Do successful discovery teams need to be co-located?

The Lagom team at work

If you are planning a Discovery phase for a website or digital service one of the big considerations is where should the Discovery team be based.

If the Discovery team is made up of in-house people then the team can work, co-located on site (although geographically dispersed organisations may not be able to do this). That might mean having a dedicated space for the project team to get everyone away from their usual desks.

But what if you don’t have the in-house team to deliver the Discovery? Perhaps you lack the experience, skills, time, and / or objectivity to do it in-house.

Then you need to procure digital specialists or an agency to fill gaps in your Discovery team or to deliver the full Discovery.

But where should they work? Does it really matter? And what are the considerations and the consequences of where a Discovery Team works?

On site or remote?

In the last few years I’ve noticed that Discovery projects coming out for tender fall into one of two camps:

  • Camp #1 – the Discovery Team must be co-located on the client’s site full-time
  • Camp #2 – the Discovery Team will work remotely (and come together at key points during the project)

At Lagom, we’ve worked on Discoveries in both camps. And we’ve debated the merits of each.

For full transparency, I should say at this point, that my agency prefers projects in Camp #2 (for reasons I will get into below). We are not based in London (but Loughborough) and as we almost exclusively work with government departments and public bodies, so our clients are everywhere but Loughborough (London, Birmingham, Leeds, High Wycombe, Coventry…).

However as we have worked on both scenarios I think we have a good perspective on this and I want to share our thinking.

What are the positives of the Discovery team co-locating full-time?

Based on my experience of co-locating on site for a full Discovery I would say:

  • it’s good to be able to pop down the corridor for a chat with a stakeholder
  • it can be a bit more spontaneous with the team, e.g. pull someone into a quick huddle to figure out a problem
  • I got more of a feel for the place and the people
  • stakeholders can get to know you a bit better as they see you around
  • I was less distracted by other work commitments

What are the downsides of co-locating full-time on site?

These are observations from my own experience:

Firstly it takes specialists away from their own working environment, from their tools and from their support networks.

The value of procuring a Discovery team from an agency (over individual freelancers) is you get their culture and collective experience. You get the input and value of the wider network of agency employees that aren’t core members of the Discovery team, but can be drawn on throughout the phase.

Insisting the Discovery work is conducted on site, actually breaks up that network (as they can’t all be on site).

Reduces the talent pool

Insisting on full-time co-located approach also restricts the potential pool of Delivery team members.

Over the years we have ruled ourselves out of lots of otherwise suitable Discovery projects because of their location, e.g. too far away to commute daily, or the expenses for accommodation would push up our price too much.

Pushes up the price

Requiring Discovery team members to be co-located on site for the duration of the Discovery assumes they need to work on the project full-time. But that might not be necessary.

Look at it from the POV of an agency…

If we send Bob, our gun user researcher (who we put on all our proposals), to work full-time on-site with this client for 8 weeks then we can’t use Bob for anything else.

Nor is Bob around the agency to mentor our junior researchers and to work on some sideline projects we have.

So we have to charge a full day rate for Bob for the entire 8 weeks, even though we know Bob doesn’t need to work every hour of the day to successfully perform his role on this Discovery.

And that understandably inflates the agency’s price for the Discovery.

In fact, what is happening is the agency is tempted to say: “We don’t fancy losing Bob for 8 weeks. We want him around. So we need to temporarily hire (“body shop”) a freelance user researcher to send over for 8 weeks.”

Extra admin slows progress

If you are going to bring people on to site full-time then you have to give them the right working conditions to perform. That means issuing security passes, giving safety tours of the building, setting up printers, etc.

This admin stuff gets in the way of cracking on with the job. And as a Discovery phase is only around 4-8 weeks (according to GDS’s own guidance) time is precious.

So what’s driving the requirement for Discovery teams to be co-located, on site?

Based on what I have seen, read and heard I think these are (not all) the big reasons organisations insist on having hired Discovery teams on-site:

  • the team will be more collaborative (as everyone is in the same place and bouncing ideas of each other)
  • the team will be more focussed and immersed by being in and around the topic 
  • GDS like to work this way (and we want to stick closely to their approach)
  • the team will have immediate access to the wider team and stakeholders
  • there will be more transparency and visible activity (and therefore buy-in) with stakeholders 
  • there is a dedicated space (with walls of post-its to show thinking and progress)
  • breaks down tribal barriers between team members from different organisations 
  • get a warm, fuzzy sense of being a team with a common purpose (which I admit is really powerful)

I don’t disagree with any of these and co-locating can certainly help. But there is no guarantee.

I would also say that things like good collaboration, transparency, stakeholder buy-in, and immersion are objectives, and that having the entire Discovery team co-located, full-time, on site, is actually a solution.

We need to remember that the ultimate goal here is to design and build digital services that meet user needs. Nobody who has renewed their car tax online, has wondered or cared if the team of people behind the service were all sat in the same room? Why would they? They just want a good experience.

My niggling concern is that there is a widely held assumption that a co-located Discovery team will be a successful team. In fact, the best Discoveries we have worked on have been largely done remotely.

The answer is not 100% remote working either

Like most things in life, the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle.

My argument is that most of the goals associated with co-located working can actually be achieved without working full-time on site, IF the Discovery team:

  • has the right people
  • working in the right way
  • making the best use of communication tools and methods

We have found, from delivering many Discovery phases, that the key is to be on site at the right points in the Discovery – at the times when there is most value in being face-to-face.

When to be on site?

We always travel to be with the in-house Discovery team members and stakeholders at these points of a Discovery phase:

  • kick off session
  • user needs workshop with actual users (although we like to book a near-by venue to get the team away from the distraction of the office)
  • usability testing sessions – so the in-house guys can directly observe
  • user story prioritisation session
  • co-design concept sketching session/s
  • Discovery phase handover and presentation

These are the key milestones in a Discovery phase that work best when you have the energy of people coming together and when remote communication tools struggle to deliver the desired experience.

This means we are with the in-house team almost weekly throughout the Discovery, which is enough to be familiar faces, but gives our presence on site a sense of occasion. With good project planning the in-house team can then book their diaries to focus on the specific Discovery activity we have come for.

The rest of the time we can crack on remotely from our offices on other Discovery activities such as web stats analysis, user interviews, setting up and analysing user surveys, auditing content, running card sorts.

Excellent communication is everything

The risk can be giving the in-house team the impression that nothing is happening (when they can’t see you). So the onus is on excellent communication:

  • regular stand ups with the project team dialling in, Google Hangouts are even better
  • use of productivity and planning tools like Trello, Basecamp and Slack to capture the flow, chatter, and progress of delivery
  • status updates – we always send a simple weekly update at the start of each week to say what we did last week, what we plan to do this coming week, and any roadblocks or risks

I’m happy to say we’ve run many successful Discoveries with this blend of on and off-site working. It does take planning and good communication, but good projects do.

So if you’re procuring others for your Discovery don’t assume that co-location is the only option open to you for a successful Discovery.

Instead focus on what you want to achieve in the Discovery and let potential suppliers propose how they will help you to achieve those goals.

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