From the Annals of Design Discovery

How to Build Your Discovery Practice

Design starts with discovery and if you’ve been reading any of my stuff, you’ll know that I believe discovery is–underneath all the design techniques–an attitude. This attitude emphasizes learning: filling the gaps in your knowledge so you can make a product that’s a good fit, feasible, and cool.

By filling gaps in our knowledge, Discovery gives us the power to develop cool products that fit a need and work well.

Coming February 14, A Book Apart will publish Practical Design Discovery, my book on how to do design discovery. This article started out as the conclusion to that book.


The point of discovery is to set your team up for success, which means you:

  • Make sure they understand all the constraints
  • Prime them to come up with good ideas
  • Set up a creative direction, so that in detailed design everyone is focused on the same outcome
I have a lot of ways of defining Discovery’s purpose, but these three are as good as any: understand constraints, drive idea generation, and establish a direction.

The thing is, discovery is subjected to two opposing forces. In one corner, the pull of modern business culture, demanding speed and efficiency, insisting on predictability and structure. In the other, the pull of the history of innovation, rife with stories about serendipity, ad hoc connections, and eureka moments.

This is the central tension of Discovery: It is a way to shoehorn everything we know about creativity into everything we need for modern business.

Using the Nest dates this, doesn’t it.

So, we have to compromise. We shorten our processes, dropping time-intensive tools and techniques, relying on shortcuts to give us only the information we can’t afford not to have. Do these compromises inhibit us from achieving what we want most from discovery–the next great idea? Is the pressure of business holding me back?

To answer this question, you have to first ask, “How does creativity work?” There are no easy answers, and as many attempts to answer the question as there are case studies of innovation. These two books stood out for me:

Free copy of my new book to someone who points me to a great book on creativity by someone other than a white man.

Bear with me here. I’m going to dig into each of these models and tie them back to design discovery. Along the way, I’ll point out how to tap into these models for your own discovery practice.

The Psychology of Discovery

There’s no single rote process for creating great ideas. No one flips the idea switch, firing up the conveyor belt of creativity, to churn out great idea after great idea. In studying creativity, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi admits as much, but indicates that generally speaking, there are five steps for creating: preparation, incubation, insight, evaluation, elaboration.

These aren’t so much a process as they are mindsets (my word, not his), and your switching between these mindsets is about meeting the needs of the idea itself. The idea needs each of these things to mature:

  • Preparation: The idea isn’t yet born, but you’re doing things that will eventually lead to the idea, like studying, learning, meeting people. Exposure is the key factor here. You’re exposing your brain to a wide range of ideas and a depth of knowledge.
  • Incubation: The things you’ve learned start to coalesce and interact with each other. Time is the crucial ingredient here. You give all the inputs time to “cook”.
  • Insight: Your brain creates a novel connection that is somehow striking or interesting. What’s important here is paying attention. You pay attention to a crazy idea and decide it’s worth pursuing.
  • Evaluation: You bring the idea into the world in a way that lets you to test it. Perhaps you describe it or sketch it. Making it testable relies on your accumulated knowledge and understanding to decide whether the idea is good or not.
  • Elaboration: Once you convince yourself that the idea has merit, you flesh out the details. For elaboration to be successful, you need patience and persistence. This is the messy, sometimes boring work of creativity: turning an idea into a real thing.

You switch mindsets because something about the idea compels you to. It’s as if each mindset exerts a force on the idea, in turn compelling it to mature and adapt.

It’s not a formal process. It’s a pattern of phases. I think of them as mindsets: different ways of framing the idea, depending on what the idea needs.

So, do these mindsets exist in discovery? Can we find parallels between Csikszentmihalyi’s process and discovery? Discovery tends to take place over weeks rather than years. (Not to mention clearly defined deadlines and objectives defined by stakeholders.)

After all, if time and patience are crucial to most innovation stories, how can discovery–really, modern design at all–hope to compete?

If you think of these as mindsets, as an attitude toward the idea, it’s clear that early design activities mimic those of the great innovators.

  • Preparation: We immerse ourselves in the domain and problem space. We conduct user research. We think of ourselves as clean slates, ready to learn, even if we bring our experience to bear later in the process.
  • Incubation: We take time to think about what we learned and translate those observations to to conclusions that support the design process. We understand that the information we gather in preparation translates to constraints.
  • Insight: We run brainstorming sessions to generate lots of ideas quickly, without much detail. While the attitude “no bad ideas” isn’t quite right, we do give ourselves permission to bend or break some constraints.
  • Evaluation: We take critique seriously, and actively seek out feedback on our work.
  • Elaboration: We acknowledge that good ideas can’t stand on their own, and that for discovery to be meaningful we need to turn our concepts into a direction and a plan.

So what can you do as an individual?

