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Three ways to strengthen your discovery phase

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The discovery phase of a project reminds me so much of dating—specifically that point in a new relationship where you realize you really like the person and want to get to know the real them. Why they want to be with you, what they expect, what makes them happy, what makes them sad. How they feel, what they think, what they like and dislike, and why.

Get where I’m going with this?

An in-depth discovery phase is our secret weapon to discovering the real user. It allows us to deliver a project that marries the client’s goals and the user’s needs. This phase reveals the real pain points that people are experiencing, along with the thoughts and feelings someone develops as they use a product. The discovery phase reveals the how and why.

We’ve outlined some of our favorite ways to make the discovery phase as in-depth as possible. It’s important to note that although we consistently use these tricks, no 2 projects are alike. Each project is unique and requires this phase to be slightly tweaked.

Begin with the quantitative data

Quantitative data can tell you a lot about user habits, so it’s always best to be familiar with the analytics before beginning the qualitative data exercises. Look for areas where users drop off, pages of high and low traffic, and missteps in the intended goal funnel.

Develop a hypothesis as to why these problems could be occurring. Your qualitative findings may validate what you’ve found in the quantitative data, or it may unfold a whole different explanation.

Measure more than one audience

Users come in all ages, demographics, and backgrounds. They all have different needs and wants. In order to find as many scenarios, find a wide range of users who fall under each primary and secondary target audience.

Focus group tip: get them moving!


Now that you have a diverse audience group, get them up and moving with you! A few ideas:

  • Have them write their answers on sticky notes and post them on the wall
  • Have them sketch lo-fi wireframes on a whiteboard
  • Have them break into small groups to discuss possible solutions to a pain point

We’ve found that the quality of user insight is better when they’re highly involved versus when we just ask them questions and write down their answers.

Discover pain points

Empathy mapping.

Empathy mapping.

Our 2 favorite exercises for discovering user pain points are journey mapping and empathy mapping. Both of these exercises require a handful of users who have experience with the client’s product or service.

It’s best to sample a few people who fall into each target audience, and you should have a different journey mapping session for each primary target audience. Perform each exercise in a group setting with a big visual on the wall so everyone can follow along.

Journey mapping
With journey mapping, we begin by breaking down the user’s journey into steps, starting with when someone first realized they needed to fill a need or want.

For example, the beginning of a journey for a prospective college student would be when they began their search for colleges. We then walk through each step with the user and ask them to relate those steps to their actions and emotions. We also ask questions such as:

  • Who were your main points of contact?
  • What were the touchpoints?
  • What could have been done to make each step easier?


Journey mapping is an excellent way to discover what the user did and how the user felt during each step. We can use these findings to create better experiences for future users.

Empathy maps
Use empathy maps to really get into the heads of your users. We break our empathy maps into 4 sections: thinking, seeing, feeling, and hearing.

In the prospective student example, we ask the users questions like:

  • What were you thinking when applying to this college?
  • What did you hear about this school?
  • How did you feel when you were accepted?
  • What type of content did you see that helped influence your decision?


Just like dating, we’re looking for an end product that’s meaningful. The outputs of this in-depth discovery phase becomes the blueprint to the entire project. We can confidently define the real problems of the project and develop a solution that solves these problems. We can expect an end result that eliminates the pain points and delivers a better experience.

Really getting to know what makes your users tick is the beginning of a match made in heaven.

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