The Value of Discovery Workshops When Designing Products in an Agency Setting

A valuable first step towards building trust with, and understanding, the client, their needs and their customers.

The agency space has more than its fair share of challenges when working in product design. None is more pervasive and contested however, than the dreaded scope vs. budget conversation. It’s every designers’ worst nightmare and, in some agency mythos, the reason we truly need Project Managers. I don’t envy their jobs — making sure everyone does what they claimed they were going to do while simultaneously making sure the client doesn’t pull a fast one and include more features than what was promised in the all-knowing scope document (may we hold it as gospel). It’s a hard gig. And to truly do it well requires a very specific type of personality. One that I — coincidentally — don’t have.

It’s tough to to have an actionable working scope in an agency. It is a problem that many agencies, large and small, have been wrestling with since agencies began working in product design. How do we have a scope for something that hasn’t been defined in the least yet? It’s not an easy question to answer.

It’s the main reason that I believe in selling a flat discovery before a scope document is ever created. Neither the agency, nor the client, is best served when assumptions are made. I say it all the time — the enemies of an effective partnership are assumptions. No one likes doing the nitty-gritty work of defining the agreement, but it’s a super important step in ensuring both parties’ needs are met before embarking on actually doing work. And it starts upfront.

This is why I believe so firmly in the value of Discovery Workshops.

What They Are:

Obligatory stock image of collaboration…

A Discovery Workshop is what I like to consider the first real meat of any project. Yes, this typically happens much after the relationship has been established, but I don’t think the project really begins until the workshop happens. The idea behind a Discovery Workshop is basically to have all stakeholders in a room at the forefront of the project to establish the constraints and hypotheses that we will be working through during the Discovery process. It sounds simple, but in practice rarely is.

This is where we come together to start documenting the real meat of what UX needs to know in order to be able to start orienting toward a scope and definition of a product. We get every project stakeholder we possibly can along with the bulk of our team together in a room for a day and start putting absolutes behind every aspect of the clients’ business and ‘ask’ from the agency, and start putting together a framework through which we can start to dig into when we got into Discovery.

The idea is to cover as much ground as possible in as compressed a timeline as possible. It also helps for the agency partner to set expectations around workflow and process (super important when fighting the good fight of scope). There are a lot of activities and/or discussion points that one can cover in a Discovery Workshop, but the ones that I find should never be skipped are:

  • An overview of expectations from both sides and what the working process will look like in practice
  • Business model, needs and objectives (otherwise known as our Business Outlook)
  • KPI’s for the project (derived from Business Outlook)
  • The clients’ customers, how they’re prioritized and what their goals are (Proto-personas)
  • The feature wishlist, in as close a detail as we are able to get it at this point (we will also take a stab at prioritization)
  • The subjective likes and dislikes of the client (for our visual designers to start orienting themselves)

Why We Do Them:

And one of a hipster writing on a white board…

Again, the Discovery Workshop aims to be the first real actionable step toward defining what it is we’re actually designing. For the agency side, it helps us guide the client through understanding the agile-fall process (ugly, I know, but it’s often the best one can do in an agency) of designing a product. For our clients — it helps them solidify all of the working ideas and wants from every department or stakeholder in order to come together on a unified vision on what the product should be. This is super important because it is quite common for different departments or stakeholders in the company to have very different ideas of what the interface needs to be in their heads — and these visions often times conflict with one another.

It is not uncommon for the client to come all the way into Discovery still having these disparate visions of what a product should be. It’s our job as the agency partner to distill that into a single unified vision, otherwise we will be fighting internal politics and interests while attempting to design. We may have success in the CEO’s mind because we are getting great brand exposure, but our VP of Sales might be very discontent because our copy doesn’t drive enough into the sales cycle for their sales force to be able to get solid leads (hypothetical). The key insight here is that each stakeholder will oftentimes have their own measure of success for the project. We need to take the time to interrogate all of these and talk them through as a team (along with the client) in order to understand what is most important and what can be moved down on the priority list.

This does two things:

  1. It helps the client team get on the same page about the goals and requirements for the interface (which is almost never the case walking into the meeting)
  2. It gives the entire team (client and agency) a common vision and North Star to which we will all be marching toward for the entirety of the project lifecycle

Both of these are necessary before we can confidently build a scope because they are both in service of killing assumptions (which we mentioned above as being the enemies of success).

How We Do Them:

This hipster sure is good at writing on white boards.

The how is a complicated matter. Mostly due to the fact that there are a million and one ways to run a Discovery Workshop. And it should always be tailored to your style of moderation and storytelling. The only real important tidbits I can offer up that seem to be pretty universal are the following:

  1. You need ALL stakeholders that are involved in the project to be in attendance. I cannot overstate this enough. It saves so much work and effort when we get the ideas/wants/needs of each stakeholder upfront from the horse’s mouth than it is to be dealing with a peon who assumes they understand what the stakeholders’ needs are (there’s that word again).
  2. You also need as much of the agency team to be in attendance as possible as well. Again, when going through the process of designing a product, we want to try and avoid the telephone game as much as we possibly can. Different roles will glean different insights from the same piece of information. Expecting a Producer or Project Manager to capture all pertinent information for said parties is often an impossibility.
  3. You want all decisions made from the client party to be final, or explicitly stated as not. And if so, then it must also be made clear that the agency team will be working on assumed data off an unmade decision and if that decision changes from the Discovery Workshop to the Scope document, it will affect the scope and it will need to be recreated or revised.
  4. You need to make clear that everything the agency gleans about the clients’ customer base is only preliminary and is to be used as a hypothesis. As we begin to learn more during Discovery, these facts will change and help to more closely mold what it is that we will, as the agency partner, go execute upon.
  5. Use all of your available sticky notes and white board space! It’s better to record something than not. Lest we miss a critical detail…
  6. Lastly, make it fun :) It may sound silly, but this is your chance to get both agency and client sides of the partnership really excited about the product. It seems superfluous, but it goes a long way towards building rapport with the client. Plus, if you’re spending 8 hours in a meeting room, it helps make the time spent fly by and feel more productive.

Taking Steps Toward an Effective Partnership

This is, by no means, everything that could be said about Discovery Workshops and/or why they’re so important, but until one leads a workshop, it’s tough to understand how it all comes together and what gaps may be missing within your particular framework for guiding people through said workshop. However, if you start with a bit of the thinking around the idea of a Discovery Workshop — I can promise that it will start your team off on the right foot towards building something everyone will not only be excited about, but can also say they have a stake in. It also leads towards harmonious relationships with your clients, which, let’s face it, never hurts either ;)

Images from StartupStock. Originally published on My Personal Site.