Design Process for Pros — Discovery | Comprehensive Guide 2023

Design Process: Discovery - Midjourney illustration

Imagine setting out on an expedition without a map, a compass, or even a clear understanding of the destination. You would be wandering aimlessly, with a high likelihood of exhausting resources and meeting numerous dead ends. This is what designing without conducting a comprehensive discovery phase could feel like. A discovery phase paves the way through the wilderness of assumptions, bringing clarity to the problem space and putting the project on the path of data-driven decisions.

As part of the design process, the discovery phase serves as the crucial initial step in which designers delve deeply into understanding and clarifying the problem (or problems) they need to solve for users.

In this chapter, you’ll learn about the following areas:

  • The discovery phase in the design process
  • When is discovery needed?
  • The benefits and pitfalls of design discovery
  • Steps in a discovery process
  • Case studies of successful design discovery
  • Types of research methods for discovery

Similar to other chapters, we’ll also cover the following:

  • Desired outputs of this phase
  • Questions to ask yourself at this stage
  • Questions the client may ask
  • Supplementary reading

What is the discovery phase in the design process?

The discovery phase is a preliminary stage in the product design process that involves exploring the problem space, gathering data for guidance, and defining the problem to be solved. Discoveries are critical for getting design projects off on the right foot by focusing on the right problems and, as a result, designing the right solution.

As the foundation upon which all subsequent design decisions are made, it requires a systematic approach. The discovery phase typically encompasses desk and market research, identification of competing product ideas and potential competitors, and in-depth user interviews, among other research methods (more on this later).

The discovery phase does not yet involve testing hypotheses or solutions. A common error in the design process is rushing through or entirely bypassing the discovery phase, with businesses jumping directly to solution generation based on assumptions. But such haste can lead to solutions that fail to address the real issues, or worse, solutions that address problems that hardly exist. Therefore, meticulous discovery research is a crucial part of any successful design process.

By accurately defining problems and thoroughly understanding the market and users, the discovery phase ultimately guides the design process toward creating relevant, effective, and user-centric solutions. Its importance cannot be overstated: the discovery phase is the compass guiding the direction of the entire design journey.

When is discovery needed?

The design discovery process is not a one-off activity but a cyclical, ever-present tool in the designer’s toolkit. It should be conducted at the beginning of a project, repeated periodically throughout its lifespan, and invoked any time significant business or user-context shifts occur. This keeps design decisions relevant, informed, and user-centric.

  • Throughout the design lifecycle: The dynamic nature of markets and technologies necessitates that discovery remains an ongoing process throughout a product’s lifecycle. As trends shift, technologies advance, and consumer expectations evolve, conducting regular discovery research allows businesses to adapt to these changes proactively. Additionally, expanding into new markets, launching product updates, or pivoting a business model would require a fresh discovery process to accurately gauge the new context and user needs.
  • Response to significant problems or accelerating trends: The discovery phase is also useful any time a business encounters a significant problem or sees relevant trends accelerating. It helps gain insights into these issues, convert them into actionable design challenges, and formulate an effective response. Thus, it's instrumental in driving product iterations and solving emerging market problems.

Benefits of design discovery

The benefits of conducting a thorough product discovery process are manifold and can significantly influence the success of the project. Let's delve into the critical advantages that the discovery phase offers.

  • Deep understanding of the problem area: Discovery research enables organizations to fully grasp the problem space they intend to address. This understanding provides in-depth insights about interconnected issues. This exploration can pivot your focus toward problems that come with genuine market prospects.
  • Risk mitigation: By mapping out the broader problem space, business environment, user needs, and market trends, discovery research can identify potential risks early on. This allows businesses to tackle the right problems, manage risks, and devise strategies to handle them, thereby preventing costly mistakes and unexpected challenges.
  • Identifying opportunities: Design discoveries can unearth unknown facts pertinent to your product idea, the business, and the broader industry. These insights can reveal new avenues for growth, untapped markets, emerging trends, and unique customer needs. These represent opportunities for innovation, differentiation, and expansion, which an enterprise or startup can leverage to stay ahead of the competition.
  • Saving time and costs: By carefully digging for the right problems to solve, the discovery process can reduce design iterations and development time. This preemptive approach results in more efficient resource use, saving both time and money.
  • Informed decision-making: The insights gathered during discovery research support evidence-based decision-making. Design discovery removes guesswork and assumptions, enabling businesses to make strategic choices that are backed by concrete data.
  • Engagement with early adopters: Discovery research helps identify potential early adopters and innovators who can provide valuable feedback. Engaging these individuals can yield invaluable insights before businesses invest further resources in product development.

