Discovery should not be in a service contract

We’ve seen this a thousand times. You go to an agency and you talk with them about a project you’d like to do. The agency proposes a solution and in it is something called a discovery. It’s typically in the beginning and it’s usually designed to “discover” what you need to build. All of the work is in one neat bundle, the entire proposal has it all and makes is easy for you to understand what you need to pay.

But… wait. Why are you paying for the entire project when the discovery is included in one contract? What if you “discover” that you need to just get a (Insert popular web service here) for $50.00 a month? Do you get the rest of your $30k back?

We all know the answer is no. You’re going to pay for something you don’t need. Or everyone has to figure out to justify the remaining budget once the discovery is complete which can create scope creep and fuzzy objectives.

Keep em separated

Get the discovery out of there. If you want to engage with an agency and they are putting the discovery and the service in the same contract, I would be wary. The discovery and whatever service comes next should be separate. Meaning, pay for a discovery first, THEN, once the discovery is complete, write the service contract. Because in a discovery you:

  1. Create goals that are tied to business objectives
  2. Create a scope based on what you need based on what you learn
  3. Create a stop gap between that big development project and figuring out what you are doing

Otherwise you end up with a conflict of interest at best. If a designer or developer does their job well, the discovery should be working towards a solution and clear goals.

Look at it this way

Wouldn’t you rather spend a few thousand dollars to save possibly tens of thousands of dollars later? You have to do the discovery work anyway. And you are going to pay to have that work done. So, do what you will have to do anyway and pay what you will have to pay anyway, but have that be the end of the contract. Once you know what you need THEN come up with the development contract.

Most shops have a few technical solutions up there sleeves. You can’t learn EVERY technology. So smaller (and larger) agencies will invest in the technology that helps them solve the MOST problems with the LEAST amount of complexity. That means, when you come to the agency to solve a problem, the solution will almost certainly be based on the tech that they know.

If you are building software or an experience or anything outside of a brochure site, there are certain technologies that are more efficient than others at doing specific tasks. Yes, of course you gain efficiency by working with an agency that knows how to build X with Y if you are trying to solve the problem that X represents. That should be obvious. I’m saying that you shouldn’t be contracting to figure out how to solve for Z and then be agreeing to pay for the technology that solves for X in the same contract.

We have let a lot of money go by separating the two work efforts and at the end of the day realizing that the best solution was a Shopify Account, or MailChimp or to not do the project at all! That might seem foolish, except…

Focusing on discovery as the proper research that it is has helped us build better solutions. This saves you money and keeps you happy because you are not going to be paying to shoehorn a solution into a technical approach that is “close enough”.

Exceptions

Having said this, I think there are two exceptions.

Agency to Agency

In an agency to agency relationship I think that the discovery and the development can be in one contract because of the two partners past working relationship and/or vetting by the hiring agency. The hiring agency likely understands the problem and can do the discovery in their head. They will be able to determine that what you offer is in the right ball park for the problems that they are trying to solve.

Production

Do you always need a discovery? Nope. Sometimes you just need to get work done. In this case, you will be hiring an agency to get work done for you.

You do need to be careful here. If you are asking for production work to be done than you should make sure you just ask for production work to be done. Don’t ask for designed solutions in the middle of processing form styling or image crops. Keep it simple, keep it clear.

In summary

If you want to build something, know what you are building. Learn that by doing a discovery with the agency that you want to work with. But don’t sign a contract with a company that wants to help you solve problems and then build that in the technology of their choice just because that is what they know.

Figure out what the solution is. THEN contract to develop the actual solution.