website discovery process

Creating an Effective Website Discovery Process

Before starting any web design project, it’s important to understand the needs of the client and what the site is trying to achieve. A discovery session allows the designers to get a clear picture of the project and create an effective solution that meets the needs of the customer.

Every agency has their own discovery process and there is no doubt that the majority of processes out there can be fairly similar. In some respects this is because online resources provide very similar processes, but it is also because these methods happen to be some of the most tried and tested.

Our process

At ONBOX our processes are constantly changing. We believe in trying new things and adapting our processes to meet the needs of each individual project. In constantly adapting and testing our methods we are able to develop new processes that we can be certain will provide the best insight in any given situation. 

This also means that we can adapt on the fly and, if a discovery session starts to go in a different direction or something unexpected happens, we can move with it and still offer value with other solutions and exercises.

In this article we will provide some insight into how we create an effective website discovery process for our clients and how we adapt to different situations.


The first stage of preparing for any discovery session is research. At this point we’re not really looking for solutions, it’s more about understanding the problem. 

The start of a project is always different. In some situations a client may have provided a brief and in others we may have had a previous meetings or phone calls to inform the project. Sometimes there is a lot to go on, and other times there is just a basic idea. 

All of this information informs the discovery process and allows us to adapt our process to meet the specific needs of the client.

Defining the discovery

The purpose of the initial research is to properly define the discovery process and decide exactly what you need to know and the best way to get that information.

Everyone has their own processes and a simple search online will show a wide range of different methods you can pull from. Sprint by Jake Knapp and Design Sprint by Richard Banfield are fantastic resources on the discovery process, going into great detail on how to conduct a week long design sprint. We won’t go too much into all of their methods here, but we highly recommend them. For the most part, however, a full design sprint is far too in depth for what is typically required in a website discovery.

The extent of the discovery is usually defined by the project scope and how much information we have. Our most common discoveries are a basic five hour session and a two-day extended discovery. When deciding the most appropriate process we start with our ideal goal and work backwards through the exercises required to reach that, while listing out some additional methods as backups.

Common exercises

As we mentioned, there are a huge number of discovery exercises out there to choose from and we will break down some of our most commonly used. We won’t go into massive amounts of detail because there are better resources out there, but this will give you an idea of our process and the exercises we choose to shape our discoveries.

These are in a general order from start to finish, but that is by no means set and we often reorder them to shape the flow of the session.


Although this isn’t necessarily an exercise, preparation is a big part of the getting the discovery right from the outset. Send out an agenda and make sure everyone taking part knows what to expect.

It’s also important to choose the right people for the session. The ideal amount can vary depending on the scale of the project and the company you are working with. From our experience six people is ideal – you don’t really want any more than that, however, we have had very successful discoveries with less.

In terms of the actual people, you want a mix of decision makers and people close to or familiar with the website. For example, a director/owner who has the final say, someone from the marketing/comms/design team, and someone senior in customer service or who regularly deals with users.

Other preparation steps include bringing snacks and having access to water/coffee. With the snacks we find it’s best to stay healthy – don’t want sugar rushes and come downs! Think nuts, energy bars and fruit.

With all the prep out the way it’s time to get introduced. Go around the room and have everyone introduce themselves and their roles. This is also a good time to go over the agenda again and explain the goal for the session.

Research/past work

We find the best place to start a discovery is by setting the scene. This is the time to discuss everything that has come before the project. 

Discuss the client’s past work and show any findings from your research. At this stage it’s best to be positive and frame everything as an opportunity. By this we mean if, for example, the client has a high bounce rate or poor user retention, this isn’t a problem, it’s an opportunity to address the cause and create something better.

While it’s good to go over past work, it’s best not to spend too much time on this exercise and use it as more of a gauge as to the areas the client focuses – these are most likely the things they find most important.

Competitive landscape

Reviewing competitors can be beneficial depending on the project, however, try not to focus too hard on what other people are doing. The discovery is about your client and their goals, not what other people have done or are doing. 

The competitive landscape will highlight existing solutions and positioning, while giving you an insight into what your client will be up against with their new product.


This exercise will shape your entire discovery. What is your client looking to achieve? Ask questions and write down every goal you come up with before deciding on the final one. Try to keep it simple and constantly refer back to it throughout your discovery.

