Bridging The Knowledge Gap – Project Discovery

We are frequently asked to help companies improve and modernize their applications and websites. The first step in these projects is to learn about what we’ll be redesigning. As someone famously once said, “There are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.” This is true at the outset of any project and the discovery process helps identify the unknowns and make sure they don’t come back to bite us. There are a number of things we can do to learn about the ‘known unknowns’ and the ‘unknown unknowns’ and to validate the ‘known knowns’. This sets us on the path to a successful project and helps us avoid unexpected costs and effort.

Every discovery effort involves two key phases. First, we expand our understanding, gathering all the details about the system and possibilities for it. Then, as we examine all of these options we work to focus on a solid approach that will serve as the foundation for the rest of the project.

There are a number of things we can do to learn about the ‘known unknowns’ and the ‘unknown unknowns’ and to validate the ‘known knowns’.

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Discovery Methods

We need to understand how the current system works, what features or interactions need to be retained, and any rules or constraints need to be considered in order to make effective recommendations about how to improve the system.

We accomplish this using a few different methods, including:

  • Contextual Inquiry + Stakeholder Interviews
  • Direct System Access
  • Collaborative Concepting

Let’s learn a little more about how we do each of these things.


Contextual Inquiry + Stakeholder Interviews

At the outset, one of the things we do to better understand the system is to listen to those who have to use and support it regularly.

We conduct interviews with those individuals to better understand how they use the system, what they like about how it works, what they don’t like, and what they wish the system could do that it can’t.

What Is Contextual Inquiry?

If the system is something people use regularly as part of their job, we like to conduct what is called a Contextual Inquiry. This means we meet with a person at their job and ask them to show us how they complete common tasks, troubleshoot problems when issues arise, and any workarounds they use or ways they work in spite of the system.

This allows us to see how they use the system ourselves, in addition to talking with them about how they use it. We can see things they do that they may not even think to mention. We also hear about tasks they need to complete that aren’t supported by the system but should be.

What Are Stakeholder Interviews?

We also like to conduct Stakeholder Interviews. These involve key people who support or have ownership of the system. The staff who have to support the system have great insight into how users struggle and can help identify which issues should be prioritized. Owners of the system and other departments who have a stake in the system are also interviewed.  This helps us understand the business goals and any regulatory or legal constraints we need to keep in mind as we work on our redesign.

What’s the Benefit?

This activity helps us expand our understanding of how the system is used and what is important to those who use and support it.

Direct System Access

Accessing the system or application directly with a test account that includes realistic data allows us to dig into how the system works today.

What Are We Looking For?

Armed with an understanding of how people are using the system and how they’re working in spite of it, we examine the current system or application to understand the breadth of data and interactions that currently exist and how they function now. With this deeper level of understanding, we begin to identify opportunities to reorganize details to make the system more efficient and useful for both end users and those who support the system.

What’s the Benefit?

This activity helps us expand our understanding of all the data that the system displays and what tasks and processes it supports and how they align with what end users need and want to do.

Collaborative Concepting

Once we’ve talked to people who use and support the system and become familiar with how the system works today, our next step in discovery is Collaborative Concepting or sketching.

What Is Collaborative Concepting?

In this process, we meet as a team, bringing our UX and Technical expertise together with our client’s subject matter expertise to develop a high-level approach to the new system. We gather and review inspiration for the updated system, choose a few key parts of the interface to work on, and sketch out ideas of how the interface could look.

Sketching allows us to quickly iterate ideas and validate what will and will not work. This is the start of the narrowing or focusing portion of the discovery process. In these sessions, we sketch, review, and revise our ideas to gain consensus about how to move forward as we start to redesign the system. We entertain a variety of approaches to meet the goals of the feature we’re sketching, discuss the benefits and weaknesses of each and decide, as a group, which ideas to carry forward and which to discard.

What’s the Benefit?

This activity helps us focus our understanding into an approach that the team generates, iterates, and agrees on together. The outcome of this activity is used as a directional foundation for the rest of project.


A Solid Foundation

Using these activities to develop a foundation for the project, we are able to insure that we make design choices that support the end user needs, meet business goals and constraints, and keep the project on target.


Contact us and let’s talk about your next project.

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