The Project Discovery Phase: All Details Explained

Article by:
Anton Oparienko
16 min read
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, the overall startup failure rate proves that being prepared is important. 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 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. Upsilon has been providing discovery phase services for over a decade now, so we're happy to share some insights.

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 Project Discovery

What is the discovery phase of a project? Also called the scoping phase, 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 to have proof of concept (POC);
  • 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 optimal startup 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 product development life cycle. 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.

Project Development Lifecycle

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 (handles UX discovery, 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 UX wireframing, mockups, 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 QA testing phases).

Such expertise sharing, brainstorming, and collaborative effort not only allow for shortlisting the requirements and making estimates during the discovery phase of project planning. 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.

Not sure whether your project needs to go through discovery?

If you have doubts regarding whether your project could benefit from going through the discovery phase, let's discuss your needs.

Get in Touch

Not sure whether your project needs to go through discovery?

If you have doubts regarding whether your project could benefit from going through the discovery phase, let's discuss your needs.

Get in Touch

The Importance of the Project Discovery Phase

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 market 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 project creation?

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.

Project Discovery Phase Benefits

1. Is discovery related to research? Certainly! Such assessment includes studying the market, determining the market size, finding the existing competitors, and learning more about the industry state 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. Obtaining such knowledge in the process of discovery, 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. What is a discovery phase beneficial for, too? 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 product development roadmap will put the project on the right track. 

5. Most importantly, the discovery phase project management counts on 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 for cutting corners, neglecting the project discovery phase may be quite a bad choice as unpleasant consequences generally follow. You risk facing various obstacles that will be harder and more resource-consuming to overcome than you might think at first. Here are a couple of points worth noting.

Risks of Skipping Project Discovery

You'll End Up Having a Useless Product

In software development discovery phase exclusion can cause the project to take a deadly turn. 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, you'll give it another brush to improve the initial vision and shift focus so that the product stands a chance and you'll find product-market fit.

You'll Face Additional Costs

What is project discovery useful for as well? Saving your cash. If you don't have a clear-cut plan of what you're doing, you'll likely go beyond your initial project or startup 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 or MVP launch.

If you want to avoid such chaos, the project discovery phase can visibly assist in getting things organized and becoming less vulnerable in this respect. What if you don't need part of the functionality at all? Or you could have done it 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, the consequent steps might stall. This is not what you'd want for your project, and the discovery stage 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 (or even consider building in public) 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). Hence, don't press "fast forward" with the scoping phase.

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.

Book a Consultation

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.

Book a Consultation

How Upsilon Approaches the Project Discovery Stage

Now we'd like to briefly go over the main points regarding the project discovery phase based on how we approach it on Upsilon projects. We take as an example one of our internal products — OrgaNice. It is a bot that builds a team directory based on your Slack workspace data. Let's go over the main discovery phase steps one by one.

Upsilon's Discovery Steps

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 session 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 and Future Plans

Once the preliminary overview is complete, it's time to settle on a list of features the solution should have, including the sequence of their execution. As such, as you work on product feature prioritization you can put some functionality under the "Present in the MVP" category, while the other features will be developed after the launch. This is among the toughest discovery phase steps, as so much is at stake.

OrgaNice Features
OrgaNice features

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 and defining the core product features
  • Average duration: 3 days to a week

3. Product Specification, User Stories, and Information Architecture

After you have a better understanding of the competitors, it's time to work on the product specification. The discovery phase in software development can't do without organized dashboards, descriptions, lists, and so on that can show the big picture of the project. There are many MVP tools you can apply to simplify the process.

OrgaNice product specification
OrgaNice product specification

You may create use cases, proto-personas, and user stories showing the customers' potential pain points and ways to address them in the course of the software discovery process. Plus, you can build the customer journey map (CJM) 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. These are common MVP testing methods that are used for validation.

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 project planning.

  • Deliverables: have all the product fundamentals lined out clearly
  • Average duration: 1 week

4. Clickable Prototypes

Next, the UX/UI designers work on the MVP 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 a clickable product prototype to contemplate how specific features work.

OrgaNice clickable prototype
OrgaNice clickable prototype

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

The technical discovery step involves choosing the optimal 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.

For example, they may compare what will work better for some parts of the product, like custom vs off-the-shelf software solutions, or Angular vs React vs Vue, or think about which web application architecture will be most effective, allowing to save time and costs. Anything along these lines.

  • Deliverables: shortlisted technology stack and architecture
  • Average duration: 2 days to a week

7. Time and Cost Estimation and 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

Best Practices for Conducting the Project Discovery Phase

To recap the above and note all the must-dos, we've compiled some tips and recommendations to help your project discovery start on the right foot and ensure a successful outcome.

Discovery phase best practices

1. Involve Various Stakeholders

As mentioned earlier, including versatile people and specialists in discovery is a good idea. For instance, by adding the technical or delivery team, you'll get various opinions on the requirements, possible stumbling blocks, and optimal project execution. On a similar note, you can get even more different perspectives and consider the needs from multiple sides if you include end-users or sponsors, as well as hear out external experts.

