Design Discovery 101

Getting to know a client’s design needs often requires detailed conversations before getting to the point where a creative brief can be produced to guide the design work.

At Backyard Creative, we usually engage clients in a discovery process at the beginning of a project to learn more about their industry and business context, their brand, target audiences and influencing factors. A discovery process involves research and an in-person discovery session. Discovery is key when working with a new client, and how in-depth the discovery process goes often depends on the budget and time available.

We follow a discovery model that we’ve developed after years of working with clients. The process brings to light key information that helps make our design work the best it can be. Here are the five key steps we take to facilitate a discovery process with clients.

1. Outline the Process

Design discovery is often new to clients, so we outline the process in detail before jumping in, to avoid any surprises and help them prepare. We also ensure clients understand the connection between our research and discovery session and the resulting design deliverables–our goal is always to produce work that meets a client’s objectives and business needs, and a discovery process allows us to gain a thorough understanding of both.

2. Research, Research, Research

Before getting into a room with a client for a discovery session, we always conduct research on our own, with some help from clients. We request key documents such as strategic and business plans or market research results, graphic standards documents, and design samples.

Sometimes we ask clients to answer questions before a session. Our aim is to learn as much as we can before meeting with a client, to keep session conversations focused on questions and topics they can best address in person.

3. Create a Facilitation Plan

A discovery session facilitation plan comes together as the research is underway, and is customized for each client. While we ask questions about a client’s business and brand, the specific questions always differ, depending on what the pre-session research reveals, and the areas we still need more information about.

We plan for a combination of unstructured roundtable discussions and fun exercises over a reasonable amount of time (usually 1.5 to 2 hours) to keep participants engaged and the conversations flowing.

A key consideration that impacts the facilitation plan is how many people will be attending a session, and whether they’ll be joining the session in person or virtually. We’ve facilitated sessions with the majority of participants joining virtually from different time zones, and others in person with both small and very large groups. All participants need an opportunity to share their knowledge and perspectives, so we customize activities based on the client’s specific scenario, to ensure we hear from everyone present.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but working out the logistics of the session beforehand is an important part of the plan. We test out any virtual platform we’ll be using with the client before we get in the room, and ensure we’ll have good wifi. We ask for white boards or flip charts and some wall space to post discussion posters, and we bring our own stash of office supplies.

4. Work the Plan

Every discovery session begins with a roundtable of introductions and a detailed review of the agenda, session objectives and context before we jump into the meaty conversations.

While we generally follow the facilitation plan to move from section to section, it is meant as a guideline to shape conversation, so we adjust as we go, depending on how things roll out. For example, participants in one activity may end up providing answers to questions we were planning to ask in another activity, so we make sure we don’t ask questions twice and refocus discussions as needed.

Sometimes discussions reveal new information we weren’t anticipating, or clients need time to get on the same page around their strategic direction (pretty common when a design project is part of an organization’s new strategic plan).

Discussions usually end with a review of the project workback schedule and next steps.

5. Take Detailed Notes

There’s no point facilitating a great session if we can’t remember what was discussed. Discussions can move quickly, especially with lots of participants or a particularly engaged client, so we always assign a separate facilitator and note taker.

The facilitator runs the session following the facilitation plan, while the note taker captures the most detailed notes possible and generally doesn’t get too involved in discussions. We also take photos of any flipcharts or white board notes, so we can refer to them later.

After a discovery session, we take time to process our notes, have internal discussions, and apply all we have learned about a client to begin our favourite step, the creative process. A discovery session always provides information, inspiration and great ideas–but most importantly, an opportunity to chat one-on-one with clients and form a connection to carry us through a design project as a team.