The biggest risk for software projects is building the wrong thing. You can build the wrong thing perfectly, and if it doesn’t provide the right business value, it was a waste of time and budget. Our clients are looking for solutions. It’s our job to help them discover the right problems to solve and then develop an implementation plan. To address this need we started to do discovery projects to make sure we start projects off with a shared vision, understanding of a problem, clear set of goals, and a start to prioritizing needs.
Discoveries begin with pre-work, culminate in an in-person discovery meeting, and end with the delivery of documentation explaining what we’ve learned, our recommendations for how to proceed, and an estimate for the cost to do so.
Our clients are looking for solutions. It’s our job to help them discover the right problems to solve.
During the “pre-work” phase of a discovery, we spend a lot of time with key stakeholders. We’re working to understand what they each feel they need in order for the project as a whole to be considered a success. We’re also asking a lot of questions about why we’re doing this, who the audience is, and what can make the project fail. We prefer to interview a single stakeholder at a time because folks will often share real concerns one-on-one that they won’t share in a larger group.
Here are a few sample questions or statements we might use:
Tell me about your role and how it connects to this project.
How will we measure success on this project?
Who will measure success on this project?
In your opinion, what will keep this project from succeeding?
We also examine any brand guidelines or marketing materials, research competitors, evaluate the current site, perform content audits—and, when valuable, we interview users and perform usability testing or other user research. Anything that will immerse our team in the culture of our customer and help us understand the problems the customer team is facing. One of the major goals of all this pre-work is to be really well prepared for the in-person meeting. We’ve learned that doing the prep work before the in-person meeting makes the most productive use of everyone’s time. By spending some time becoming familiar with the problem space we can walk into the in-person meeting ready to make valuable decisions.
... immerse our team in the culture of our customer and help us understand the problems the customer team is facing.
With all of this information gathered, we schedule the in-person meeting. Our preference is to do these at our client’s office so that we can get to know folks who wouldn’t necessarily make the trip to our office, but also because being in their office helps us understand their culture. During these meetings, we have found it very helpful to have a few key roles present from our team.
The first person needed on our team is someone who is tasked with keeping the meeting on schedule. This person has to walk a line between allowing some exploratory conversation and moving things along. Typically, the assigned Project Manager from our team is the best fit for this role. Just as important as the Project Manager is someone who will ask a lot of questions and challenge the status quo. There is a healthy tension between these two vital roles. Other smart folks will likely be in the room as well. We’ve found it tremendously valuable for team leads (technical, creative, etc.) who will work on the project to be around soaking up the fantastic conversation. Being present for a discovery meeting provides such a great amount of context.
From the customer’s team, we aim to have a few specific folks present as well. The primary point of contact during the project is a definite person we want involved. We also like to make sure the stakeholder whose budget our work is coming out of is in the meeting for at least some amount of time. In addition, we want all of the unique client viewpoints in the room so that we can understand their needs and give them a voice in the direction of the project. Having these key stakeholders or team members attend can be tremendously valuable.
... we want all of the unique client viewpoints in the room so that we can understand their needs and give them a voice in the direction of the project.
With the right folks assembled, we can jump into prioritizing the goals of the project—answering that key question, “What problem are we trying to solve?” We push hard to narrow this down to just three goals, and we also have a lot of conversation around how we can measure these goals. This is one of the most important things that we have walking out of these meetings. Business needs can change, priorities change, but goals should rarely ever change.
We also prepare exercises that have been informed by our pre-work to help us have good guesses of where the project team will find value. Depending on the type of project, we may spend a good amount of time understanding and prioritizing features. We may do more creative exploration, or we may deep dive into some areas where we suspect there will be a real challenge. Anything we can do to better understand where the real value will be, we’ll give it a try.
And, we make sure we take time to enjoy lunch and dinner together. In all honesty, this is some of the most valuable time we have. Simply getting to know the folks we’ll be working with is the first step toward establishing trust. And that trust will absolutely be needed down the line when we have hard decisions to make together.
Once we work through the in-person discovery meeting, the Sparkbox team spends some time regrouping and documenting what we’ve learned. Most of this is done in a Project Brief, which calls out the prioritized goals and how we will measure and achieve them. It also explains whatever other documentation we’ve provided—this could be a Technical Strategy, an Experience Strategy, an estimate, or a timeline. Again, there’s no prescription here, we provide what will serve our customer best moving forward.
Discovery Projects Mitigate Risk
Simply getting to know the folks we’ll be working with is the first step toward establishing trust. And that trust will absolutely be needed down the line when we have hard decisions to make together.
By doing a discovery project we can help mitigate the largest risk in our projects—building the wrong thing. All projects will still be full of decisions, but at least we will know where to start and have a sound, strategic vision to align our decisions.
What’s amazing about this process is that we’re able to uncover hidden expectations that both of our teams bring to the table. The process of planning aligns our people, and people are the ones solving the problems.