However, don't involve too many people as this can easily complicate the process, and it'll be much harder to reach a consensus. Having up to 10 people is enough.

2. Form Your Goals Based on Research

Ideally, you have to move from problem to solution, not the other way around. I.e., before working on product creation, you must conduct thorough research, understand the industry and market state, and know which competing solutions are already available. Then define who your target audience is, make user personas, and formulate your product problem statement.

You should form your project goals and objectives only once you're equipped with this information, as without solid project discovery phase deliverables, you probably won't reach the desired outcome. That's why many entrepreneurs make use of OKRs and KPIs.

3. Give the Features Due Thought

Sometimes, when entrepreneurs go through feature brainstorming and prioritization, they forget the answer to the main question, "What is the discovery phase needed for?". Discovery is all about product hypothesis validation with the target market and finding the optimal approach to solving user pain points.

Therefore, you must select and pinpoint only that minimal set of features that'll meet user needs and help the product stand out. At least, that's what makes the most sense at the very start, as you can test your hypotheses and make changes to the features or add more of them after the MVP is released.

Then you'll also be able to determine a realistic project scope based on the shortlisted set you've prioritized.

4. Mind Usability

Your solution must be intuitive in use. Hence, the UX/UI design preparation phase during discovery isn't worth neglecting. Yes, writing user stories, creating User Story Maps, CJMs, mockups, wireframes, and prototypes is a lengthy process requiring lots of iterations to get things right. Nonetheless, it allows for eliminating many mistakes before the feature is passed on to the development team. So, basically, you'll have a more precise decision-making process with fewer alterations.

5. Choose the Optimal Project Management Approach

You need to stay organized and have the flexibility to make changes both while planning the project ahead and during the consequent development phases. Therefore, it is wise to use one of the software development models like Waterfall, Lean development, or Agile frameworks, including Scrum, Kanban, and Feature-Driven Development.

Surely, each is suitable for different project types. As such, MVP agile development is very popular, but you should make your choice according to the complexity of your project and its peculiarities.

Video Summary of the Discovery Phase of a Project

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 in our projects, as we've been providing discovery phase services for quite a while now.

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 step mentioned earlier in the 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.

Specialist Discovery Step Approximate Cost
Project Manager All steps 500 USD
Business Analyst or Tech Writer List of priority features for the MVP, future plans 1100 USD
Product specification, user stories, information architecture
Communication with the team
UX Designer Clickable prototypes 1300 USD
Communication with the team
UI Designer Application design 3100 USD
Communication with the team
Developer or Tech Engineer Technical stack and architecture 650 USD
Time and cost estimation, recommendations on team composition
Grand Total: 6650 USD

As a result, the project discovery phase cost will be 6k USD at Upsilon and the discovery period will take approximately 6 weeks.

And while this might seem like a lot at first glance, the value that the discovery stage 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.

From our experience as an MVP development company that has helped lots of startups and growing businesses with their products, we'd say that, by all means, the discovery phase shouldn't be considered a delay in 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 development model and plan).

What's for Upsilon, you can count on us not only for discovery. We've been providing MVP development services for early-stage startups for years and can assist you in shaping a quality MVP within three months. And if you're already past the MVP stage, we also provide team augmentation for growth-stage business to assist you in taking your product to the next level. So feel free to contact us to discuss your project and current needs!

FAQ

1. What is a discovery phase of a project?

Giving a basic discovery process definition for tech projects, it is an early stage of product development that deals with preparation, research, and detailed planning.

2. When does the project discovery phase take place?

The discovery stage is conducted before any development work begins. It is a step that's set in between ideation and execution on the project timeline.

3. What is the purpose of discovery in software projects?

The goal of the discovery stage is to prepare for product development and omit risks. Teams do research, gather information, clarify the project vision and goals, decide on the scope and development roadmap, handle all the preparation work, think of ways to optimize costs, and identify possible risks — all prior to starting development work.

4. Why is discovery important for software projects?

Ineffective development processes with tons of wasted resources and increased risks (both financial ones and misalignment with user expectations) are among the main reasons why discovery shouldn't be skipped. Those who want to ensure smoother execution begin with discovery, as it lets you clarify many unknowns and helps you avoid costly pitfalls (e.g., due to poor tech stack selection).

5. What is the average duration of the discovery stage?

Giving a rough estimate, a quality discovery process can be carried out within two business weeks. However, this depends on each individual case and on who handles discovery.

6. What happens in discovery phase processes?

Generally, teams do the following during the scoping phase: collect data, organize the findings (on the target audience, market, and competitors), line out the main objectives, settle on the value proposition, project scope, features to include, deliverables, tech stack, and other vitals. It may also include prototyping and solution design creation.

7. What comes after discovery phase completion?

Mentioning what comes after the discovery phase in a project, in most cases, the teams proceed with development tasks. The developers start coding and piecing together the solution based on the provided designs, test the solution, fix any bugs, and release it.

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