Here are some example goals from our projects:

  • To create a shareable narrative to turn new customers into brand ambassadors, in order to sell more products
  • Improve accessibility to recycling locations in order to increase tonnage recycled
  • We want to improve the health of all Canadians and become a standard of practice
  • Create a platform for clients to access their reports while attracting new customers
  • Better educate new visitors on the services we offer


Sprint questions

Taken from Sprint by Jake Knapp, sprint questions addresses the obstacles you may face when trying to reach the goal. Write down the questions you want to answer in the discovery and work to define potential problems. Rephrase your assumptions and obstacles as questions. Examples:

  • How can we improve accessibility?
  • How can we get customers to trust us?
  • How do we engage users?
  • What makes a good user experience?
  • What would make customers switch products?



A roadmap provides the opportunity to look at the bigger picture. Where does the client want to be in one year, five years, or twenty years from now. Think big and highlight milestones along the way. This will allow you to shape the project to meet their ultimate goal. 

Audience and ranking

Highlighting your client’s target audience is essential for the success of any project. Get them to list each user group and rank them in order of importance. The next exercises will focus on these users and it’s important to refer back to them throughout the discovery to ensure they remain the focus.

Problem statements

Define the problem each user or audience is struggling with. Try not to do too much with these statements – ideally you should avoid a compound statement that tries to be all things to all people.

Think about each user’s specific problem and create a statement that speaks to that. For example:

  • I need to recycle small appliances and power tools easily and for free
  • I want to learn innovative and efficient approaches to prevention and screening, in order to improve my patients’ experience and health outcomes
  • I want to easily access and understand my report


User journey mapping

Here we define each step the audience will take along their journey. Start by listing each audience/user group on one side of a board and the final goal on the other. Think deeply about each step and feel free to link their journeys’ together.

Note: the audience may also include your client’s team, for example, if a user will interact with customer service in any way then customer service should also be listed.

User journey map (blurred to protect client)

Q&A (How might we?)

The Q&A portion of the discovery is an opportunity to bring in other team members, or quiz those present in more depth. 

Here you should interview company experts on their knowledge of the challenge at hand. Refer back to your goal, sprint questions and journey map and take notes using the “how might we?” method (HMW). Place your sticky notes on a wall to be organized in the next exercise.


Once you have your HMWs you can start to categorize them. Look for patterns and organize them on a wall then vote on the most important. Place your chosen sticky notes onto the area they apply to on the user journey map.

These are key areas to focus on throughout the project and will be the focus of the next exercises should you choose to extend your discovery.

Additional exercises

So far we have addressed a range of exercises that we would often choose from for our shorter discovery sessions. The following methods are very collaborative and would only be used in longer, multi-day discoveries.

Demos and sketches focus on finding solutions for the targeted areas of your user journey. If you choose not to use these methods as part of your discovery with the client, they are still very useful to conduct internally.

Note: as these exercises are design and solution based, it’s important to make sure the client is the right fit for this process.


Each member of the discovery session should bring in a real world demo/example of the area of the journey map you have chosen to target. One by one talk the team through the example and why you have chosen it. This will provide a good platform for inspiration and what does and doesn’t work.


Now to get creative! At this stage everyone will sketch out their own solutions to the target area for critique and discussion. The aim of this is to design something that achieves the goals you have set out throughout the discovery.

We use a range of methods to create these sketches, but you can find a great process here.

Adapting the process

With so many resources out there and exercises to choose from, the most important part of creating your discovery is to adapt it to the specific client. There’s nothing worse than conducting an exercise that has no point or bearing on the project, or realizing further down the line that you don’t have all the information you need because you left something out of the discovery.

A lot of this will just come with experience and by doing. If you haven’t done a discovery session or design sprint before, don’t be afraid of acting it out and having a mock session by yourself – after all, you have to start somewhere!


It’s always important to have deliverables for your discovery. Obviously a major deliverable is the information to inform your project, but in some cases there may be secondary goals.

Depending on the project our discovery is sometimes separate from the rest of the work and a deliverable will be to provide a brief and quote based on the outcome of the session. This is common in situations where the client doesn’t already have a website, or doesn’t know exactly what they’re trying to achieve.

Know what your goal is going into the discovery and have the next steps clearly outlined so you can inform the client and start providing value from the outset.

Using your findings

The most common mistake people make following a discovery session is not using the findings throughout the project. We are constantly referring back to the goals set out and regularly bring up the user journey map to ensure we are creating the best possible solution for our clients.

A good discovery process is incredibly valuable in defining the project and ensuring success for both you and the client. Remember to be flexible and always adapt to the specific situation. Once everything is underway, the process is not only beneficial but actually quite enjoyable!

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