Apr 15, 2024

I’ve already discovered it all. Why do I need a design discovery phase?

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Welcome to The Discovery Paradox. The discovery phase of any project itself is a tough, but really important one because businesses (commendably) think they already know all there is to know about their product, industry, challenges and opportunities. Sometimes, they come to an agency or digital product specialists, like ASquared, with a brief which appears to them to be clear as day: here’s the issue and here’s the solution. But unfortunately to make something really, really good, we’ve got to go deeper than that first. 

In this article, our Design Director Jon Aizlewood dives into the importance of product design, wherever you’re at in your digital journey. With a career spanning over 20 years, Jon’s worked with some of the world’s most incredible brands, bringing a wealth of knowledge, experience, methodologies and informed opinions into the mix.

Known unknowns and unknown unknowns

“…there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
— Donald Rumsfeld, 2002

The discovery phase of any project is as much around the known unknowns as it is the unknown unknowns. So what we try to do as user experience specialists is absolutely to explore the known unknowns, and help people understand what it is they haven't been doing or should be doing. For example, understanding what’s lacking in their growth or conversion plans, where the opportunities are and how to approach them for the best return. But, here’s where it gets really fun... 

Photo by Faizur Rehman on Unsplash

The negative space of design is not just about what people know they need, it’s what they don’t know they need. Where we really add value is understanding what questions, conversations or research should come into play to uncover a new level of user understanding or product validation, or in other words validating or invalidating a hypothesis. 

The best kind of agency brief is “this is the problem we’re having and we're coming to you because we need help to solve it”. That’s where we get a chance to employ proper design thinking. On the flip side, briefs that are so scoped out suggest that someone has the answer to their own questions already. It narrows the thought process and kind of railroads everything. Ideally a project should be about hypothesis setting and then leaving room for discovery. Doing all the discovery and the design thinking properly not only helps to scope the implementation, it steers the whole ship.

The power of design thinking

Good UX designers on projects wear a lot of different hats. Sometimes they act in a hybrid product manager, project manager and project lead role, but their whole objective really is to instil more of a design maturity in both our own project team and our clients. By doing the discovery and design fully first, you can pause and then plan ahead with confidence, refining as you go. Without that at the proposal stage it’s always going to be a bit ‘finger in the air’.

And design maturity is about people understanding and respecting what good design really is (which is far beyond just making something look nice). Companies are frequently surprised at how much emphasis we recommend on the design phase - typically our projects are as much as 50:50 - but honestly we estimate that for every £1 spent on design, you’ll save £10 in development costs, because you essentially do it once and do it right. Ultimately by going through the design process, the product will be much better as a result.

Take the Design Value Index, which is still hyper relevant today. Essentially back in 2003, Motiv Strategies invested in companies that they knew full-well carried design at the forefront, and 10 years later the investments resulted in a 228% higher return than the S&P. So this graph is usually still rolled out whenever there is a discussion around the ROI of design.

Design Value Index | DMI, Motiv Strategies 2014

As we know, design can be very subjective. But it definitely isn’t just about how it looks and that's it, instead it can have profound effects on the businesses bottom line when you get it right. A really good digital product addresses a need and a utility that helps get things done faster, better and more accurately. And that's why the likes of Spotify and Airbnb (in their heyday) put design at the front and centre of their proposition and they saw infamous hockey stick growth - fully attributed to good design - versus the companies who put it to the side. 

Validating and invalidating your hypothesis

Good design validates or invalidates a hypothesis. For example, Design Sprints are a sure-fire way of cost-effectively saying ‘put all your chips on black’. If you didn’t take the time to try and validate or invalidate a hypothesis first, it’s very easy to progress down a path, pretty far, until you even begin to get customer feedback. That feedback might be: we don’t want this. It’s a drop in the ocean to spend, say, a week, really interrogating an idea. It’s happened countless times where huge organisations have tons of money…but maybe not much sense when it comes to their users’ needs.

You could think of a Design Sprint, or something similar, as a course correction method, which ensures what you’re creating actually resonates with users instead of taking a punt and shooting in the dark…and then starting again. There are countless examples from my own career where I’ve been in this situation and explained this approach which has been a revelation, and which potentially saved a lot of pain, and money.

Product design of course isn't the only approach, it’s one of many. Sometimes a true focus on UX design (or user research) might help to achieve the same objectives. 

Product v UX v UI design

I draw huge distinctions between Product Designers and UX Designers, which is sometimes contentious.

A Product Designer is someone who understands UX principles but indexes more highly on the visual side of things. In a similar way I absolutely disagree with the UX/UI (“slashie”) trend. 

UI design, which is also massively important, focuses on the visual components and interactive elements of a design. But, having a UX Specialist who can take the requirements of what needs to be done and understand why they need to be done and then create a new paradigm or concept for what will address those users needs, is a major leap forward. Then, ideally, you’re looking for a Product Designer who can bring those ideas to life. Some people want to skip through these stages and go straight to UI design, but ultimately the most value is to take a divergent and thenconvergent process approach (frequently called the Double Diamond approach).

By focusing on having a design-thinking approach early you’ll save time, pain and money later on, without doubt.


Alongside true UX design thinking and progressive development, we blend knowledge, precision and speed to create great products for great companies. We simplify the product process, with a method we know and trust. And we achieve great outcomes both commercially and for users while we’re doing it.

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