UX & Design

Crafting the Discovery: how to start design projects. Part 1

The 13th Information Architecture and User Experience conference in Europe offered a multitude of sessions and workshops. So many great ideas that I will unpack them in two blog posts.

Kristine Smukste
Kristine Smukste

Reflections on EuroIA 2017 conference: Part 1

Late September, I attended a conference in Sweden, well known among Information Architects and UX folks. It was the 13th time EURO IA Summit had taken place, attracting specialists and enthusiasts from all over the world. Mostly Europe, as the name and location gives it away.

For various reasons it took me a while to reflect on my first-time participant’s experience. And, even though I intended to blog about it much sooner, this time in between gave me plenty of food for thought to digest some ideas and concepts articulated at the EURO IA. So, here’s a summary of the conference highlights and ideas that I took away and have pondered on since the event.

Dan Brown introducing an exercise

Discovery is not a phase. It’s a mindset and an approach. The goal is to get everyone to agree on the same set of assumptions that inform the design decisions.

Why investing in discovery pays off

Different agencies, UX professionals and companies call that first phase of the project many names. At Wunderkraut, we commonly refer to it as concept & design phase. Dan Brown, who led the discovery workshop at EURO IA 2017, calls it discovery. But, basically, it comprises the series of activities one would normally do before getting to actual implementation and coding of any digital solution, be it a website, an app, a database or anything else. There’s a whole array of things we can do in discovery. However, very rarely we get to do many of those activities, usually due to time and budget restraints we face.

In the workshop, Dan covered a whole bunch of things related to the discovery. For instance, planning and timeline considerations, tools and approaches that can be applied, how to decide on relevant deliverables or formats, stakeholder involvement - to name a few. 

What to keep in mind when planning discovery

The following two considerations stuck with me from the session:

  1. Explain the meaning, importance and benefits of discovery phase, and some of its activities, to colleagues or customers.

    We all have been in situations where shortcuts seem to be a good idea… to save time, make the launch date or save budget. And, yes - we often regret taking these shortcuts. Because shortcuts tend to backfire and make us do make more iteration rounds or start from scratch again, lose time and burn budget. Cutting corners not only makes product owners nervous, it also demotivates the project team. Which is why it’s so critical to get everyone on the same page from the very beginning.

    Discovery is not a phase. It’s a mindset and an approach. It’s so crucial to ask those hard questions and creating a shared pool of knowledge. The goal is to get everyone to agree on the same set of assumptions that inform the design decisions. 

    An interesting way to think and approach the discovery is by assuming that you can’t understand the problem until you’ve tried to solve that problem. This implies that with research and insights you can start designing a solution early on.

    The idea behind such early exploratory work is that you keep discovering and polishing those insights to continuously improve the design and functionality. A bit like “perfecting with every iteration”. The important thing is to keep evaluating and validating along the way.

  2. Discovery is not a linear process. It’s difficult to stick to the same assumptions and design solutions you first lay out. Because inevitably you will face new insights and the solution will require some adjustments or changes.

    After all, the digital landscape demands constant change. And there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Rather, it’s follows a dialectic, spiral path. Depending on project specifics, stakeholders, requirements, technical restraints and so many other variables you will be forced to adapt the discovery to fit that project and that customer. 

So don’t be afraid to diverge thinking by gathering insights and exploring potential solutions. Because this initial exploratory stage will lead to convergent thinking once you’ve processed the information and identified what should be in the focus.

Key goals of project discovery: alignment, definition and participation

Don’t be afraid to diverge thinking by gathering insights and exploring potential solutions. Discovery means juggling between divergence and convergence.

Some good tips for running a discovery:

  • keep a document where you and other project stakeholders can jot down any ideas, thoughts or insights. Even if it’s a “dump” doc - it will come in handy to trace back thoughts and design trial solutions
  • participation of different stakeholders can foster solving complex projects as you create that shared understanding of challenges and expectations
  • visualising the current state (a website, an app or content model) and overlaying identified problems can illuminate gaps and areas that require attention
  • ponder on what deliverables would make the most sense for the project and the customer. Sometimes even the different presentation format can play a role. A printed large-scale poster can remind the customer about the project design principles or goals. Physical artefacts can serve well as collective reminders
  • don’t take the linear discovery approach as granted. There can be twists and turns that will benefit the end result as you continuously learn something new about the project or product, its maintenance and users
  • sometimes finding or formulating the “big idea” for the project can help internalise and connect to the concept. By giving the project concept a name and voice, you can create a connection that eases familiarity and warming up to the final result. 

Overall, I enjoyed Dan’s session and his style of presenting. Above all, the way he “managed” the audience was brilliant. Bringing out the inner child in the audience eases the collaboration and in a humorous way can help reduce tension, making sure everyone can express opinions and be heard.

Find out what a “silent coyote” signal means. A genius technique! :) 


Dan Brown co-founded EightShapes (US) to serve clients in healthcare, education, not-for-profit and high-tech. Since 1994, Dan’s focused on digital product discovery and definition, user research, information architecture, content strategy and interaction design for content-heavy sites, complex web applications, and digital products.

Dan recently published a book "Practical design discovery".
Elite Marina Hotel in Stockholm - venue of Euro IA conference in 2017