What Is Discovery Research And Why Is It Essential?

Photo of Ewelina Szczepaniak-Wenting

Ewelina Szczepaniak-Wenting

Updated May 8, 2024 • 11 min read

Conducting extensive discovery research prior to starting a project or setting up a business is absolutely essential in terms of gaining an accurate understanding of the factors a business must consider.

This process never truly stops, as research is carried out continuously throughout a product’s life cycle. Though one of the crucial elements, yet it’s also the most frequently bypassed preliminary phase of developing new business concepts.

Discovery research can identify a business’s potential target audience, the best channels or mediums with which to reach them, and much more.

What is discovery research?

Discovery research, sometimes also referred to as exploratory research or generative research, refers to the investigation process that can consist of assessing several areas:

  • What market a business is planning to enter,
  • What users (prospective customers) it is planning to target,
  • The concerns within the problem space (which is connected to the aforementioned factors).

During each stage of the research cycle, discovery research involves a range of different research methods. This includes market research, desk research, establishing competitors, outlining expectations, creating goals and ambitions, outlining current knowledge, pinpointing the company’s current position within the market, and acknowledging future users (early adopters and innovators) and more.

double _diamond_model

The Double Diamond Model, source NN/g

As is demonstrated in Figure 1 above, discovery research can be simplified to a straightforward process, whereby researchers discover and then clearly define the problems they have encountered.

The problem space refers to the areas of the market that are not being addressed or targeted (e.g. niche markets), the problems that users are facing which could be solved with a new product or service, or the issues occurring within the market in general (e.g. oversaturation or scarcity).

The main focus of discovery research phase includes:

After having established the issues within the problem space, a UX researcher can then begin work on creating solutions to the issues they have identified.

Why is discovery research important?

Discovery research is something that must be carried out continuously throughout the lifecycle of a product or service.

Markets, technologies, trends, and customer expectations are always changing. Therefore, businesses must make sure they are consistently conducting research, in order to keep ahead of these changes and react accordingly.

Without the discovery phase the solution we suggest, although validated with the users in the very early stages, might be far from the desired one. There is also a very possible risk that the solution, although very nicely designed, solves a problem that hardly anybody has. That’s why discovery research helps to identify areas of potential issues before business encounters them.

Risk mitigation

If a business decides not to carry out discovery research, the result could be catastrophic. This is because of the potential for missed opportunities, a lack of understanding of what they should be looking out for and tracking, and much more.

Funders and entrepreneurs sometimes like to jump straight to conclusions, they sometimes take their assumptions for granted and begin work on the solution straight away, overlooking the potential unknown flaws their ideas may have, and missing the valuable insights they could gain through research.

User discovery research helps businesses to avoid risks, or at the very least, prepare strategies to combat the challenges they may face with the creation of a new product or service.

Understanding markets

In business, the phrase ‘know your market’ is commonplace, and it’s an essential aspect of the successful running of a business or project.

Discovery research can help businesses to understand if their proposed product idea or service would be a good fit for the market they plan to enter.

In the discovery phase, businesses can compare and contrast their ideas with existing products and services in the market, in order to conclude whether or not they can offer a legitimate alternative to the market.

In addition, researchers may also discover ‘gaps in the market’ (or niche markets) wherein they can potentially exploit a part of the market that their competitors have not yet catered to.

They may also be able to enter the market and solely focus on this particular part of it, and they could also own this particular part of the market (i.e. own a market share).

Solving problems

In general, products and services are created with the purpose of addressing a problem that customers may have. This is not the only reason of course, but broadly speaking, this is where the idea behind a new product or service will come from.

Studying markets in the discovery phase is all about understanding what customers want, and what they don’t want, as well as what they need.

Sometimes when researchers are conducting discovery research, they may even solve a problem that customers didn't know they had, although other times they might solve a genuine problem, and then discover afterwards that very few people are experiencing or voicing this problem.

