Questioning the Discovery Process


At many agencies, especially those working in digital, the term “discovery” is often front and center in client engagement process diagrams. While there’s no denying the benefits of gathering insights into clients’ businesses and unpacking the problems that they might be facing, the “discovery phase” as it exists today has become so entrenched and, frankly, rather codified that regardless of an agency’s super-secret-special sauce, the requisite activity of discovery is now threatening to becoming rote.

This may be a matter of semantics, but I’m not a fan of the term “discovery.” To me, the practice of “discovery” implies that there’s something finite and concrete to be discovered and it’s simply our job as an agency to find it. To wit: whenever a client says, “We want X,” any proficient agency wouldn’t reflexively respond, “Great, we’ll build you X.” Instead, the client’s ask kicks off the process of further probing: “What are you trying to do? Where is your business headed? What do your customers need/think/expect? And why?”

Many of us have led with this kind of research-driven model and called it “discovery,” but I think what we really should be doing is “to question.” It’s a subtle but important shift to move from discovery to question. “Question” suggests an open-ended process of peeling away at layers to get at something more essential. Where “discovery’ is frequently two dimensional and linear and the final destination is often known even if it’s not expressed, “question” operates in multiple dimensions, allowing for an expanded frame.

Question. Design. Make.

By its definition, “discovery” is closed—there’s a beginning and an end to it—whereas “question” is more a way of being. At FOUR32C, the framework of “Question. Design. Make.” is how we structure our entire process: to be flexible and continually work to understand why we’re doing something. We are much more interested in understanding the “Why” not the “What,” because the “Why” is more expansive and can lead to new possibilities, new options, and new solutions.

Here’s an example: when we started working with one non-profit client, they told us, “We need a new website with a modern CMS that’s easier to administer. Plus, add a fresh coat of paint to the user interface. And we want to make our website available in Spanish, too.”

We went into a robust interview process: we questioned internal and external stakeholders, including board members, recipients of the non-profit’s services, community members, and donors. We asked ordinary people in the neighborhood, “What does the non-profit mean to you? How do you access its services? What do the spaces that the non-profit provide mean to you? How do you want to engage with this organization? And why?” Then we asked stakeholders at the non-profit: “Why do you need a Spanish-language version of your website? Who are you serving? How does this community use your services? Are there cultural nuances and differences that need to be addressed in your web presence?”

After many hours of questions for which we had no preconceived answers, we ultimately turned the entire project on its head and came back to the non-profit with a new narrative and a rebranding of its website—in addition to fixing the back-end, redesigning it, and creating a Spanish-language version. Our clients were thrilled.

Had we simply plunged into discovery based on the “What” of the client’s ask—i.e., addressing tech and design without knowing why we were doing so—I don’t think we would have arrived at the best solutions. By tending to the “Why” first, we were able to uncover the more essential challenges and opportunities for our client.

Questioning Sparks True Innovation

When it comes to new business, prospects will sometimes call and say, “I saw that FOUR32C created an app/website/campaign for X brand. Can you make the same thing for us?” Or they’ll say, “Do you have a product that does X thing?” Inherent in these questions is the idea that there’s a one-size-fits-most approach to solving a client’s unique business problems, which is rarely the case. When I’m asked questions like these, I invariably will respond with my own questions, starting with “Why” questions before getting to the “What” questions.

At some point, as business people, we start to take certain things for granted. Ideas tend to become institutionalized. Part of what we’re doing at FOUR32C is breaking down—or at least looking beyond—preconceived notions. By reframing our process as “question,” the practice of “discovery” doesn’t become mechanical and habitual, and retains its potency. With question, we can expose and deeply understand the motivations behind a client’s requests and work toward tackling business objectives instead of just making well-designed, technically sound digital products.

“Question” invokes curiosity, exploration, and a little bit of rebelliousness—all of which are fundamental to what we do. It’s not knowing and not having pre-made solutions in mind that’s important. Admitting that we don’t know all of the answers opens up the process of creating something special.

The answers to open-ended questions can often provide sparks of brilliance for a product or a program that we’re creating. Questioning—at its core—opens new avenues for creativity and innovation.

By Elizabeth Stafford


FOUR32C: digital design studios. We’re curious digital natives who bring creativity and intelligence to the world’s most beloved brands. We create thoughtful, compelling interactive experiences by starting every project with questions. Our process leads to evocative digital products designed with a purpose for every pixel.