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Navigating the Discovery Phase

January 2023


Article credits
Ashley Jahren
Flo Wen

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed while standing on the precipice of a large-scale design project. There is an incredible amount of information to gather and understand and, oftentimes it’s hard to know where to start. While there’s no perfect strategy, a few simple steps can transform your project from individualistic tasks to a collaborative program with everyone working towards a common goal. This article explores some methods to streamline the discovery phase for your project and help you find new ways to collaborate with your peers.

What is the discovery phase? 

Discovery typically refers to the initial period of a project when teams focus most on defining user needs and desired outcomes for a project. Digging deep during the discovery phase allows  the design team to frame the problem and form a perspective on an initial solution direction. By building the foundation in user needs and taking the time to think broadly about the problem space, you set yourself up for more creative and useful solutions that truly meet user needs. As with all projects, there’s a degree of variability based on your team and level of familiarity with the problem space so some methods might work better than others. Here are a few tips and tricks to get you started!

The Spotify design process.

Tip 1: Establishing rituals with the product team

Connecting with your cross-functional product team is often the fastest way to gain context on a new project and understand user needs. These activities tend to foster stronger communication that will enable you to gather the collective experiences of the whole group.

  • Cross-Functional Kickoff Meeting 

    • Align on challenges, the value of the project and current unknowns 

    • Collect assumptions from the team and ask: “What does the team already know about the problem space?” “What needs more research and discussion?” 

  • Weekly Alignment Meetings 

    • Actively communicate progress and share documents, designs, personas and more

    • Have team members share the items they’re working on and gather any feedback

  • Asynchronous Channels (Slack, Google Drive, Loom, etc.)

    • Post updates and review documents without extra meetings

    • Establish a cadence for updates: this is a great way to keep team members briefed across time zones

A team sync in a hybrid remote working environment.

Tip 2: Digging into competitive research

During every product discovery, there comes a point where you have the opportunity to learn from other product affordances and features. What solutions are out there that currently solve your problem? What features are working for these solutions? Where do they fall short?

  • Be intentional when choosing competitors 

    • List attributes a competitor should have in order to compare to your product 

    • E.g. If you’re working on a B2C application, your competitive research should focus on other B2C applications

  • Timebox and limit your scope

    • Start with no more than five competitors to keep your research focused

    • If you start seeing commonalities between products and you have a sense of direction, you’ve done enough!

  • Think critically and follow your instincts

    • Remember that each company is solving a unique problem with their own set of constraints

    • Before using existing patterns, ensure that the business case makes sense for your users needs

  • Look more broadly with comparative research

    • Direct competitors are the clear choice but may not serve your user needs in every case 

    • Include some indirect competitors in your list with features that add value

A simple template for organizing competitive research.

Tip 3: Collaborating with workshops

Workshops are one of the fastest ways to bring a group of stakeholders together, identify open questions and answer them. While workshops are an invaluable tool in discovery, they are also a massive topic to cover in a tips and tricks article. I would encourage you to continue your research before implementing a workshop; I found these articles on affinity mapping and design sprints to be especially informative as a starting point.

  • Persona Workshops

    • Understand and empathize with your users 

    • Identify user pain points, needs, and goals with your product

  • Vision Mapping

    • Collaborate on the product vision and create actionable solutions

    • Brainstorm what you might build to achieve or further develop team objectives

  • Affinity Mapping

    • Create organization, prioritization and alignment on a wide range of ideas such as user needs, persona characteristics, product values or strategy

    • Categorize groups of ideas into sections that can be discussed holistically

  • Design Sprints

    • Foster rapid iteration, feedback and alignment with a cross-functional team

    • Invite members of your team into the design process with a facilitated brainstorm and feedback session. Designers review highlights from the session and use these perspectives to create solutions.

An affinity mapping exercise.

Design teams and the problems they solve come in all shapes and sizes. Unsurprisingly, the outcomes of discovery can vary greatly based on the team needs. The discovery phase is meant to give the team an understanding of user needs and the problem space, inspire a direction for the future, and lay the foundation for solving it. One team may leave a discovery phase only to realize that the project isn’t worth moving forward with. Another may enter the next design phase with a defined problem statement and relevant concepts to explore. I hope that whatever your outcomes, you can use some of these methods to collaborate more effectively, make meaningful discoveries about your product space and ultimately serve your users’ needs. Safe travels on your journey of discovery!


Ashley Jahren

Product Designer II

Ashley designs products that help artists promote their music. While she enjoys dabbling in music, she also loves a good book and rehabilitating dying plants.

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Flo Wen

Senior UX Writer

Flo is a Senior UX Writer on the Personalization team and an editor of the Spotify Design blog. She lives in Brooklyn and can often be found in Prospect Park.

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