The point is, whatever product or service the business decides to create, it must have a clearly defined goal and purpose, and it should ideally address a problem that the markets have yet to solve.

Saving time and costs

There are also other benefits to conducting discovery research, which revolves around the creation of the product or service.

For instance, businesses might be able to reduce design costs and development time if they identify challenges early on in the discovery phase.

After all, it’s better to get things done correctly the first time, rather than having to track back and reexamine the design process to identify problems.

Getting to know early adopters and innovators

By taking the time to perform effective discovery research, businesses can also identify the people who want or need the product or service the most.

From here, the business can build a community of innovators and adopters who could be reached out to during the solution testing phase, which will bring valuable insights, helping to improve the product or service.

Discover your business ‘didn’t know thats’

Discovery research can naturally teach you more about your business, and can even bring forth information that you may not have been aware of.

Elsewhere it can help to clarify the greatest opportunities that the business has yet to take advantage of, and the impact of said missed opportunities if they are not capitalized on.

As we’ve mentioned previously, discovery research enables businesses to identify customer needs that can be addressed, and problems that have yet to be solved within the markets.

Within the context of market research, businesses can understand how competitors are currently managing their product or service in the market, or mitigating the problems that currently exist with the current product or service offerings.

Researchers can also discover who the customers or stakeholders most affected by the current problems in the market are, what their unmet needs and unfilled ambitions might be, and how your solution might be the answer.

Finally, discovery research can also provide businesses with a basis for understanding what their limitations are and what abilities they currently have, both of which are essential in terms of knowing when to select a particular option.

How to perform discovery research

The most important thing to be kept in mind is the fact that discovery research isn’t a one-time process, but a universal research cycle. It can be applied to check business concepts, product ideas, new features development, and many more.

What are the steps?

  • Step 1. Clearly define what the problem is that you’re attempting to solve, or the benefits that your product or service brings to the market.
  • Step 2. Write down as many assumptions about the product or service as possible.
  • Step 3. Utilize research tools such as user personas cards, product-market fit cards, testing cards, empathy maps, and any other research and planning tools that will help you map out your knowledge and findings.
  • Step 4. Begin independent research! Collect as much information as you can through desk research (primary research), get access to secondary market research, interview innovators and early adopters, create focus groups, and exhaust all other possible research avenues.
    Make sure to find out if there are existing competitors that already offer what you are proposing, check out reviews online, subscribe to blogs, regularly monitor google trends and search volumes, seek out expert opinions, purchase market reports, join online forums and social media discussions, and search for anywhere else online that people are expressing and exchanging their thoughts about your proposed product or service idea.
  • Step 5. Revise your assumptions and compare them with what you have learned through your discovery research. From there on, make the necessary adjustments and finalize your thoughts.

UX design process example

In the UX-design field, team members investigate the problem space to fully understand what the potential problems are.

From there, the UX designers would then begin to collect data, information, and justification for their next moves, which ideally would address the issues they have identified.

So in essence, the discovery phase of user research involves the process of identifying potential problems and then creating solutions to these problems in further phases of the development process.

Discovery research and… what’s next?

When the research is finished and your internal or an external research team is content with the information they have collected and has ideally come to a unanimous decision regarding how to proceed, the next logical step would be the product prototyping and testing phase.

Researchers could of course choose to perform the testing as part of the discovery phase, but it’s probably better to keep the processes separate to avoid confusion and to move forward with a clearly defined direction.

From there on, the business should move forward with their solution that has been informed by their discovery research.

Photo of Ewelina Szczepaniak-Wenting

More posts by this author

Ewelina Szczepaniak-Wenting

Ewelina works as Senior User Researcher at Netguru.
Learn how we conducted UX research of the VTO offerings  Find out more about our internal project Read the case study

We're Netguru

At Netguru we specialize in designing, building, shipping and scaling beautiful, usable products with blazing-fast efficiency.

Let's talk business