Pitfalls of design discovery

In spite of the numerous benefits offered by the discovery process, it's equally crucial to acknowledge the potential pitfalls. While these challenges should not discourage you from pursuing discovery research, understanding them can help you navigate the process more effectively.

  • Time consumption: Comprehensive discovery research can be a time-intensive process. Balancing this requirement against the pressures of swift product development can be challenging, particularly in industries where rapid innovation is key. Therefore, effective time management and strategic planning are crucial to ensuring the benefits outweigh the time investment.
  • Risk of assumption bias: The discovery process often begins with assumptions about user pain points and market conditions. If these assumptions are not validated rigorously, they can lead to a skewed understanding of the problem space, resulting in ineffective solutions. The key here is to remain objective and open-minded, always testing assumptions against data.
  • Potential for information overload: Discovery research can yield a vast amount of data. The challenge lies in processing and distilling this data into actionable insights. Without appropriate analytical capabilities, there's a risk of becoming overwhelmed, potentially overlooking crucial information or misinterpreting the data.
  • Possibility of market changes: Market conditions and user needs can change rapidly, especially in fast-paced industries. There's a risk that insights gathered during the discovery phase could become obsolete by the time the product or service is launched. To mitigate this, it's important to maintain an agile approach, continuously updating understanding and adapting solutions as necessary.
  • Cost implications: While discovery research can save money in the long run by helping to avoid missteps, it does involve relatively modest upfront costs. Allocating resources for this phase, especially in smaller or startup enterprises, can be challenging, but it's an essential investment to increase the viability of any product idea.

What are the steps in a discovery process?

In an endeavor to develop a compelling product, it's important to establish a robust discovery process. Embracing a thorough discovery process substantially increases the likelihood that your platform, service, or app achieves product-market fit. Here's a look at the typical steps involved in a design discovery process.

1. Exploration of the problem area: As a starting point, embark on an exploration of the broader problem space. This involves understanding the domain, market dynamics, user behaviors, and existing solutions. Be open to new problems that you may not have considered before. This initial exploration lays the groundwork for a deep, contextual understanding of the space your product will occupy.

2. Assumptions identification: List assumptions about the problem area or even about specific problems you’re already hypothesizing about. This includes assumptions about the target market, user behaviors, competitors, and prospective solutions. Recognizing these assumptions helps identify what you’ll need to learn further on.

3. Desk research: With problem areas and identified assumptions in hand, delve into extensive secondary market research, examining solutions and market players in the same space. The use of resources like reports, blogs, forums, and reviews, provides a comprehensive picture of the market environment.

4. User research and interviews: These provide insights into what your potential customers think of the challenges you’re trying to solve. This step helps examine your target audience, validate your assumptions about the problem area, and understand customer pain points.

Conducting primary research depends on available resources early in the overall design process. User research is likely going to be the most costly part of discovery. While gathering firsthand user data is ideal, don’t let the absence of this step (because of a lack of resources) deter you from executing the rest of the steps in the discovery process.

5. Refinement of assumptions: After collecting data and insights, revisit your initial assumptions. Would you be working on challenges that have a path toward commercial viability? This stage helps to ensure that the problem area and potential solutions are in alignment with market realities.

