Digging deep: the role of design in discovery

In the first, exploratory stage of Agile, it’s crucial to represent your assumptions – and then throw challenges at them, says Adam Ellison

25 March 2022

A diagram known as the ‘double diamond’, which depicts the design process and the different stages that take place within it. In real life the process isn’t as neat, but the double diamond is a great way to learn and understand how it works
The ‘double diamond’ depicts typical stages of the design process

‘Discovery’ could just as easily be called ‘investigation’. In this first stage of Agile service development, we:

What, though, is design and where does it fit into this process?

Design is a collaborative activity that all members of the team contribute to. You might occasionally need to draw things, but you don’t have to be a great artist to take part. More important than the quality of the drawings is the quality of the questioning and thinking that take place.

Design helps us articulate our thoughts and assumptions, test them and gain confidence that we are heading in the right direction.

The design process

The first stage of any design process is to take a step back and ask, “Do we truly understand the problem we’re designing a solution for?”  

That’s where we start in discovery, digging towards the root cause of the problem and deepening our understanding of it. We do that by looking outwards – learning about users and their world, including their goals, challenges and expectations. 

We next start to define the problem in more detail. We want to know the pain points in a process and which we should focus on. 

Looking inwards 

At this stage, we look inwards, questioning our mental models and the systems and processes used by the team or organisation we’re working with. 

Through these processes we come to define the problem more sharply, gaining confidence that we are addressing a real and important problem.  

Now we are ready to propose solutions – to move, in other words, into the ‘alpha’ phase of Agile development. In this stage, you make things, like prototypes, to put in front of users to test whether your ideas work and to see whether you’ve truly understood users’ needs. 

Journey maps and personas are common outputs of discovery workshops 

Using design in discovery

Workshops, visuals and prototypes are design methods and tools you can use in discovery to learn quickly and begin to test your assumptions.

1) Design workshops

Workshops are a great way to explore, question and create things together.

Workshops in discovery include defining your problem statement and creating a discovery canvas (a visual representation of your requirements), user personas and user journey maps.

The outcome of most workshops is an ‘artefact’ – something (often visual) that you can refer to and share with others.

2) Visuals

A visual allows constructive challenge

Whether it’s a flowchart, a map or a diagram, creating a visual involves gathering information, editing it down to what’s most relevant and important. You then form a visual representation of your understanding to share, inviting constructive challenge.

3) Prototypes

Drawings are common prototypes, but they can involve roleplay, too 

Prototypes are quick and disposable ways to explore how you think your product could work. They give you something to react to and learn from. Prototypes aren’t just one-dimensional drawings: they can also involve, for example, team members role-playing service interaction.

As you progress through discovery, you can fine-tune your prototypes, make them more detailed and truer to life.

Tell us how you’ve used design in discovery and what you’ve learned.

Adam Ellison is an interaction designer on CDPS’s Natural Resources Wales Hazardous Waste team

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