A common cause of project failure or unhappy clients at the end of a project is that they didn’t get what they thought they’d be getting.

It’s really a collective failure—clients can find it hard to define exactly what they want in their briefs, and as agencies, we can be guilty of not being clear about what we’re actually delivering. Make no mistake, managing client expectations is difficult to master, but it’s a major factor in your projects’ and organization’s success.

Learning the right techniques to bring clarity to ambiguous situations is a big part of a solid project management education and the same approach to asking questions in project discovery be applied both externally with clients and internally when evaluating new ideas.

How can we ensure that we’re all on the same page and start our projects right? It all begins with a thorough project discovery phase.

What is project discovery?

We’ve got to understand our projects beyond just a list of requirements. That’s the goal of the discovery phase.

Project discovery is useful across a wide range of industries. In digital, you’ll see a discovery phase in a wide range of projects and campaigns, including:

  • Website Design and Development
  • Search Engine Marketing
  • Search Engine Optimization
  • Social Media Marketing
  • Content Creation; Video and Media
  • Lead Generation
  • Online Brand Development
  • Email Marketing
  • Mobile App Development

Sometimes, teams doing this type of digital work will do project discovery as part of the project kickoff, and sometimes it’s helpful to do this as its own mini project, a phase in and of itself.

In project discovery, we try to better understand the brief, uncover what the potential solutions may be in order to achieve the project goals, and ideally validate these potential solutions with users.

What does project discovery look like at a typical agency?

It’s likely to be a mix of things—it’s likely we’ll start with rehashing the brief with the client, so we understand it fully. Then we’ll try to gather some data with some desk research, some workshops with the client, interviews with users, maybe some on-site visits.

Then we’ll try and synthesize all that data into some insights. We’ll use those insights to create a solution blueprint—a map of the user journey and some potential solutions.

Sometimes you’ll be able to find a way to combine the discovery phase with some initial prototyping, as a prototype is a tangible deliverable that the client can embrace. If the discovery phase can be a small project in its own right with clearly defined deliverables, it can sometimes make it a bit more palatable to clients.

What are the basic areas of project discovery?

  1. Business needs
  2. Technical needs
  3. Understanding the Competition
  4. User needs

How we tackle getting a better understanding of these four areas (business needs, technical needs, competition, and user needs is going to depend on the project).

The following sections offer some basic questions you should be asking in each area to make sure you’re doing a complete project discovery.

Business Needs

This covers things like business goals what success looks like and how we can measure that success. Ask:

  • What are the business goals of the project?
  • Why are these goals important?
  • What will indicate that the project is successful?
  • What will indicate that the project is unsuccessful?
  • What can we measure in order to prove that the project is achieving our goals?
  • Does this projects’ success depend on other projects?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of implementing this project?

2. Technical Needs

This is about understanding the sandbox we’re playing in, any constraints we have to work within. Ask:

  • What are the known technical requirements?
  • What are the unknown technical requirements that we still have to investigate?
  • What are the technical constraints that we must work within?
  • What new equipment or software will be needed?

3. Competition

We need to know the competitive landscape and how our competitors are telling their story, so we don’t inadvertently copy them! We need to know the baseline for playing in the space and where there’s potential for us to disrupt the status quo. Ask:

  • What is the competition doing?
  • What is the competition not doing?
  • What makes our goals/project similar to the competition?
  • What makes our goals/project distinct from the competition?

4. User Needs

Of the four areas we’ve mentioned, this is by far the most effort, but it can be the most useful to creating something that works and that the end user actually wants. Often a client’s brief is written from a business perspective, not from a user’s perspective. This means we can often dive into projects without any understanding of what the user wants or needs—the business solution is just an attempt to fix the business problem, but doesn’t dive deeper into why a user might be doing (or not doing) something that we want them to do. Ask:

  • How are users currently solving the problem that we’re looking to solve?
  • What do we know about our users’ goals and behavior?
  • What do we need to know about our users’ goals and behavior?
  • Where are our potential users? Where do they hang out, and what do they talk about?
  • Why would an end user not use the solution we’re building?
  • How would we test on users—at what stages, how often, and for what purpose?

The benefits of doing project discovery well

Clients can sometimes be reluctant to do a discovery phase—after all, it’s more money, and the deliverable is really just a better brief. If they think the solution is really obvious it can sometimes help to remind them that the discovery is worth doing.

Through a clearer understanding of the context, background, and drivers for the project, it’s pretty much guaranteed that the client is going to get a better solution. It might be something that can be delivered faster, cheaper, or totally different to the one they proposed. The discovery phase will enable a focus on achieving success, not just deliverables.

The important thing in the discovery phase is to evolve a project from being defined merely by deliverables, such as a blog or a landing page, and instead to begin asking how these things align with user needs. It’s going to provide a solid foundation for the decisions that’ll happen daily during the project. It’ll reduce costly mistakes, misunderstandings, and unnecessary functionality.

It’s going to expedite the process—by clarifying the big questions up front; you’re going to get to the right solution much faster.

Author Bio: Short Bio: I’m Ben Aston, a digital project manager and founder of The Digital Project Manager, one of the fastest growing online resources for digital project managers. I’ve been in the industry for over ten years at top digital agencies including Dare, Wunderman, Lowe, and DDB. I’ve delivered everything from video virals to CMS, flash games, banner ads, eCRM and eCommerce sites across automotive, utility, FMCG, and consumer electronics brands.