A user researcher’s perspective on discoveries and development phases

Adam Spencer
A set of post-it notes with the words discovery versus development written on them

I love the breadth to our work at Lagom.

I could be onto the fifteenth user interview of a discovery or the fifteenth sprint of a beta phase. Sometimes both in the same week.

Yet every so often, I contemplate this unlikely ultimatum. If I had to choose between only working on discoveries or development phases forevermore – which would it be?

The case for discoveries

A discovery brings a new world to immerse ourselves into. It’s a time for exploration.

In-depth interviews, observational studies and co-designing with users. I’m building context. I’m George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with his layers upon layers of scrutinous evidence. I even wear glasses now too.


Alas, it is not always this angelic. I could happily compose a rather savage (but eloquently written) rant about designing surveys. I’ll add it to my ever growing to-do list.

It’s the rigmarole of a discovery that can frustrate me. Like a selfish detective trying to shirk off paperwork, sometimes I just want to talk to users and never worry about the logistics or admin effort.

Saying that, I still wouldn’t rely on a third-party software to do it either!

I am digressing. Soon enough, the discovery phase is complete. We’ll present our findings, sign, seal and deliver the report and our job is done. A natural conclusion.

But it can sometimes feel like an anticlimax for a researcher. Our white-hot fervour of work has ceased. What will they do? Will participant X’s digital hopes ever become a reality?

We’ve waved goodbye and can only look on from a distance to see how the client responds to our recommendations…

The case for development phases

© Government Digital Service

Fortunately in recent years, Lagom have maintained a presence beyond the discovery.

We’ve supported clients as they progressed through their alpha phase, beta and even shared the ride with some as they’ve gone live and kicking into the public realm.

I love the continuity. We haven’t got to play catch-up. We already have a sound understanding of the service and its users.

Then there’s the shared familiarity with the client. We know how they like to work and they know what to expect from us.

The cadence is different. We’ve gone from a standalone three month investigation to fast-paced fortnightly sprints. Dividing the project into digestible chunks and tackling user needs one step at a time.

We are building the best service possible through experimentation and iteration.

My role as a user researcher’s has evolved in the development phase. It’s less exploration, more validation. Gathering feedback on early concepts, usability testing for high fidelity prototypes or I could be running a series of longitudinal studies with a private beta service.

Research is beautifully precise. I’m focussed on navigation, content design or even reviewing the accessibility design by testing a service with users and their assistive tech.

This granularity can have a downside though. I’ve sometimes felt like a broken record reporting very similar feedback over multiple sprints.

We’re not ignoring the issue, it just won’t be a quick fix. Or it might be something too far out of scope of the minimum viable product to divert time, money and energy towards.

I mentioned rigmarole before in discoveries. I suppose it’s here too. I respect and admire agile ceremonies, but haven’t we all glazed over in a stand-up at some point?

There’s so much more I could ramble on about, but I’ll stop here.

To conclude, Your Honour

Is one better? No, not from a service design point of view anyway.

It isn’t a fair comparison. Discoveries are about defining user needs, then I’m there to ensure those needs are met during development.
All phases serve a commendable purpose with their own merits and shortcomings.

Is there one I prefer working on? Maybe.

I found writing this very cathartic and will definitely consider a sequel. Perhaps even a trilogy. All I’ll say for now is that I appreciate having the luxury to experience both.

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