In every web development project, at some point, the designer and the developer disappear into their offices for a period of time and come out with some finished work. During that time, they are creating universes for their client, building web pages out of lines of code and pixels, tailoring everything to the needs of the organization that site will represent. Before they enter that room, they gather information about the client's preferences one way or another. The process of gathering that information is known as discovery, a term taken largely from the legal field, where attorneys spend time before a trial collecting evidence.
In the context of web and other software development, discovery is often treated as a distinct deliverable. You may see it as a line item on web site proposals, and it may be a big one, taking up hours for which your web team bills you, despite the fact that the only "thing" that comes out of the discovery phase is a document or two that don't seem to be getting you any closer to a web site up there on the internet where everyone can see it. It can be tempting to choose a firm that dives right into your project without all those meetings, documents, and extra paperwork.
Unfortunately, even if that discovery period is not treated as a distinct, separate phase of work, it doesn't mean that you're not paying for it. The effort and time involved in learning about you and your project must happen anyway, but instead of being done ahead of the design and development work, they'll end up being done as part of it. It's inefficient and often disastrous to approach a project this way, and today, we'll be illustrating why a distinct discovery phase is worth your time, money, and effort.
An Outline of the Site's Content
Whether the site is just a big online brochure for your nail salon or an online repository of power tools available to rent from your hardware store or the glitzy commerce center for the cool app you just built, there still needs to be a site map. The developer and the designer still need to know how many pages to make, what the site's navigation menu should include, and how much content needs to appear in more than one place.
How this goes down WITH a discovery phase: A meeting or series of meetings to suss out your intentions, hopes, and dreams for the site results in a proposed content outline with notes to describe what will appear on each page. You offer your edits, your web team asks important questions, and a final site outline gives everyone a road map for design and development.
How this goes down WITHOUT a discovery phase: You send your web team a list of pages you want on your site. You make assumptions about their understanding of your map. They follow it to the letter, you later remember other content you wanted, and design/development takes two steps forward and one step back over and over. In the end, the site either has the content you want but cost you more money than you planned due to constant revisions, or the site has only some of the content you wanted.
Aesthetics, a.k.a. Look-and-Feel
Web design is a matter of taste, but a design that reflects the latest research on usability is key for a successful site. No matter how much you love that web site you saw with the dancing hamsters, doing something like that on your site may not be right for your industry or the content you want to share. A great designer needs to know what you like, what you require, and what your users expect in order to design a look for the site that will be successful for you.
How this goes down WITH a discovery phase: A meeting or series of meetings to collect your identity materials (logo, fonts, colors) and to learn about what you like and don't like about your current site, other sites, and web design in general, combined with knowledge of your site's content and functionality issues, results in graphic composites or design briefs that, after several iterations, become a site that really reflects you and your business.
How this goes down WITHOUT a discovery phase: Emails volley back and forth requesting logos and fonts. Designs are presented that you may or may not like at all, and knowledge is gathered piecemeal by the designer from your frustrated and unsatisfied reactions to their work, which doesn't represent what you want at all. Eventually, you run out of time or money for more changes, and the site looks ok, but not really what you were picturing originally.
Interaction and Cool Web Site Tricks
If you want your site to do more than just display words and pictures, your web team needs to know that. In this category, you'll find things like a contact form, social media sharing buttons, blogs with comments and tags, downloadable calendars, e-commerce, and other fill-in-the-blank kinds of forms like registrations, newsletter sign-ups, and online reservation requests. All of these items must be carefully described to a developer so she can build them to your specifications. Each cool trick your web site could potentially do requires at least two or three decisions on your part -- maybe more.
How this goes down WITH a discovery phase: A meeting or series of meetings result in a detailed functionality specifications document. For a contact form -- the simplest of the examples above -- that might specify the fields in the form and how they'll be labeled (name, email address, phone number, message), the email address to whom the form submission should be sent, whether or not the form submission should be saved to a database, what page or message should be displayed once the user completing the form clicks "submit," and whether an email should go to the user as well -- not to mention what the emails that get triggered by this form should say. In a discovery meeting, this is all laid out clearly before development even begins.
How this goes down WITHOUT a discovery phase: You ask for a contact form on the site. Your developer installs a basic contact form and has it sent to your email address. You look at it, test it, get the email, and realize that there is information missing. Emails to your developer result in the need to start over with a new form widget, and if you discover something else you need from this form later, this process repeats. Eventually, you may give up on one of your requirements from this form because of time and/or budget constraints spent on inventing, reinventing, and tweaking the form process over and over.
The point here is that taking the time to lay out your needs, your preferences, and your plans carefully, before any work begins, forces you to be deliberate about your decisions. A skilled web team will guide you through the process using the expertise that comes with having done this hundreds of times before. It is shortsighted and terribly, terribly inefficient to skip the discovery phase. It's almost certain that you'll end up either spending more money than you planned or getting a site you don't love, or both. Give yourself and your web team the gift of deliberate, directed discovery, and you'll find it is worth every moment you spend.