Design Discovery Overview

Angie Terrell

4 min read

Nov 14, 2017

Design Discovery Overview

Design Discovery

At Big Nerd Ranch, we believe that projects are successful when Design is the tip of the spear. The Discovery phase of a project is an important step in determining the best path forward for the design and subsequent build of any application.

Sometimes it is difficult to make good decisions in the middle of a project when so many things are in flux. For this reason, we usually recommend a Discovery at the beginning of a project in order to deeply understand the problem or opportunity that needs to be solved. This phase allows us to design and develop the best solutions and promotes learning the essential goals of a project to reference throughout a project.

Feature sorting using sticky notes

When do you need a Discovery?

Reasons to Discover

A Discovery is recommended if:

  • There is a new product idea that has not yet been designed or developed.
  • The product exists, but requires a redesign.
  • New, significant features need to be added to an existing product.

On some occasions, another short Discovery in the middle of a long project or after a major release can be helpful to make sure the product is still aligned with the project goals.

What do we learn in a Discovery?

In the design and development of any product, it is important that the designers and developers understand more than just user stories. During a Discovery, we seek to learn as much about the product, the company, and the customer as possible, so that we can ultimately make the best design decisions and create accurate user stories. We also seek to learn the constraints that will eliminate certain infeasible or unsustainable paths. To do this, we investigate many different areas of the project.



Understanding the user and the user’s needs are fundamental to every project. In Discovery, we attempt to understand as much as possible about the user’s expectations toward this product or service, their behaviors, their motivations, and their needs. In doing so our designers can make better decisions for the user throughout the project.



During Discovery, our team will begin to learn about features that require user interactions as well as anyobstacles to those features. Features that require the product to have built-in intelligence and logic, like learning your commuting route and optimizing your time to leave for example, demand extra attention in order to fully understand the scope and depth of the feature. This allows the team to make smart scoping decisions prior to getting into the feature work.

Content Sources and APIs

Content Sources & APIs

How will dynamic content will displayed in the app? Are there existing web services or APIs for dynamic content and data? How will that information be stored and what should happen when those content sources are not available? With knowledge of what data we have available, our team can better design and frame content while also keeping in mind error states, empty states, and how the UI should adapt to as content provided changes.

Data Inputs

Data Inputs

There’s no doubt that we’ll need the user to input data of some kind. Understanding what data we’ll need, what’s the best way to obtain the data, and where it will be stored are all important questions to answer in Discovery. While we don’t expect the client to solve these problems, we definitely need to start the discussion early on in the project in order to avoid a significant roadblock later.



Throughout Discovery, we’ll also uncover technical and business constraints that are inherent to the business (legal, financial, etc.) or that may exist in development. Understanding these constraints help us align the design of the end experience with the goals of the project and ensure that the product will avoid technical blockers.

Discovery Methods

How do we uncover this information in the Discovery phase? There are many methods inherent to User Experience design that allow us to efficiently gain as much learning as possible. The designer(s) will use the methods that best reveal the learnings that must take place during this phase.

Overall, these methods will guide the discussion between the Big Nerd Ranch team and the client team in a productive manner. They facilitate deep investigation and sharing.

Some of these methods include:

  • Card sorting
  • Feature definition/prioritization
  • Persona identification
  • Stakeholder interviews
  • Competitive analysis
  • Rapid prototyping

Discovery Duration and Delivery

Based on the learnings conducted during the Discovery, the designer will put together documents that explain the scope of the application and identifies the users and their motivations. Features will be explored and user flows will be documented. From the overall scope and feature set, the app map starts to take shape.


An App Map details the user experience at a high level, giving the team context on the navigation and feature scope.

The hands-on portion of the Discovery (with the client) can take 3 to 5 business days and will involve lots of group discussion and exercises. The entire Discovery can usually take 1-3 weeks depending on the complexity of the product features.

As a partner to the client, we must learn as much about their business and customers as possible, so that every decision we make in the design and development of the product aligns with their goals. As experts in user experience, we can then advocate for the overall best designs given all of the various goals, needs, and constraints that exist.

Overall, the Discovery is a critical phase of learning that prepares the entire team to design UI, plan sprints, and write stories throughout product design and development. At Big Nerd Ranch, we feel that Discovery helps our clients make better decisions both at the beginning and throughout the project.

Interested in discovery, design, or app development? Reach out to Big Nerd Ranch today to talk about how we can work with your team.

Angie Terrell

Author Big Nerd Ranch

Angie joined BNR in 2014 as a senior UX/UI designer. Just over a year later she became director of design and instruction leading a team of user experience and interface designers. All told, Angie has over 15 years of experience designing a wide array of user experiences

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