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Getting the most from the Discovery phase of an agile project

The Discovery phase of an agile project sets you up for the journey ahead. Yet we know from delivering projects in every phase that there’s rarely a clean ‘cut’ to Alpha. That’s why it’s important to keep the end-to-end in mind: it helps to keep your projects on course even if the delivery partners change.  

The Discovery phase is about finding the right problems

The best thing about Discovery is the warm welcome you give to problems. You start by getting to the heart of the issue and tightly defining what needs solving. That way, you can put the right questions to the right users and uncover any show-stoppers quickly. Later down the line, it also means your Alpha prototypes and Beta digital services will be the best possible match for that same problem.  

Agile projects are rooted in user needs, and Discovery is when you’ll spend the most time with them. Our user researchers take the lead in this phase, supported by service designers and maybe architects and engineers as needed. Time-wise, the Discovery projects we work on tend to last 10-12 weeks. That includes preparing the final reports that will help make the jump to Alpha as smooth as it can be. 

Don’t cast your Discovery net too wide

Jake McCann spent four years at the Government Digital Service. He’s now Principal User Researcher here at NEC Digital Studio. Jake explains that lack of focus can be one of the biggest pitfalls in the Discovery phase:  

“I’ve seen projects spend valuable time looking for every possible problem, when it’s more about  isolating the right ones. Agile is there to minimise risk, but it can’t eradicate it completely. The goal of Discovery is to be 100% clear about your biggest problems, not to find 100 problems.” 

Don’t be surprised if your Discovery partner asks huge amounts of questions before they go near your users. They know that the people who wrote the tender documents won’t always be the ones running the project. A good partner will check that everyone’s on the same page first. 

Put users at the heart of the process

Engaging users is about getting into the fine detail of who they are, what they need and what’s standing in their way. For well-established digital services, however, it can be hard to shake off the status quo. Jake explains:

“People can become so used to work-arounds that they often don’t see them as barriers. We know to dig a bit deeper, talking to users at all levels to create a true picture of the ‘as is’ and ‘could be’ journeys.” 

Mind the gap between Discovery and Alpha

If you’re working with external partners, the gap between the Discovery phase and the Alpha phase can be everything from a couple of months to a year. There could be an intentional pause of 12 months, for example, to remove a financial or technical constraint. While this shows the agile process working as it should and minimising risk and cost, it can affect continuity. The Alpha partner may be new, and often the client’s team changes too.

Unless your Discovery and Alpha partners are the same, it will always be hard to get a clean ‘cut’ between the two phases. But clear and detailed reporting helps a lot. When we’re asked to deliver Alpha projects, we’re up and running much faster if we’ve got access to a full suite of Discovery documentation. We pride ourselves on making these switches as smooth as they can be, providing the right insight for whoever comes next. 

Keep the end-to-end in mind

While the different phases of agile delivery exist to minimise risk, we think projects benefit from a guiding mind. Clients that keep some form of continuity in how they commission the phases often manage the switch to live service more effectively. 

This continuity is at the heart of NEC Digital Studio. Our team combines service design expertise with the development and delivery credentials. Both organisations have designed, built and operated a range of digital services for government. Together, we offer no-compromise advice and the right mix of skills from start to finish. 

This article is part of a series looking at the different phases of agile projects. Find out how to get the most from the Alpha and Beta phases or get in touch with our team.