The Discovery Phase in Software Projects [Full Guide]

project discovery phase

96% of software projects fail in some way or altogether.

According to a report by the Standish Group, 47% of projects suffer from delays, cost overruns, or are missing critical features.

While a staggering 49% failed either due to users rejecting the app or the client pulling the plug before completion.

So what goes wrong?

The answer often lies in the very early stages of the project - the discovery phase. This is a crucial time for idea validation, proper planning and risk mitigation.

The discovery phase sets the tone for the entire project. Yet, it is a phase that is often overlooked or not given the attention it deserves.

Table of Contents

  1. What is the ‘Discovery Phase’?
  2. Who is involved in the discovery phase?
  3. Common misconceptions and challenges
  4. Discovery Phase Benefits and Importance
  5. Why is the discovery phase important for every project?
  6. Discovery Phase Deliverables
  7. How we conduct discovery at All Front: Step-by-Step
  8. Discovery Phase Checklist
  9. On a final note

What is the ‘Discovery Phase’?

The discovery phase is the initial step of laying the groundwork for any project. It involves extensive research and ideation to clarify project requirements, goals, roadmap and scope before starting project execution.

The main objectives of the discovery phase are:

  • To define project goals and deliverables
  • To identify key challenges, constraints and risks
  • To outline project scope and requirements
  • To formulate a clear roadmap
  • To build alignment and consensus among stakeholders

Who is involved in the discovery phase?

Successful discovery phase requires active involvement and collaboration among all stakeholders. Who takes part may vary from project to project, but generally, these are:

  • Client: The client is the one who initiates the project. Their role during the discovery phase is to clearly communicate what they’re looking to achieve and lay out their expectations and business needs. This is key to shaping the project’s direction.

  • End user: The end user, or the people who will be using the product, are at the forefront of the discovery phase. Their input and feedback are essential for understanding user needs, preferences, and pain points. By gathering user feedback early on, your team can ensure that the final product meets user expectations and delivers a positive user experience. Note that in some cases the client and end user can be the same person.

  • Project Manager: The project manager coordinates and facilitates the discovery process, ensuring that all necessary research, analysis, and planning activities are carried out effectively. They work closely with all stakeholders to understand their needs, manage expectations, and set realistic project goals.

  • Product Owner: The product owner collaborates closely with the project manager and other stakeholders to provide insights into the product vision. They help define project goals, requirements, and priorities based on their understanding of the market, customer needs, and business objectives. The product owner acts as a liaison between the client, end users, and the development team, ensuring that the project stays aligned with the overall product strategy.

  • UX/UI Designer: UX/UI designers bring a user-centric perspective to the discovery phase. They collaborate with the rest of the team to understand user needs, behaviours, and preferences. By conducting user research, creating personas, and developing wireframes and prototypes, UX/UI designers help visualise the user experience and ensure that the product is easy to use, intuitive and accessible.

  • Software Architect: The software architect is responsible for designing the overall structure and system architecture of the product. During the discovery phase, they assess technical feasibility, evaluate existing systems and infrastructure, and identify potential technical constraints and opportunities. They will also find the right balance between taking on technical debt and building a highly flexible product. Their role is key to making sure the project is scalable, easy to maintain and follows best practices in development.

Common misconceptions and challenges

Where do things usually go wrong? Be wary of common misconceptions and challenges that can hinder the discovery phase’s effectiveness, such as:

  • Rushing through it

The discovery phase is not a box-ticking exercise but a critical phase that lays the foundation for project success. Neglecting or rushing through it can lead to misunderstandings, delays, and costly revisions later on. Keep in mind that skipping this phase is usually what happens when software providers offer a “free quote”.

  • Not involving stakeholders enough

Lack of active participation from key stakeholders can hinder the discovery phase's effectiveness. All relevant stakeholders taking on an active part in the discovery phase is essential for gathering diverse perspectives and aligning expectations.

  • Overlooking user research and validation

Failing to conduct thorough user research and validation during the discovery phase can result in building a solution that doesn't meet user needs. After all, how can you build a successful product if you don’t know who you’re building it for?

Discovery Phase Benefits and Importance

Once more for the people in the back: the discovery phase isn’t just a formality. It’s a critical step in product development that shouldn’t be bypassed or neglected. Let’s look at the key benefits of conducting a thorough discovery phase and why it matters:

  • Clear understanding of requirements

The discovery phase helps your team understand project requirements through in-depth discussions, research, and analysis. This foundation ensures that the final product aligns with user needs and business objectives.

  • User-centric decision-making

The discovery phase puts the user at the forefront. Through tools like user research, interviews, and usability testing, you gather valuable insights into user needs, pain points, and behaviour patterns. As a result, the final product encompasses seamless user experience and features that resonate with the target audience.

  • More accurate estimates

The discovery phase takes the “guesswork” out of estimates. It allows estimates to go from “gut feeling” to work which is broken down into an intricate level of detail. This allows stakeholders to make informed decisions into the project cost, schedule and resource allocation.

  • Better team synergy

The discovery phase encourages active involvement and engagement of all relevant stakeholders. This in turn promotes collaboration within the team. Everyone gains a shared understanding of the project’s vision, goals and how their individual tasks contribute to the project’s success.

  • Value-driven development

Through market and competitor research, you can prioritise features that provide the highest value first. Value-driven development ensures that the team stays focused on features that really matter by addressing the key pain points before nice-to-haves.

  • Empowering non-technical founders

Founders who are not that well-versed in software development often find it tricky communicating their requirements to developers. The discovery phase can empower non-technical founders to collaborate with the development team more effectively, making sure their vision is accurately translated into the final product.

Why is the discovery phase important for every project?

