s UX/UI in the form of wireframes, mockups, or prototypes. It is considered good practice to create clickable prototypes to contemplate how specific features work.
These bring tangible and immense value as you can see the interface in action and may make conclusions on what works, what doesn’t, and build upon that. For example, due to such trial and error, you may figure out how to reduce the number of clicks a user makes to perform an action, improving usability. You may also opt for getting even more feedback, for instance, by testing the clickable prototypes and showing them to real users.
Deliverables: clickable prototypes to present UX/UI
Average duration: 1 to 2 weeks
5. Application Design
Creating a full design of the product is a step that isn’t always included as part of the discovery phase of a software project. It implies modeling the entire look of the project in terms of UX/UI, based on which the developers will then create code. Such designs may take up to a couple of weeks.
Deliverables: a detailed design of the project
Average duration: 2 to 4 weeks
6. Technical Stack and Architecture
This step involves choosing the optimal web development tech stack that will be used for the creation of the project. Generally, the developers choose which programming languages, development frameworks, services, etc., will be optimal for successfully executing the project.
7. Time and Cost Estimation & Recommendations on Team Composition
Finally, the last project discovery step covers project estimation. This includes finalizing on the team composition, the key milestones, and the probable timeframes for each of the deliverables. Based on them, you can put together a timeline and calculate the approximate overall cost of the project. There are several best practices on how to make accurate project estimations that’ll be precise. Ideally, you also come up with a project map.
Deliverables: summary of how much the project will last and cost
Average duration: 1 or several days
At Upsilon, we believe in doing things right the first time. We know that project discovery can set the tone for the work ahead. In the following video interview, I answer the most common discovery stage questions and share expertise on how we approach the matter on our projects.
Duration and Cost of the Discovery Phase of a Software Project
So how much time does the discovery phase take and how much does it cost? Let’s elaborate a bit on the earlier mentioned step in discovery phase deliverables. In the table below, we give an example of how you may calculate the costs and duration of project discovery based on the average rates of different specialists who participate in the phase.
Business Analyst or Tech Writer
List of Priority Features for the MVP & Future Plans
Product Specification, User Stories & Information Architecture
Communication with the Team
Communication with the Team
Communication with the Team
Developer or Tech Engineer
Technical Stack and Architecture
Time and Cost Estimation & Recommendations on Team Composition
As a result, the project discovery phase may approximately take 6 weeks and may cost you around 6650 USD. Of course, we must note that this is just a rough estimate, and it’ll differ for every software project depending on its size, scale, complexity, and other factors.
And while this might seem like a lot at first glance, the value that the discovery phase brings is immense. You may avoid pitfalls during software project execution and ensure that the processes run smoother and faster.
Final Thoughts on the Discovery Phase
So, why is the discovery phase important? You make a comprehensive analysis, get a research-driven view of the product-industry fit, understand your audience and end-users better, allocate bottlenecks, and get to fine-tune the idea you’ve tested. This brings saved costs and other resources, not to mention a smoother development process and a more effective final result. By all means, the discovery phase shouldn’t be considered a delay to kickstarting the project’s development.
What happens after the discovery phase? There are several options. But usually, the next step after discovery is project execution. The teams are assigned and get down to work (be it creating designs or developing the solution according to the chosen software development model and plan).