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10 tips for a successful Discovery phase

Alastair Lee
Jan 19, 2018 · 4 min read

How to ensure your public service transformation gets off on the right foot.

Hi, I’m Alastair from Pilot Works. We’re a digital product and service design consultancy focused on the Discovery and Alpha phases of public service transformation.

We’ll be at UKgovcamp this weekend, keen to talk to others about their experience of these phases so we can continue to learn and share best practice.

We are also running a two-day training course starting March 21st on How to do Discovery for those planning a Discovery phase.

For now, here are some tips for anyone planning a Discovery. We look forward to your comments!

  1. Make a commitment — discovery is vital, make time for it

When you are familiar with a product or service and can see where it can be improved it’s tempting to reduce the amount of resource spent on Discovery in an effort to make progress faster. But it pays to take Discovery seriously for two reasons. Firstly it’s quite likely that going through the process methodically will reveal bigger opportunities for improvement than you had allowed yourself to consider before. Secondly, you will need evidence to back up your decisions and bring stakeholders with you. When someone asks, why couldn’t we just do X, you’ll have a good answer and your initiative can remain on track.

2. Gather a multi-disciplinary team — you’ll need different perspectives, knowledge and contacts

At Pilot Works we are strong believers in cross-functional teams working on shared goals. It’s common now in agile delivery teams, but it also applies in Discovery. You need technologists to dig into what’s technically possible, policy people to keep you focused on their aims, user researchers and designers to get everyone involved in understanding needs and visualising solutions; and you need everyone in a constructive conversation which so often leads to the best ideas. Ideas which are feasible because the right people have been involved from the start.

3. Create a shared backlog — assign appropriate questions to team members

Your multidisciplinary team needs to focus and work together efficiently. A shared backlog of tasks and the use of agile ceremonies (standups, show and tells, retros) really helps to get that happening. This is especially important when teams are not co-located. We tend to use Trello for this purpose.

4. Start recruitment early — it can take time to find participants

If there is a ‘critical path’ then recruitment of users for research is definitely on it. Sometimes finding the right users to speak to is time-consuming, particularly those lower on the Digital Inclusion Scale, so it makes sense to start recruitment directly after your inception workshop, in which you define your recruitment brief.

5. Challenge assumptions — now is the time to ask why it has to be that way

It’s so easy to accept the status quo as we go through our daily working lives, but discovery is an opportunity to ask those ‘dumb questions’ you’ve always wondered about. Why do we need to collect that data? Why do we need that approval? Now is the time to really question anything that does not clearly address user needs.

6. Stay open — allow yourself to consider new perspectives

We all bring our own biases to the research process and when time is tight it’s all too easy to use data to backup our preconceptions. To counter this, make sure you ask open questions, listen carefully and reflect back what you’re hearing; observe actual behaviours and involve other team members in the process.

7. Show options — users need orientation sometimes

We have found that towards the end of an interview it helps to give users something to react to. For example, when researching the needs of Healthy Start recipients (see case study) we described three options for how we might offer the service digitally. This provided feedback on the options, but it also helped them talk about their experiences with similar technology and processes which was really valuable.

8. Share as you learn — so others can build on it

Keep that ‘one team’ spirit alive by working transparently, sharing updates and insights verbally or on Slack and Trello as they happen. Think of yourselves as detectives working on a case, sharing tit bits of knowledge which may spark new lines of enquiry. It’s great for stakeholders too, as they can see not only the results but the activity and thinking that has created them.

9. Map and sketch — visualising ideas makes them easier to understand

Have you ever left a meeting thinking it’s clear what we’re going to deliver, and then later found that others have different ideas? Talk is cheap but it’s open to interpretation. Mapping journeys and sketching ideas is still inexpensive but it vastly reduces the risk of misunderstandings and it stops us having to hold lots of information in our heads at once. Jeff Patton does a great job of explaining this in his User Story Mapping book — check the cakewrecks!

10. Stay humble — you’re beginning to understand needs, but your ideas remain untested

Congratulations, you’ve done everything right and you’re feeling confident you know what needs to be built in order to meet user needs. But stay humble. More detailed needs will emerge as you enter prototyping and you may find that your initial solution ideas aren’t working so well. So be proud you’ve taken the first step, but remember there’s still lots to do.

If you need to go deeper do check out our two-day training course starting Feb 28th on How to do Discovery. Or get in touch for a chat via our website.

And for more thoughts on Discovery, Alpha, service design and innovation, follow us on the twitter!

Pilot Works

Thoughts on Product Discovery and Innovation From the Pilot…

Alastair Lee

Written by

Helping teams design products in tune with humanity. Co-founder at Pilot Works, a product discovery consultancy.

Pilot Works

Thoughts on Product Discovery and Innovation From the Pilot Works Team

Alastair Lee

Written by

Helping teams design products in tune with humanity. Co-founder at Pilot Works, a product discovery consultancy.

Pilot Works

Thoughts on Product Discovery and Innovation From the Pilot Works Team

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