6. Problem definition: Armed with a more informed understanding of the problem space, move towards defining the specific problem you aim to solve. A well-articulated problem definition sets a clear direction for further product conceptualization and development. Here are a few simple examples:
  • For an online learning platform: "Our users, predominantly adult learners juggling work and family commitments, struggle with maintaining consistent learning schedules due to the rigidity of the course structure. They need a way to access flexible, modular learning content that they can tailor to their individual schedules and learning pace."
  • For a meal planning application: "Our health-conscious users struggle with planning balanced meals given the myriad of dietary information available. They need a streamlined way to generate healthy, personalized meal plans that consider their dietary needs, restrictions, and personal preferences."
  • For a mental health service: "Our users, who are seeking mental health support, are overwhelmed by the complexity of finding the right resources and the stigma associated with seeking help. They need a discreet, user-friendly platform that guides them to personalized mental health resources and support."
7. Formulation of goals and strategy: Based on your problem definition, outline preliminary goals and strategies for the product. This last step could overlap with the early parts of product ideation, the next step in the design process. Your design team could conceptualize broad concepts around product features, user experience elements, monetization strategy, and key differentiators from competitors.

Case studies of successful design discovery

To illustrate the potential of a well-executed discovery phase, we delve into three iconic design stories. Each case highlights how the discovery phase, when thoughtfully approached, can lead to groundbreaking innovation and powerful connections with users.

They also conducted extensive market research and competitor analysis. This exploration allowed them to define the key elements their new design should encapsulate: inclusivity, simplicity, and a sense of belonging. It's no wonder that the resulting design was not only visually appealing but also resonated with their user base across the globe.

This allowed them to grasp the challenges, like typing on a virtual keyboard and avoiding unintended touches, and the opportunities that a touch screen interface could bring. Through their comprehensive discovery phase, they were able to redefine mobile interaction with the multi-touch interface we now take for granted.

This insight helped IDEO redefine the problem — it wasn't just about comfort; it was about accessibility. The result was OXO's Good Grips line, a series of kitchen tools with large, easy-to-grip handles. It was a game-changer in the kitchen utensil market, showing that good design isn’t always about aesthetics but about functionality and accessibility. This was all made possible by a deep and empathetic discovery process.

Types of research methods for discovery

These design stories demonstrate the value of investing in structured research approaches. These methodologies differ depending on the nature of the project, time limitations, available resources, and the level of insight necessary. When used together, they provide a more holistic picture of the user's world, and empower designers to come up with meaningful and relevant solutions.

Here are some commonly used research methods for the discovery phase:



A/B testing

A/B testing is a method that involves experimenting with two versions of a project, variants A and B, to discern which performs better. This strategy is widely used in marketing to test various versions of a campaign on different audiences. It can also be deployed in usability tests to determine more suitable designs for users.


Benchmarking is a process where a company's products or practices are compared with industry standards or those of competitors. It is useful for identifying best practices from other companies and can serve as a source of inspiration when creating unique solutions. It can encompass interfaces, websites, mobile apps, products, and software.

Competitor analysis

Competitor analysis is a strategic approach employed in marketing to assess the strengths and weaknesses of current and future competitors. This method offers an insightful exploration of the competitive landscape, allowing businesses to anticipate competitors' strategies and react effectively. It plays a crucial role in formulating strategic planning, helping to understand market trends, and setting realistic goals.

Concept testing

Concept testing is a method where surveys are used to gauge consumer acceptance of a new product idea before its market introduction. This technique is not to be confused with advertising or brand testing, as it focuses on the product concept itself. It provides valuable insights for evaluating and refining the business concept.

Customer feedback

Customer feedback is the process of collecting opinions from a company's clients. These opinions, whether positive or negative, can help improve the overall customer experience and tailor the solution to their needs. This feedback can be a rich source of insights for product or service enhancements.

Desk research

Desk research, also known as secondary research, involves collecting information from studies conducted by others. This method provides valuable insights and helps generate a wider understanding of the problem area without conducting new, primary research.

Diary study

Diary studies are qualitative research where participants record their behaviors, activities, motivators, and more over a period of time, typically a week or more. This method offers in-depth insights into users’ habits, motivations, and daily activities, enabling researchers to better understand a specific research problem.

Email surveys

Email surveys are a common and efficient method for collecting customer feedback. A survey link is included in an email and distributed to respondents, who can complete the survey at their convenience. This method is flexible and accessible for both researchers and participants.

