Why you should begin every project with Discovery: Design Thinking (Part 2 of 5)

Leigh Jenkins
Marketing Manager - Innovation | Enterprise Europe Network
1st August 2019

Design Thinking helps businesses to create user-centric products and services by discovering insights into user needs, applying these insights to their business model and generating innovative ideas.

In this five-part series, Sarah Dickins gives advice on how Design Thinking techniques can help you to orientate your product development around user need. 

Part two in this series looks at ‘Discovery,’ which forms the first phase of the Design Thinking process as detailed in the image below. At the beginning of a project, ‘Discovery-style’ exploratory research helps to ensure that products and features genuinely meet user needs. 

In this guide Sarah shares her insights and approach to running effective Discovery sessions as part of a Design Thinking programme.

lifecycleContent from David Kelly, IDEO, [International Design & Consulting firm]

What is Discovery?

Discovery helps us to focus on understanding the user need and context and to find deep insights rather than quick answers. Discovery sessions usually take the form of semi-structured interviews or ethnographic (observation) sessions and may be a combination of both. Digital tools can also help you with better access to real-life scenarios. 

Example Case Study*

"It was one week on from our ‘zero food waste’ research sessions, and I was trawling hundreds of photos of people’s fridges. 

Like most of our participants, Stefan had considerably underestimated his food waste and like most of the participants, Stefan found it difficult to pinpoint the reasons for this.  

But something caught my attention when I came to the photos of Stefan’s fridge.

In his forties, Stefan was a single dad whose whole life revolved around the weekends, which he spent with his young son. 

I had noticed that in the photos from the past month, there was always more than one open tub of yoghurt in his fridge. For a single man, who for the most part lived on his own, this seemed strange.

So we decided to ask a few additional questions. Stefan explained that when his son visited, he would usually end up opening another tub for him as he was quite picky. This might even amount to several tubs being open at once if he didn’t finish them during the week.  

This may seem like a small detail - but in fact - an observation like this could inspire a product or packaging design that appeals to customers like Stefan better, despite the fact that he did not voice the need in the interview."

*Details of the projects have been changed  to protect client.

In this example, capturing real-time photographs of Stefan’s fridge during the Discovery phase was really useful to help us to investigate discrepancies between his behaviour and his memory. 

Am I ready for Discovery?

If users will interact directly with your product, a great way to kick-off the project is with some light-touch Discovery-style research. Once you have a rough idea of your target audience and a notion of the type of product that you wish to produce, you are ready to get started.

Beware of shortcuts

We wait till after the Discovery sessions have been completed to interpret our observations to find insights which have the power to inspire innovative new ideas. 

One of the most common mistakes that businesses make is to start to interpret findings during the Discovery phase, rather than waiting until all the sessions have been completed. Skipping ahead to the Interpretation phase too early tends to lead to assumptions and losing valuable insights. 

It’s not too late

You can still run Discovery once you have product concepts on the table, as long as you are prepared to ‘hold concepts lightly’ and set-aside or have resource/time to allow for modifications post-research. 

We often term research concepts ‘sacrificial concepts’ to acknowledge that their main purpose is to prompt conversation.

A framework for a semi-structured Discovery interview

Tunnel vision
Often businesses introduce the product concept at the beginning of an interview which limits the participant’s imagination throughout the session - giving them tunnel vision.                               

Funnel framework 
The simple ‘Funnel’ framework in the diagram below helps us to order questions to build a better picture of the user and context. This is much more valuable in the long run than a ‘yes/no’ answer on a single concept, as it means that your findings will still be relevant when concept ideas flex and change as they are developed.

Running Discovery programmes with businesses is probably the most satisfying part of my job. Countless times during the user sessions I watch businesses and teams, who have been going round in circles, gain clarity and direction.

If you feel as if you are struggling to make headway on a project, or finding it difficult to make decisions regarding direction, it may be worth taking a step back, and digging deep into user motivations and needs with these Discovery techniques. 

A checklist for preparing a Discovery interview


  • Select only people who represent the target market(s)
  • Avoid those with previous knowledge / interest in the project / a personal bias 
  • Number of participants: 5+. Conversation depth is more important than high numbers
  • Allow a 1 - 1.5 hour session length encourage in-depth conversation
  • It may help to conduct the session in the context where the product is used.
  • Write a discussion plan using the Funnel Framework:
  1. Context: User / Background / Interaction / Routine 
  2. Theme: Priorities / Competitor products 
  3. Concepts: Open ended questions. What if it.....?

During the Session:

  • Really listen
  • Ask for honest answers 
  • Make sure that you stay on theme, but allow the conversation to flow 
  • Don’t give your own opinion or make assumptions
  • If the response is a vague yes or no, ask for the specifics 
  • Ask Why? Why? and why?

After the Session:

  • Record the conversation for reference 
  • Note down the key themes straight afterwards
  • Avoid drawing conclusions before meeting all participants

About the author
Sarah Dickins, Business West’s design innovation specialist, has over the past five years worked with established R&D teams in companies such as Sony Electronics, Unilever and Walgreens Boots Alliance, helping them to innovate and create new products.

More in the series:

Read Part 1: Design Thinking for Business Success: Design Thinking for Innovation

Read Part 3: The Interpretation Game: Design Thinking for Innovation

 Read Part 4: How to have great ideas: Design Thinking for Innovation

Read Part 5: How to fail fast: Design Thinking for Innovation 

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  • There is no one-size fits all tool for each phase of the Design Thinking process. If you're interested in 1-2-1 support the innovate2succeed programme can help, call the team on 0330 124 1243.