The side effects of skipping the discovery phase can be difficult to recover from.

  • Scope creep

Scope creep refers to the uncontrolled expansion of project requirements and features beyond the initial scope. According to a report by the Project Management Institute, 52% of projects experience scope creep, which often leads to project failure.

The prioritisation of tasks within the discovery phase helps reduce or eliminate scope creep altogether.

  • Increased costs

Blurred scope leads to higher incurred costs. As the project progresses, unexpected challenges can lead to the project going over budget. By breaking down tasks into smaller chunks, developers are forced to think about the problems they will encounter, reducing budget overruns.

  • Missed deadlines

As the discovery phase is a crucial step for setting realistic project timelines and milestones, skipping it means failing to identify potential roadblocks, dependencies, or technical constraints. As a result, missed deadlines can jeopardise the overall schedule and delay the launch date.

  • Poor quality

The discovery phase lays the groundwork for building a high-quality product. Rushing into development without proper evaluation of the requirements and risks can result in subpar design choices, usability issues, and functionality gaps that can be very expensive and time-consuming to fix.

  • Poor product-market fit

40% of startups fail because there is no demand in the market. Whether you’re building an MVP (minimum viable product) or improving an already existing product, the discovery phase is when validation takes place.

Without fully understanding market demand and user needs, you will invest a lot of time, effort and financial resources into a project that may need a strategic shift from day one.

Discovery Phase Deliverables

1. Project Scope and Roadmap

A clear project scope outlines what is included and excluded from the project, establishing expectations and boundaries for everyone involved. A preliminary project timeline is also created, indicating major milestones, deliverables, and estimated durations for each phase.

2. User Personas and User Stories

User personas represent different types of users. They capture specific characteristics, goals, behaviours, and preferences. User stories, on the other hand, are specific narratives that describe how users interact with the product and what value they get from the interaction. Both personas and user stories can help bridge the understanding of the target audience.

3. Technical Assessment

A technical assessment is conducted to evaluate any existing technology infrastructure and identify any constraints or opportunities. These may include system analysis, compatibility considerations, scalability requirements, and recommendations for most suitable tech stack, off-the-shelf solutions and third-party APIs.

4. Time and Cost Estimates

Once technical assessment and feasibility has been addressed, time and cost estimates relating to development and server costs can be identified. You also get preliminary estimates of the time and effort required to complete the project.

5. Wireframes and Mockups

The discovery phase involves creating initial design concepts, wireframes and mockups. These provide a visual representation of the product, its functionality and user experience. In some cases, interactive prototypes can also be created for testing and fundraising.

How we conduct discovery at All Front: Step-by-Step

Step 1: Idea Exploration

Here at All Front we kick off discovery through in-depth discussions with the client to begin understanding the problem they’re trying to solve and the business model.

We will also go through any materials the client might have such as basic sketches or diagrams and documentation. If we’re starting from scratch, we’ll hold multiple workshops to understand the client’s vision.

Step 2: Market Research

Once we have that initial direction, we’ll use multiple tools and methods (empathy maps, interviews, surveys, and competitor analysis) to research what’s already out there, who the competitors are, and what current market trends and standards can be applied to the project.

This will also help us uncover unique opportunities, differentiate the product from others on the market, and define the unique value proposition.

Step 3: Ideation & Experimentation

Once we have a better understanding of market demand and user expectations, we can start shaping the idea into an actionable project.

This is when we create the first design concepts as low-fidelity wireframes to provide a visual representation of the product - general structure and layout, features, navigational flow.

We'll also create different scenarios and use cases, which we’ll go through with the client to gather feedback and iterate. As we gain a deeper understanding of what works and what doesn’t we continuously tweak and improve the design.

Step 4: Optimising

Once the final version of the wireframes is reviewed and approved, we create the rest of the screens and polish the design by adding any cosmetic touches and branding such as colour palettes, fonts, and overall aesthetic.

We’ll provide a few UI and design options for the client to choose from before implementing the final version.

Step 5: Product Roadmap

We map out the project plan, organised and split into actionable tasks. This will provide a roadmap for any development team to start working on implementing the product.

Our goal is to translate your business idea into a functional digital product, and give you all the means necessary to start building it - whether or not we continue working together past the discovery phase.

Discovery Phase Checklist

Outline project goals

  • What problem are you trying to solve?
  • Who are your target customers?
  • What is the business model?

Research the market

  • What are other similar solutions on the market?
  • What are their strengths and weaknesses?
  • How is your product different? What is the unique value proposition?

Create personas and use cases

  • Develop fictional characters that represent your users
  • Define their characteristics, goals, motivations, pains
  • Put your personas in different scenarios: How would different users respond and act in response to a given context and features?

Define technical requirements

  • Collaborate with developers to choose the most suitable tech stack and integrations
  • Identify technical constraints and opportunities

Estimate deadlines and budget

  • Break down the development process into smaller tasks and estimate the time needed for each
  • Consider the availability and skills of your team or external resources

Develop the design concept

  • Create rough sketches or low-fidelity wireframes of your product's key screens and features
  • Use a prototyping tool or even just pen and paper to visualise user flows and interactions
  • Share these with stakeholders, gather feedback and improve the designs

On a final note

Without a solid foundation, software projects are more likely to encounter challenges that could have been addressed right from the start. Conducting a discovery phase can help mitigate risks, avoid costly mistakes, and deliver your project on time and within budget.

But it doesn’t have to be a complicated process. Here at All Front we’ve set up a straightforward and highly effective approach for carrying out project discovery that delivers on all your needs to start building a user-centric product.

Got an idea brewing? We'd love to hear it. Let's chat!


Project Management
David Stellini

22nd June 2023