If you haven’t heard the term Discovery Phase, you might have referred to it as Ideation, Concepting, or simply Planning. In the context of software development, all these terms apply to the same process: Developing the initial product idea into a clear understanding of its business goals, functional goals and the effort behind implementing this solution.
In fixed-cost projects, Discovery is the best practice for initiating the project.
In Agile, initial Discovery activity establishes the high-level vision and scope of the solution, and an initial milestone-based plan for the delivery of the product.
Duration: the Discovery phase may last from several days to several weeks depending on project complexity.
First and foremost, you, the Product Owner, should provide relevant input. Be responsive and make time for discussions, brainstorming, surveys. Be willing to participate, provide discreet answers to your best knowledge, which will help the project team uncover your underlying needs and form a full understanding of your business requirements and goals. Some of the things you should be ready to discuss are the story behind your idea, product vision outline, the roadmap
On the other hand, the Project Team (your solution partner), usually featuring a Business Analyst, Project Manager, Implementation Manager, UI/UX Designer and a few other people, invest their time and apply skills to analyze your needs, recommend the best solution and to engineer requirements. You will be informed about the right team set up suggested for the Discovery phase as well as cost well before the whole exercise begins.
Output of the Discovery Phase
As the output of the Discovery stage, the product owner gets:
In fixed-cost projects:
Tech stack and solution architecture
A functional specification in form of User Stories
Proof of concept (if your product idea or any parts of it need verification of their technical feasibility) or draft wireframes
A cost and time estimate
In Agile projects:
Product vision statement document
Tech stack and solution architecture
Initial milestone-based plan for the delivery of the product
Detailed MVP/first sprint scope (User Stories) and time/cost estimates
Proof of concept (if relevant)
Very high-level cost estimate of the overall project in its current form
The Value of Discovery Phase
In the market economy, the value of something is determined by comparing the cost of implementing it and the risks of not implementing it - which outweighs the other?
Skipped Discovery in a rush? See no point to it? Think again.
A smart product owner should not neglect the value of Discovery stage, be it for a fixed-cost / fixed-bid / Waterfall project, or an agile project.
Apart from the basic justification - Measure twice, cut once - below is a list of benefits product owners will get from investing effort and funds into the Discovery phase, and what could go wrong if they didn’t.
1. Don't get a Guesstimate, get a realistic Estimate
In addition to putting you and the solution provider on the same page and completely transferring your vision to them, the output of the Discovery Phase defines the scope (either for the whole project or MVP). Based on that, features can be estimated with a much higher level of accuracy.
Estimates produced without the Discovery stage, are largely referred to as guesstimating. If neither the product owner nor the implementation team want to invest their time into preliminary discussions, the estimates will be based on Assumptions and will include significant Risks. The higher the risks, the higher is the uncertainty factor. Discovery Phase can help eliminate most of the the uncertainty and reduce risks early in the process.
2. Verify your idea early in the process / Confirm technical feasibility
Thanks to the proofs of concept and prototyping techniques applied at Discovery Stage, product owners can confirm the technical feasibility of their ideas or specific product features before taking the project further.
Imagine how disappointing it would be to discover that some features are not possible halfway through the project, after so much work has been done already. What if the feature that was deemed to be impossible is in fact the core feature of the product?
3. Pick the best solution option
At Discovery Phase, Business Analysts together with implementation experts assess your business needs and/or market requirements, evaluate possible solution options and make recommendations. This way, your initial requirements can be complemented by the Supplier’s technical knowledge, the limitations and possibilities of the current technology state. This also includes getting professional recommendations about the most relevant tech stack that would suit your project’s needs.
Brainstorming can lead to discovery of new ideas or approaches, and combining features in such a way that transforms your solution on many levels to best address the need.
4. Select the most relevant solution partner
With the validated solution and defined scope (either full or MVP) in place as the outputs of the Discovery Phase, the product owner can:
- Distribute these among several companies to receive a second opinion
- Compare offerings and make the best choice of vendor
Without the clarified and documented scope, the product owner compares a set of numbers (that rarely represent the same things) from several vendors, then makes a decision based on the received results. Different firms have different approaches to estimating.
5. Most accurate time to market forecast
If you’re planning a major rollout, you have to arrange all the logistics well in advance, align all resources nicely so that all pieces of the puzzle come together smoothly as you progress. In this case, it is adamant to have your software product in the best form on time.
As the Discovery phase results in clear scope and estimated due dates, it grants you the highest chance of timely delivery. If the production starts without the defined scope and its limits, timeline estimates are rarely true to life.
6. Prevent Scope Creep: Define scope & Align scope
If the solution and its boundaries (What is in scope? What is out of scope?) have not been clearly defined in the beginning of the project (Discovery), projects are at high risk of struggling with the Scope Creep (uncontrolled growth of project scope): your budget is stretched ad infinitum it seems.
It has to do with misinterpretation of requirements: minor difference in understanding in the beginning of the project can lead to frequent clashes with the development team about what is in or out of scope. Discovery phase is there to sync solution visions from the start, establish an effective process for change request management, to prevent Scope Creep.
As the product vision evolves with each Sprint, each new proposed feature is reassessed against the current business context to ensure that it will effectively align with the business goals.
Without the initial Product Vision Statement (and its documented evolution over time), it may be challenging to recognise the most relevant functionality.
7. Managing expectations
The outputs of the Discovery Phase set the bar for managing expectations from the solution.
If all sides know what to expect from the project, in the end the product owner is happy because he got a solution that meets his business needs, within reasonable time and expected budget. Developers are happy to deliver.
Not having synced their expectations at the start, the product owner(s) and the software vendor will have had one too many misunderstandings, which can lead to mistrust, hard feelings, even broken partnerships. A proper alignment early in the process - a Discovery Phase - can help eliminate some of the uncertainty and keep risks at bay.
8. Additional value of Discovery phase for startups
When dealing with innovative ideas of startups, we combine workshops with producing proofs of concept, to validate the feasibility of their ideas early in the process. For startups, the deliverables of the Discovery phase are also a significant credibility point during investor negotiations; wireframes can be used for early adopters' feedback. Generally, the whole exercise is a good start into the Lean product development strategy.
Here at Lemberg Solutions, we have been working with both startups and established businesses to help meet their business goals and deliver successful products. From our experience, a professionally conducted Discovery Phase lays down the foundation for a product that is valuable, meets the market needs / business requirements and individual needs of all stakeholders, is on budget and with the fastest time to market.
Complying with the best practices of Business Analysis, Agile software development and Lean startup ecosystem, Lemberg Solutions has established an effective Discovery Phase process with clear steps and deliverables. You can trust us to guide you through Discovery, to MVP, to product launch and maintenance. Reach out to get started!