Ethnographic research

Ethnographic research, or contextual inquiry, is a qualitative method where users are observed in their natural environment. It enables researchers to understand how users interact with products or services in real-world settings, followed by semi-structured user interviews for more in-depth insights.

Eye tracking

Eye tracking is a technique that records the eye movements of respondents while they view interfaces. It reveals the order, duration, and locations of users' gaze on the interface, shedding light on elements that may be overlooked or attract undue attention.

Focus groups

Focus groups involve multiple participants discussing a specific issue. The group dynamics significantly influence research conclusions. This method enables researchers to obtain a diverse range of opinions and experiences on a particular topic.

Google Analytics

Google Analytics is a web analytics service that offers statistics and analytical tools for search engine optimization, marketing, and research. It provides valuable data about website traffic, user behavior, and other metrics.


Hotjar is a tool that uncovers online behavior and feedback from users. It provides heatmaps, session recordings, and surveys to better understand users' experiences on a website or app.

In-depth interviews

In-depth interviews (IDI) are one-on-one conversations between a researcher and a respondent. As a qualitative research method, it enables researchers to gather detailed and personal insights from participants.

Intercept surveys

Intercept surveys are conducted in person, often in public places. Researchers approach respondents, such as customers leaving a restaurant, and interview them about their experiences. It provides immediate, on-site feedback about a product, service, or experience.

Mouse tracking & click tracking

This method involves analyzing users' behavior on a site through their mouse movements and clicks. Visualizations such as heatmaps reveal user behavior patterns and identify areas of the screen that are frequently clicked or ignored by users.

Product review

A product review is a comprehensive evaluation conducted using selected UX and usability research methods. It assesses various aspects of a product, providing an in-depth understanding of its strengths and areas for improvement.

Service safari

Service Safari, also known as "experience sampling," is a research technique where researchers immerse themselves in the same environment or services as their users to gain firsthand knowledge. By experiencing the service personally, researchers can identify potential problems, successes, and opportunities for improvement from an insider's perspective.

Tree testing

Tree testing is a usability technique used to evaluate a site or app's information architecture. It involves testing a simplified, text-based version of the site structure with users to improve the information architecture and determine the optimal placement of elements.

True-intent studies

True-intent studies aim to uncover reasons for users' visits to a site, their likes or dislikes, and other valuable insights. Understanding users' intentions can provide significant insights to improve the user experience and cater to their needs.

Usability testing

Usability testing involves testing a product or interface with a focus group to gather their feedback on its usability. It requires recruiting potential users who reflect the target personas. This testing offers an in-depth understanding of user interaction with the interface, enabling design improvements.

Desired outputs of the discovery phase

The most important, non-negotiable output for the discovery phase is the Problem Definition or Problem Statement, which is a clear and concise statement that identifies the problem you want to solve.

The problem definition serves as a beacon, guiding the design process by providing clear, actionable, and research-backed direction. In essence, it's the summation of user needs and business goals, distilled into a statement that represents the challenge to overcome. It's so critical because it ensures that all design decisions align with meeting this defined problem.

It’s worth noting that any given problem statement might evolve as the project progresses and new insights are gathered, maintaining its relevance and usefulness throughout the design process.

To document the process that led to the problem statement, design teams should organize the data and insights they generated from discovery research. These will also function as additional materials that will support the next phases of the design process. Not all outputs listed below may be applicable to all discoveries, but consider preparing some of them.

  • User personas: A persona is a detailed description of a fictional character that represents a user segment of your target demographic. These personas, based on user research, should embody their demographic characteristics, goals, and behaviors. They serve as a reference point throughout the design process to ensure that the solution remains user-centered. For example, a persona for a fitness app might be "Jane, a 35-year-old busy working mom who values quick and effective workouts."
  • User journey maps: These maps provide a visual representation of the user experience with a product over time and across different channels. It outlines user actions, emotions, pain points, and moments of delight. For example, a user journey map for an ecommerce website might track a user from the initial site visit, through product browsing, to the checkout process.
  • Insights and opportunities report: This is a comprehensive document detailing all the findings from the discovery phase. It includes insights about user behaviors, needs, challenges, and opportunities for innovation. It might also include recommendations for product features or enhancements based on the research findings.
  • Stakeholder feedback: Input from stakeholders is another vital output from the discovery phase. This could take the form of meeting notes, formal reports, or recorded interviews. Their feedback can validate your findings, highlight potential business constraints or opportunities, and ensure alignment between the design team and business objectives.
  • Competitor analysis report: This report provides an overview of competitors' strengths and weaknesses, their product features, and their market positioning. This analysis helps identify gaps in the market and opportunities for differentiation.

