What design discovery feels like

I often struggle to describe what it is that I do for a living. You may feel the same, especially when talking to friends outside of your industry, or at any given family gathering. In the past few months, a large and I believe most important part of my job at DockYard was helping get projects started right.

designer at work

A stereotypical UX designer at work. Sticky notes in bright colors are essential.

We call this initial phase of a project design discovery, and believe that a design-first approach saves a lot of money and frustration by figuring everything out with the simplest paper-and-pen prototypes first. But I’m not talking about the business logic, or methods that inform discovery right now. I want to talk about how it feels to be part of it - from the beginning, staring at a bunch of unknowns, and right through the end when the answer becomes clear.

Among all the things I do, the activity of kicking off projects is the hardest one to describe. It’s the thing that needs to happen before anyone can start making the actual thing. Before you’ve done a discovery, you mostly have questions, or rather, you have questions about what the questions should be. (After all, asking the correct question is 80% of solving a problem.) Then, as you work through user flows and specific screens the answers start to become more obvious, and you can make decisions together with the client about what the thing you’re building should do, and which features you’ll build first to make that possible.

paper and pen prototypes

Feeling “done” with discovering something doesn’t always look complex.

If all goes well, the end result should look suspiciously simple. Obvious, even. You’ll have gotten rid of many creative but complex features. Those would be nice to have in the future, but it doesn’t make sense to invest in the bells and whistles until you’ve built the basics. The outcome of a Discovery can feel like the outcome of a good summer vacation. You’ve done some (but not all) of all the possible things you’d imagined you’d do. You’ve had to narrow down your long list of fuzzy imagined dream-like things you could possibly do to a realistic and actionable schedule.

river grass underwater

The feeling of summer and possibility is similar to the beginning of discovery. It won’t last forever, but enjoy it while it does! Image Credit

Discovery is a process that turns a strong desire to have a vacation, plus a list of ideas and dreams into something you can reliably act upon. If the end of summer has ever hit you by surprise, as you realized you’d never made time for the one important trip you’d definitely thought you’d do this year - planning could help.

And if you’re an entrepreneur, or a UX designer, or even an engineer about to embark on a discovery process, this is how it should feel.

And in the beginning, it’s open and exciting but often so open it’s scary. Your collaborators keep asking seemingly obvious questions. (We uncover a new and important motivation every single time. It’s worth the time and effort.) It can be frustrating because the things you thought were clear still need definition. Things can even get heated, as you discuss the details of a collaborative project and realize your assumptions might be different from your collaborators’, and also different from the assumptions your users hold. The early stages of a discovery are like the beginning, dreamy stages of planning a vacation. You know a good thing is ahead, and you can spend some time with all the possible amazing options open to you, but know that the longer you delay the decisions, the longer you wait to do the actual thing.

In the middle, it’s hard. You’re making tough decisions to prioritize among ideas and features, while you care and see the need for all of them. (Eventually).

At the end, things look obvious - so obvious that you can’t wait to get started actually making them. You know exactly what to do first.

Enjoy the rest of the summer! (Remember, officially, we have till September 21st :-)

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