Discovering Discovery

Written by | July 22, 2016 | Posted in Museums, Process

Discovery. You’ve heard us say it, and you’ve heard other web design firms say it. You may have seen it on our website, on social media, or you may have heard us reference it at a conference. You have an idea of what it’s about, but what does it really mean?


We realize that “Discovery” can be an abstract concept, and we often get asked questions from our clients regarding the meaning and value of Discovery. We figured no one’s more suited to address these questions than Sean O’Shea, our Manager of UX Design and Strategy, who usually takes the lead on our Discovery efforts. But first, what is Discovery?

Text post listing the 3 objectives of Discovery that can be found below this image

At Cuberis, we use the term Discovery to describe the first step we take with every client we partner with. The activities that make up Discovery vary from project to project, but they are all executed with three objectives in mind:

  1. To gain an understanding of our clients, their goals and their audiences

  2. To create consensus and momentum with internal stakeholders

  3. To build a foundation for the next steps of the project process

As you’ve probably been told, Discovery is about uncovering new insights about your website, and discussing the features you want your new site to have. But it’s also used to perform other critical tasks like defining needs and behaviors of core user groups and gaining an initial consensus on everything from key goals to desired functionality to aesthetic preferences.

Now, let’s dig deeper to unpack the value and process our clients can expect from Discovery, with a little [i.e. a lot] help from Sean.


Why is Discovery important to the web design process?

Sean: Going through Discovery helps us make sure we are leveraging our skills to best benefit our partners. We want to guide them through the process in the best way possible: by being good stewards of the time they’ve allotted us, and creating a framework through which questions can be analyzed and decisions made, establishing a clear path forward. Ultimately we want to use Discovery as a way to empower internal stakeholders. Often the person or people we partner with in cultural institutions, higher ed or nonprofit organizations are not the final decision-makers when it comes to redesigning a website, so we want to make sure our partners feel like they have the tools they need and are confident selling decisions up the chain.

At the end of Discovery you will have the information you need to feel confident taking the next step, whether that be moving directly into the next phase of redesign or taking that information back to your stakeholders for approval before planning your next move.


When starting the Discovery phase, what should a client expect for the first step?

Sean: We review what we know so far, then put together a list of questions for the client. These questions are all about taking a deeper dive into the initial information we received before the start of the project so we can gain an understanding of their brand, their goals and what they understand of their current and target audiences.   

This initial exchange of knowledge between you and your web partner gives you the opportunity to unload everything you know to be true about your brand and your organizational goals, so remember that no detail is too small.


Looking at the actual Discovery process, how long does it take?

Sean: It’s different for every client based on their needs. We have a vast arsenal of tools and techniques we can use, but it depends on an institution’s needs. The process can last from two weeks to two months, all depending on what we know at the start of Discovery and the scope of the project. Sometimes it’s limited to internal stakeholder surveys, so the process is pretty short; on other projects we’ll use every tool we’ve got. Tools like focus groups, user testing, Google Analytics audits, heuristic evaluations, competitive analysis and so on. Again, the goal of Discovery is to arm our partners with the information they need to feel confident making decisions about how and where to move forward in the web design process, so we tailor the Discovery process to address their needs.


Quote: "The goal of Discovery is to arm our partners with the information they need to feel confident making decisions about how and where to move forward in the web design process."


What is the most important element of Discovery?

Sean: Communication is critical. It’s how we learn about the needs of the organization. We have experience partnering with museums, higher ed and nonprofits, but we can’t assume we know their needs and go through the process on that assumption. We also use communication to define how we’re going to tackle a project. It helps us understand our partners’ expectations and goals and plan the direction we’ll take for the rest of Discovery.

Some things to keep in mind when communicating with your web partner:

1. All information is helpful. Again, don’t be afraid to share details that you think are small or unimportant, because they can still have an impact on large decisions.

2. Talk to your internal team and get input from them as Discovery progresses. Delegate one person as a point of contact between your internal team and your web partner. This will help you make sure that both groups are aligned when it comes time to make decisions regarding next steps.

3. Dislikes are just as important as likes. It’s helpful for your partner to know if you’ve had web experiences that you didn’t enjoy along with those you did enjoy. Knowing your preferences helps your web partner direct their focus towards a solution that will work for you.

4. Ask questions! As discussed above, your web partner will prepare a list of questions to ask you at the start of Discovery and will ask more as the project evolves, but that doesn’t mean you have no say in the direction it takes. You know your organization better than your web partner, so if you have questions about the direction the project is taking or aren’t sure how a proposed solution aligns with your mission, ask!


What is your favorite aspect of Discovery?

Sean: For me it’s about translating this very abstractly-defined need—our website is outdated, or our visitors don’t like using the site—into steps we need to take and questions we need to answer to move forward. We gather pieces of data and from them create goals and realize constraints for the project. I like that we bring our partners along with us and help them take the lead. We don’t give our partners a recommendation for next steps after two months of radio silence, instead we take them with us every step of the way so they have ownership of decisions and are confident in the direction we take.


During Discovery we take an in-depth look at all the details of a website. What is something anyone can do to put themselves in the right mindset for the start of Discovery?

Teacher And Students Looking At Artifacts On Display In MuseumSean: Most cultural institutions and nonprofits already understand the needs of their users and visitors. To evaluate the user-friendliness of their website the organization’s team members have to put themselves in the visitor’s shoes and look at the website from a new visitor’s perspective. That means forgetting what they already know about the organization and asking, can I, a visitor, easily find the information I need? It can be hard to do, but it’s a really good habit to have.


Understanding your website’s strengths, weaknesses and growing pains is the important first step towards redesigning your website.

Going through Discovery will let you create a roadmap that, together with your web partner, you can use to direct your path and measure success for the rest of the project—for us, this is what Discovery is all about. If you’re interested in learning more about our Discovery process don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions you may have!


Logo for Tackling Complex Web Projects; series of smaller triangles arranged to make a larger triangleSean will present Tackling Complex Web Projects, a how-to session, at SEMC’s Annual Meeting in Charlotte, NC on October 11. The hands-on workshop will cover exercises and tools you can use to kick off the Discovery of any web project with confidence. Until then you can keep up with him on Twitter at @sposhe.

Andrea Vaughan, Communications & Engagement Coordinator
With a love of the arts that started with her first music lesson at age 8, Andrea seeks to initiate and build long-lasting partnerships between cultural institutions and the Cuberis team.