Questions to ask yourself at this stage

Navigating the discovery phase effectively demands introspection and constant questioning. These questions are not exhaustive but provide a solid foundation. Here are key questions that can help steer your team's focus and maintain alignment with the project’s goals:

Exploring the problem space

  • What are the problems we are trying to solve?
  • Who are experiencing these problems and why?
  • What are our assumptions about this problem space?

Identifying the target audience

  • Who are our users, and what are their behaviors, needs, and goals?
  • What are the challenges and pain points of our target users?

Assessing the market and competition

  • What is the current market landscape?
  • Who are our main competitors, and how are they addressing the problems we want to work on?

Considering the business goals

  • What are the client’s business objectives, and how does this project align with them?
  • What are the key performance indicators (KPIs) they’re trying to meet with this project?

Identifying research methods

  • What research methods will we use, and why?
  • Have our assumptions been verified with end users?
  • Has all the necessary research been conducted?
  • How will we ensure the research provides representative and unbiased data?

Planning for outputs

  • Aside from defining the problem, what other outputs do we want/need from this discovery phase?
  • How will these outputs guide the next phases of the design process?

Questions the client may ask

Effective communication and transparency with the client are vital during the discovery phase (and throughout the design project). Here are the questions they would likely ask and how you can respond to them:

Q1: What exactly is the purpose of the discovery phase?

A: The discovery phase is the initial stage of the design process where we invest time in understanding your business, the problem area, the competition, and your target users. This phase helps us define the problem accurately and build a solid foundation for the rest of the design process.

Q2: How long does the discovery phase typically take?

A: The duration of the discovery phase can vary depending on the complexity of the project, the clarity of the initial problem statement, and the amount of existing research available. A typical range could be anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months.

Q3: How will the discovery phase affect the duration and cost of the project?

A: While the discovery phase adds to the project's initial cost and timeline, when done properly it results in significant savings down the road. We can build a product more successfully and avoid costly redesigns or pivots later in the project if we ensure we clearly understand the problem and its context.

Q4: What types of research methods will you use in the discovery phase?

A: The choice of research methods depends on the nature of the project and the information we need. We will definitely need to conduct secondary research by searching for publicly available information. If truly warranted and when resources permit, we could include surveys, interviews, focus groups, and more. Our goal is to gather both quantitative and qualitative data for a fuller understanding of the problems and opportunities out there.

Q5: How will the discovery phase involve us as the client?

A: Your involvement is crucial in the discovery phase. We will need your insights about the business, the users, and the problem space. We will also likely require access to existing data, key stakeholders for interviews, and your feedback on our findings and interpretations.

Q6: What will be the key deliverables from the discovery phase?

A: The priority output for the discovery phase is to produce an informed and well-defined problem statement. This should ideally be supported by additional documentation, particularly user personas, user needs and goals, a market analysis, and insights about potential opportunities and challenges. These deliverables will guide the subsequent design and development phases.

Q7: We know so little! Given our limited understanding, does it make sense to continue this project?

A: Absolutely! Our role in the discovery phase is to bridge the knowledge gap, aligning your business objectives with your users' needs. Post-discovery, we will have an enhanced understanding of your product vision and its context, laying a robust groundwork for subsequent stages. Therefore, limited initial knowledge is not a roadblock but rather a starting point for our comprehensive exploration.

Supplementary reading

Below is a list of supplementary resources that delve into the design discovery process. Remember to analyze each piece with a critical mindset, extracting valuable insights while considering how they may apply to your unique contexts and projects.