Hackernoon logoWhy the Discovery Phase in Software Development is Crucial for Success by@imaginovation

Why the Discovery Phase in Software Development is Crucial for Success

Michael Georgiou Hacker Noon profile picture

@imaginovationMichael Georgiou

Co-Founder, CMO at Imaginovation

Building software is a complex undertaking. Hundreds and thousands of lines of code are written. Multiple programmers collaborate and create the software from beginning to end.

And if you think that just by following strict development deadlines for your software, your software will become a success, think again.

The truth is, your initiative may fail to take off successfully if a thorough analysis and evaluation of your project’s scope are not conducted. This happens only in the discovery phase of your project.

Nowadays, it is not advisable to initiate a software development project without the discovery phase. In fact, the discovery phase is an investment worth making for your project’s success.

Mckinsey report summarizes some of the pitfalls of skipping the discovery phase in a project:

  • Approximately half of large IT projects massively blow their IT budget
  • 17% of the IT projects go so bad; they put the entire company in danger.
  • 45% of IT projects end up going over the estimated budget.
  • 7% of projects extend much beyond the estimated timeline.

All of the above is avoidable with research and careful planning, which is done in the discovery phase. 

This article explores the process of running the discovery phase and its benefits in software development.

Phases of Project Development: Introduction

No matter your project's scale and scope, it needs to be managed from start to finish. From planning to handling clients' ever-changing requirements to handing over the final product within deadline – a lot may go wrong at any stage.

This is why it is best to slice your project into phases – each with its own deliverables. 

Traditionally, most project managers divide a project timeline into five different phases:

  • Project Initiation – This is the beginning of a project, and the purpose of this phase is to define the project’s scope at a broad level. This phase starts with a business case.
  • Project Planning – This phase focuses on developing a roadmap for the project, including setting clear goals.
  • Project Execution – Deliverables of a project are developed and completed in this phase.
  • Project Monitoring and Controlling – This phase focuses on measuring the project’s progress and ensuring that everything aligns with the project plan. 
  • Project Closing – This is the last phase of the project development life cycle. It involves handing over the project deliverables to your client, passing the business's documentation, and informing stakeholders of the project’s closure.

Let me tell you the secret of making a software development project successful.

  1. Let your project go through all the phases in a specific order.
  2. Do not cut corners in any of the phases.
  3. Do not underestimate the importance of initial phases that precede the actual development.
  4. Include the discovery phase that must come hand-in-hand with initiation and then transition into the project planning.

What is the Discovery Phase?

The project discovery phase is the first stage of a software development project. It is vital for business owners who wish to complete their projects on time and on budget. The role of the discovery phase is to discover the project’s requirements. 

It is a research period. It involves gathering and analyzing the project information, its intended market, and target audience. 

The discovery phase figures out what must be achieved to deliver the project on time with a better outcome. It also helps you understand the end-users, their attitude towards the product/software, their expectations, and requirements.

It is a mistake to skip the discovery phase, assuming it to be a waste of money and time. 

Rather, this phase helps you better organize the process of developing your project. It allows you to learn and understand your project’s scope, goals, and limitations. 

Let’s discuss the process of running the discovery phase.

How to Run a Discovery Phase: Step-by-Step Process

The discovery phase usually takes anything between a few weeks to few months. 

There is no quick-fix solution or magic formula to the discovery phase. Each software, product, or idea is unique, and the discovery process must be adaptable to fit their requirements. 

Here are the steps for running a discovery phase. 

1. Discover the purpose

The first step within the discovery phase is discovering the purpose. It focuses on getting answers to the "why" – why we are building this product and the whole purpose behind it. 

You can understand the purpose when you start understanding the expectations of various stakeholders.  

It’s important to discover the motive and context behind the product. It will help you make informed and focused decisions while executing the project.  

Make sure you ask the right questions and gather sufficient feedback from all the involved to make the most out of this phase. 

2. Business Overview

Before you jump into other essentials, spend some time understanding the company and the new product’s business model. 

It's essential to understand how this software application's idea came along and how will the final product help in business growth.  

It would be best if you are armed with a set of questions about the company, the product, competitors, business idea, and the likes to complete this step.

3. Identify the stakeholders

Discoveries are best performed when you have multi-disciplinary teams. 