In teaching people how to adopt a mindset, I suggest they focus on behaviors that embody the mindset. If an attitude contradicts your personality, trying the behavior can be uncomfortable, but a vehicle for growth. Here are some behaviors that embody these attitudes:

  • Do your homework: For preparation, make sure you don’t rely on preexisting knowledge or experience alone. Even a few minutes of research can prime your brain for more productive participation.
  • Make time for thinking: If you’re doing all the time, you haven’t given yourself and opportunity for processing. Incubation means letting ideas and observations make spontaneous connections.
  • Get good feedback: Taking an idea and “throwing it against the wall to see what sticks” doesn’t work. Seek out specific, concrete, and targeted feedback to properly evaluate your ideas.
Enough with the cards already!

The Sociology of Creativity

Through uncovering the phases of creativity, Csikszentmihalyi’s analysis focuses only on the individual, missing that creativity is not just having an idea in a vacuum. Fortunately, Steven Johnson picks up where Csikszentmihalyi leaves off. Johnson takes a different approach, looking at creative environments.

Johnson identifies six different aspects of environment that encourage creativity.

  • In a liquid network there are lots of parts or elements swirling around, facilitating their ability to connect in unlikely (or unexpected or unbelievable) ways.
  • A slow hunch is an idea that develops over time, an insight occurring after someone has been exposed to the domain, that gradually builds in clarity and confidence.
  • Environments that support serendipity ideas have a chance to run into each other, potentially birthing something entirely new. Johnson likens this to the coffeehouse, a place where intellectuals gather to talk shop.
  • Environments that permit errors are useful because they give people permission to think outside the box. As Johnson said, “Error often creates a path that leads you out of your comfortable assumptions.”
  • Exaptation is when “an organism develops a trait optimized for a specific use, but then the trait gets hijacked for a completely different function”. Johnson’s exemplar for invention is Gutenberg’s printing press, which co-opted the wine press for use in a different application.
  • Invention rarely starts entirely from scratch, instead building on emergent platforms. A musician’s reliance on keys and rhythms, for example, shows how creating something new still employs conventions.
Johnson’s book includes a chapter on each of these. Highly recommended!

How do these relate to discovery?

  • Liquid network: Discovery works best when it involves a diverse team. Bringing multiple roles together to gather information about a problem space and explore solutions is the best way to design a good product.
  • Slow hunch: In modern parlance, we might translate hunch to hypothesis. The entire design process is a mechanism for allowing the hunch to mature and become clear. It’s in Discovery, however, that we have those hunches and spend at least a little time verifying them.
  • Serendipity: A diverse team is great, but it must be given space to wayfind. That is, a creative team must have the opportunity to combine ideas in unexpected ways to see what might work.
  • Error: Despite the tech industry’s fetishizing failure, there is something to be said for allowing mistakes. Mistakes give people permission to explore new avenues. While not every error can translate to a success, giving teams room to make mistakes sets the right tone in discovery.
  • Exaptation: Discovery depends on communicating new ideas fast. High concepts for products can involve a “mash-up” between a well-understood product and problem space (like “the Uber of healthcare”). Perhaps more importantly, we can rely on existing models (like a hub-and-spoke structure for web applications) to give us useful starting points.
  • Emergent platforms: Discovery relies on design tools and techniques. We evaluate good ideas based on existing ideas about aesthetic and usability. We compare our ideas to competitive products to see what users may be used to in the marketplace.

So, what can you do as a team?

  • Be inclusive: A diverse team has more perspectives. More perspectives leads to more interesting ideas, more ways to vet ideas.
  • Hold nothing sacred: Abandon and return to ideas without worry. Clinging to an idea because it was first (or yours) stifles the environment’s ability to build upon it.
  • Explore new techniques: Every technique is an opportunity to generate new ideas, to find new efficiencies, to test concepts in a new way.
Still with the cards?

Innovation and Discovery

Johnson says that creativity is about exploring “the edges of possibility that surround you.” He calls this the adjacent possible:

The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. (31)

Discovery seeks this adjacent possible. Whatever the focus of our work, we are trying to come up with something novel, something useful, and something better than what exists already.

In the last few years I’ve had the opportunity to help claims agents at a dental insurance company, IT executives manage risk, and healthcare providers work more effectively in the framework of new regulations. Important problems, but hardly the stuff of Major Invention Mythology. Instead:

  • my contribution to these efforts was to support a larger team
  • these problems were specific to a narrow audience
  • the solutions were proprietary to the companies for which I was working
  • there were no memorable eureka moments
  • these processes didn’t take years or even months, they were weeks-long

Discovery, for all our efforts to recreate the conditions of great invention, more often than not happens in the confines of a project, bounded by a project plan.

The modern corporation thrives on both repetitive rote processes to churn out updates and its diverse workforce to generate new ideas. The corporation needs both the productive cycle of maintaining what it has and the generative cycle of building something new.

Discovery is the glue that binds these two cycles. It’s the mechanism by which we can tap into humanity’s capacity for both efficiency and ingenuity.


Practical Design Discovery, by Dan Brown, published by A Book Apart

My book Practical Design Discovery will be published February 14. Though this essay started out as a conclusion to that book, the book itself is very concrete and pragmatic about how to organize your discovery work.


Need help doing discovery for your digital product? EightShapes can advise or drive projects to get you to a product definition and vision. Find out more at eightshapes.com. Please get in touch!