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What Is a Discovery Phase and When Does Your Project Need It?

October 21, 2021
8 min
software Discovery Phase

If you ask someone to explain the phases of software development, it’s likely that you’ll hear first about design, coding, testing, deployment and, maybe, further technical maintenance. All these answers are correct. But in looking at the entire development process, this list lacks one crucial point: the project discovery phase.

If you want your software project to succeed, don’t underestimate the importance of this stage, which can save you from project failure. To learn how, keep reading. We’ll explain the peculiarities of the discovery phase and its importance.

Discovery Phase: What is it?

Let’s start with a general definition of the discovery phase, sometimes known as the scoping phase.

In software development, it is the first stage of the project realization. It includes collecting and analyzing information about the project concept and its end users, including their needs and demands. The task for the development team is to make sure they correctly understand the client’s needs and that the final product will fully meet the client’s expectations. In other words, this gives the vendor and client the opportunity to ensure they are on the same page and understand each other.

The process of gathering this information usually also includes research into competitors and the current market situation. The result of this phase should be a clear, in-depth understanding of the goals of the project, its scope, and potential pitfalls.

The main aspects under research at this phase include:

  • Product idea
  • Product requirements
  • Possible challenges and potential solutions
  • Approaches to achieving the greatest optimization and feasibility of the development roadmap. 

Based on the gathered data, the development team decides on the tech specifications and provides the client with all the necessary tech documents.

It’s important to understand that a poor understanding of market peculiarities and project scope often leads to failures, including problems with meeting deadlines and keeping the project within budget.

Benefits of conducting a project discovery phase

What are some other benefits of going through this phase? Is it really worth devoting time to it?

  • At this phase, it is possible to validate the idea itself and determine the entire product vision.
  • You can get your software architecture built and all core features identified.
  • Developers gain a good understanding of the whole scope of the project, and thanks to that clients can get clear deadlines for the project realization.
  • Customers get a more precise estimate of the budget needed to build the product.
  • You may get a pixel-perfect design of your app. (Note that this is not an obligatory component of this stage; for some clients, it will be enough to see only wireframes at this phase.)
  • The risk of ending up with software that differs from expectations is minimized. At this stage, developers can gather all the information they need from the client, while clients can ensure their wishes are understood correctly.
  • Customers have a great opportunity to communicate closely with the development team before proceeding to project development and to see whether they are satisfied with the quality of communication and business approaches. If something goes wrong, clients can take the prepared technical documents and continue work on the project with another vendor.

This obviously means the discovery phase can help avoid many issues related to budget and deadlines and detect potential difficulties in cooperation with your development team before starting active development

When can you skip a discovery phase?

Though we shouldn’t underrate the role of this stage, there are times when it can be skipped, for example, when:

  1. You already have a software solution and just need to enrich it with some features or to introduce some changes.
  2. You already have all the necessary project tech documentation (it may even have been prepared by another vendor). In this case, it will be enough just to conduct an audit of the existing documents and proceed to the development phase.

In all other cases, especially when you’re building a product fully from scratch, we highly recommend including this phase.

Discovery phase activities

Given the differences in business approaches between various software development companies and the peculiarities of projects, steps included in the discovery stage can vary. At Cogniteq, based on the requirements and needs of our clients, we offer several options.

When we start work on a project we always offer a free business analysis default stage that includes a detailed analysis of the client’s requirements, confirmation of the scope of the project and onboarding of a development team. However, research at this level doesn’t allow us to get all the information necessary to avoid all risks related to project realization. This stage doesn’t allow a development team to get fully involved in a project and provide precise time and budget estimates. As a result, all the benefits of a full-scale discovery stage are not guaranteed.

That’s why it is highly recommended not to skimp on or skip this important stage. As all projects are different in their scale and specificity, it is challenging to name a list of universal steps for research at this stage. But as a rule, the plan looks something like this.

discovery phase stages

  1. Preparatory stage. To begin with, the development team gathers the most basic information about the project, its goals, and the client’s expectations.
  2. Product discovery workshop with project sponsors and other stakeholders. At this step, we offer to organize a workshop that will allow us to define all the purposes of the project, validate them and discuss a lot of related aspects. The main topics are the target audience, the business model, user stories, and the development roadmap.
  3. Definition of artifacts and design. We review all the existing internal documentation and research on the project. We analyze the needs and demands of end-users, based on information received in interviews with them conducted by our team. After the market research, we plan the product architecture, create wireframes, and develop all the necessary tech documents. In accordance with the approved wireframes and tech documentation, we can create a user-centric design that allows you to get an interactive prototype already at this phase. Depending on the requirements of our customers, we can also prepare user personas and a customer journey map.
  4. Presentation of work results. When all the previous steps are completed, clients get a full set of project documentation that we will consider further. Now everything is ready to proceed to the MVP development. 

Discovery phase deliverables

What can you get after the discovery phase is over?

discovery phase deliverables

  • Vision and Scope. This document fully describes the future software solution, including its application areas, use cases, key features, core functionality, user roles, and steps toward implementation. This is one of the most important documents that a project manager will use to control and organize the development process.
  • High-level solution architecture.  This provides an overview of the entire solution with all the major components that should be built for the product, as well as their interfaces.
  • User-centric design. The client can get a pixel-perfect design of the solution that will help define, even at the discovery phase, whether something should be changed. It helps prevent a situation where significant improvements are suddenly required much later, after the product is substantially developed, causing serious shifts in deadlines.In some cases, instead of the entire design, it is enough to present only wireframes. These usually include the most basic visuals and content. They are usually not interactive and merely serve as checkpoints for the project team at the initial stages of the design process. They help to visualize and test concepts and requirements. However, wireframes can also present more precise visualizations. It all depends on the client’s demands.
  • Development plan and detailed estimates. The team describes all the development steps, with set deadlines and tasks included in each step. The provided information also includes estimates that will help clients to better allocate and manage the budget and understand what they are paying for.
  • Backlog with user stories and acceptance criteria. User stories are informal explanations of the product’s features, written from the perspective of the app users. They serve to describe how a particular feature will bring real value to a user. The Agile discovery phase approach usually includes user stories in a backlog, a list of tasks needed to be fulfilled for building a product. 

A backlog also contains acceptance criteria that explain the expected outcomes in simple language, clearly stating what is acceptable and what is not.

Team and time required for a scoping phase

The time and resources needed for conducting this research greatly vary based on the individual peculiarities of each project.

On average, a discovery phase takes 2–6 weeks. Team compositions can also differ. A business analyst usually heads the team responsible for conducting research. Among other experts involved in the discovery procedures, there may be solution architects, designers, project managers and developers

Summary

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the discovery phase is one of the most crucial stages for minimizing project failure risks. Some may argue that this phase is an unnecessary expense, but the reality is that it is part of a money-wise approach to software development.

At Cogniteq, we pay a lot of attention to market research and concept analysis, as we strongly believe that data gathered at the preparatory stage will help organize the development process in a feasible and efficient way, plan the budget, and set deadlines that will be met successfully. 

We encourage customers not to skip this step, as it is also a great opportunity to get to know each other better and to build trust with your vendor. 

If you have an idea of the project, our experts are always ready to help you with the development of all the necessary tech documentation and market research needed to ensure your project thrives. Leave your message for us and we will contact you as soon as possible.