The Discovery Phase of App Development: Key for Success

2 years ago
The Discovery Phase of App Development: Key for Success Image

The discovery phase of app development is crucial for the success of your mobile app. What is app discovery? The first of the app development phases, app discovery lays the foundation for design, development, and deployment. Comparable to strategy development, discovery phase goals are to:

  • To build a shared understanding of your vision and objectives through detailed research, discussion, and analysis of your idea
  • To visualize the entire scope of the app, defining a feature set that will drive app goals and create real value for users

Those new to the app development process might wonder what on earth we are unearthing in the discovery phase, so we’re going to devote this post to a deep dive into what’s involved. As a best practice, we recommend the discovery phase include two parts—first, research and then, the discovery workshop—described in detail below.

Discovery Phase Part 1: Research

Most mobile app development companies use a workshop-style meeting to discover, or “get to the heart of,” your idea. But there’s work to be done first to make that meeting more effective.

Before launching into an app development project, it’s critical to clearly define the opportunity you have in mind and reflect on what solutions already exist. Research at the outset of the discovery stage includes:

  • Opportunity analysis
  • Competitive analysis
  • Industry analysis

This analysis is necessary regardless of whether your target user is an internal team or a consumer external to your company. Even for gaming apps, differentiation is always valuable.

Opportunity Analysis

The Opportunity Gap

In app discovery, opportunities arise when there is a gap. That gap exists between what is currently on the market and possibilities open up for economic change, technological advancement, or new social trends. 

When you develop an app to fill the opportunity gap, it’s part science and part art. But the app development process always involves creating a solution perceived as meeting three criteria: the app must be useful, usable, and desirable. Even apps aimed at improving internal productivity or systems must meet these criteria. If people don’t perceive a benefit from using your app, they won’t bother.

Customer Development

The more you can do to define the opportunity you see at the outset, the better your success at creating the right product and knowing how to market it. This process, sometimes called customer development, is a way to reduce business risks by challenging assumptions about who the customers are, what they need, and why and how they do their work.

In her book Lean Customer Development: Build Products Your Customers Will Buy, Cindy Alvarez writes, “Customer development is critical to success but grossly underutilized.” Alvarez offers practical education in customer development, noting that only customers make a product successful. In her words, “Without customers willing to buy a product, it doesn’t matter how good or innovative or beautiful or reasonably-priced a product is: it will fail.” 

Every hour spent defining the customer pays dividends in the development lifecycle. That’s because knowing your customers means knowing which features are critical and which are not.

Market Considerations

To help define the opportunity and be best prepared for the discovery workshop, start by answering key questions about your app. Work together with your team to consider areas like these:

  • Your Value Proposition: What problem will this app solve?
  • Your Target Market: For whom will you be solving that problem?
  • Your Market Size: How big is the opportunity?
  • Minimum Expectations: How does your target market address the problem currently?
  • Requirements: What features are critical for success?
  • Your Differentiator: Why are you best suited to do this?

Competitive Analysis

External & Internal Solutions

Once you’ve defined the problem as clearly as possible, you’ll need to learn about the currently available solutions—the alternatives to your app, which will help reveal key factors: 

  • External Competition: If you’re selling an app externally, alternatives to your app will become your competition. You’ll need to quantify what unique value your app will bring relative to them. 
  • Internal Efficiencies: If you’re looking for a solution to gain internal efficiencies, what you need may or may not already exist. Competitive analysis will reveal whether you can use an off-the-shelf app, which could save you money and time, or if you need to have something built that’s tailored to your unique needs.

Market Intelligence

Where do you go to find out more about the competition? Here are three places to look and analyze:

  1. Search Engine: One of the best places to begin is simply on your favorite search engine. Look for products using relevant keywords that describe the functionality of interest. 
  2. App Stores: You’ll also want to search Apple’s App Store and Google Play Store similarly. If you find apps that seem relevant, download them on the appropriate device and experiment with them so you can see their strengths and weaknesses. 
  3. Reviews: Reading reviews will also give you insight into potential gaps in functionality that might be opportunities for you—or red flags if you were planning to use the app in your organization.

If a similar app already exists, consider whether developing something new is worthwhile. Your app development partner can help sort through this market intelligence to help determine where and how you could differentiate.

Industry Analysis

Understanding the competitive landscape can give solid insight into obvious hazards opposing your market entry. But there’s no guarantee of success if the current competition is weak. Here’s where industry analysis comes into play. This type of analysis may not be possible until later in the app development phases, but we’re including it here because any insights you can bring to this end are always helpful. 

Industries are constantly changing, and buyers, suppliers, and other companies are all dynamic factors influencing who will prevail and profit. Sources to understand these dynamic factors can include: 

  • Industry experts—what has worked, what hasn’t, and what trends do they foresee?
  • Conferences & events—how does your competition interact with and attract customers?
  • Tech trend reports—what are the newest companies and technologies?

Industry analysis can help put you ahead of competitors, elicit additional ideas for your app, and improve your market positioning overall. 

Discovery Phase Part 2: The Workshop

Once you’re equipped with as much information as possible on the user’s needs and business opportunities, you’re ready to engage in a discovery workshop with your app development partner.

Discovery Workshop Goals

At InspiringApps, we want to analyze the opportunity from every angle. We use the discovery workshop to marry our technical and process expertise with your user and market knowledge. Our goals are to visualize the entire scope of the app and to help you define a feature set that will drive app development and create real value for users.

While we want to “dream big” during the discovery phase, we advise our clients to avoid creating a product that “does it all” in its first iteration. Instead, the aim is to leave discovery with a plan to build something that allows users to accomplish just a few core tasks perfectly.

This concept often referred to as the minimum viable product (or MVP), is derived from Steve Blank and Eric Reis’s lean startup movement. The MVP is an app (or other digital product like a chatbot or an Alexa skill) that is as simple as possible while providing a useful and enjoyable experience.

Why do we suggest the MVP approach? Simpler products are easier and less expensive to design, build, and maintain. Building an MVP also enables you to get honest user feedback on your product before you’ve invested a lot of money building something that wasn’t quite right. Even the best market research isn’t as good as a trial with your user base.

Discovery Workshop Methods

User Story Mapping

While there are various ways you can define your MVP, we recommend and apply a method called user story mapping. User story mapping outlines the users’ needs and ensures the use-case scenarios align with the product objectives for your app.

Minimum requirements for a viable app are best able to surface when we clearly describe who your users are and how, when, and where they will use your product. This user-centered approach highlights fundamental technical decisions that need to be made early on, such as starting platform (iOS, Android, web, etc.), device form factor, integrations, and analytics.

Success Metrics

While we cover app analytics in another post, we’ll note here that it’s important to define success metrics and desired ROI at the beginning of your project. Doing so enables your app development company to help you determine how to measure these metrics and build the right analytics tools later in development. Even the first iteration of your app should have at least one key metric you’re evaluating to know you’re on the path to success.

Discovery Workshop Output

Once the MVP has been defined, app designers should spend time developing sketches and then wireframes to help your stakeholders visualize the user experience. These wireframes can serve internal teams and provide a way to get external feedback through user testing, saving time and money before developing code. For more details on wireframes, see our post describing the app design process.

Closing Thoughts on the Discovery Phase

It may be tempting to gloss over the app discovery phase, but time invested before digging further into the app development process reaps significant benefits later. App discovery enables you to identify your user base, define what will create real value for them, create a matching feature set, and test assumptions while it’s still easy to make changes.

To learn more about the app development process and fine-tune your app design ideas, visit:

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