Project stakeholders in a business can be both internal and external representatives. The stakeholders include anyone who is responsible and interested – developers, business process owners, product owners, end-users, and investment decision-makers. 

4. Interview the stakeholders

Stakeholders of the intended product often hold unique information, know-how, and insight into the internal processes and the users who interact with them. 

Interviewing such stakeholders will provide you insight into understanding the scale of the problem and the viability of solutions.

You will gain an understanding of any solutions they’ve tried earlier that have or haven’t worked for them.

5. Review internal documents and available research

Do not re-invent the wheel – There might be some documentation available within the company for which software application is intended.

Checking all that internal documentation is a must in this step. 

It is important and shouldn’t be neglected at any cost because they are prepared over the years. The information they might contain may not be so apparent when interacting directly with other team members and intended users. 

Research data may already be available because many companies routinely conduct research and surveys to study the market.

You may have to refer to and access the company’s data archives. There might be varying sources, and you may have to find them out with the help of contacts. It may save you crucial time.

6. Come up with success metrics.

One of the primary questions at this step should be – how to measure the product's success once it's developed.

It can include timelines, milestones, and criteria for assessing and evaluating the product’s success. 

Goal setting methodologies should back it.

7. Identify the constraints

It's crucial to understand and identify the limitations of a project. A project may have a restricted budget or a tight deadline.

There's, anyways, no such thing as unlimited timelines and resources in a project. 

Therefore, it's best to come up with all the constraints of a project. Identify which constraints are the most important ones and which ones you can be a little flexible with.

8. List the Risks.

The motive of this step is to identify risks that are worth worrying about. This way, the company can stop focusing on risks that can be ignored. This stage focuses not only on identifying the risks but also on brainstorming about possible solutions for each of them.

9. Process and working agreement

Define the software development process flow

Here, an agreement on the work methodology, checkpoints, routine meetings, setting responsibilities, etc., is done. 

The purpose is to ensure everything is clear, mutually agreed upon, and ready for getting started.

10. Build a story map

View the entire user journey the software solution intends to offer in this step 

It is a well-trusted method of requirements gathering used to guide the development of new software. 

This step begins with zeroing on the user goals and breaking down the process by understanding the problem at hand. 

You can create an easy-to-follow visual that every team member can understand and follow. This also gives a sense of the software product size. 

The steps mentioned above are the core to the discovery of most software projects. But, there are additional activities you can include depending from project to project.

  • Forming the vision of the future product
  • Conduct competitor’s analysis
  • Choose tools
  • Retrospective meetings towards the closure of discovery

Discovery, thus, is a great opportunity for teams to foresee and eliminate any risks like lack of market demand or unexpected expenditure.

Let's take a look at the major benefits of adding the discovery phase to a project.

The Benefits of Discovery Phase

The discovery phase is extremely helpful in managing the time and investment strategy.

Here are the advantages of running the discovery phase:

  1. Mistakes made during the later stages of the project – like planning or executing are expensive to fix later. The Discovery phase tests the idea and implementation strategies and thus contributes to avoiding any costly mistakes later.
  2. It minimizes the chances of any alterations in the later stages of the project because the project's scope is defined, keeping in mind limitations, risks, market analysis, etc. 
  3. It helps you establish clearly stated business goals around the software solution. It is a known fact that if a project fails, it's usually the outcome of mismatched expectations. A clear understanding of business goals helps understand the expectations with clarity.
  4. A project fails miserably when it is developed without a clear understanding of the needs of end-users. The discovery phase ensures you create something which is of real benefit to the end-users who’ll be using the application.
  5. It ensures the development of the best possible solution. While interacting with all the stakeholders, you can identify the clear purpose behind the intended application. Market research and competitor analysis can help in suggesting a much more effective software solution. 
  6. It will help you define what a successful outcome may look like. 
  7. It will facilitate you in gaining knowledge of the pain points in the journey of developing a solution.

The Crucial Role of Discovery Phase in Project Development

The discovery phase of a project is essential and shouldn't be ignored. 

Treat this phase as an opportunity to frame the problem this solution will solve, explore various ways to build the solution, and get all the stakeholders on the same page.   

Involve people with different expertise in this process. Remember, people with varying experiences and ideas will always bring maximum value to your product. The discovery phase is a way to analyze and build a foundation for your new product, positively impacting its future success.

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