The Discovery Phase of App Development: Key for Success

We believe the discovery phase of the app development process is key to the success of your mobile app. Those of you new to app development might wonder what on earth we are “discovering,” so we’re going to devote this post to a deep dive into what’s involved.

Comparable in some ways to strategy development, the discovery phase aims to create a shared understanding of your product vision and objectives through detailed research, discussion, and analysis of your idea. The end goal is visualization of the entire scope of the app, defining a feature set that will drive app goals and create real value for users. Discovery is the first part of the app development process, and it lays the foundation for the design, development, and deployment that follows.

Most mobile app development companies utilize a workshop style meeting to get to the heart of (or “discover”) your idea. While this is a critical piece of the discovery phase, there is important work that needs to be done prior to the discovery workshop to make the time most effective.

Discovery Phase: Research

Before launching into an app development project, it’s critical to take the time to clearly define the opportunity you have in mind, and reflect it against what solutions already exist. This is necessary regardless of whether your target user is an internal team or a consumer external to your company. It’s even true for gaming apps, as differentiation is always valuable.

Opportunity Analysis

Opportunities exist when there is a gap between what is currently on the market and the possibilities that economic changes, technology advances, or new social trends open up. Developing a product to fill that gap is part science and part art, but it always involves creating a solution that is perceived as useful, usable, and desirable. Even apps aimed toward improving internal productivity or systems must meet this criteria. If your employees don’t perceive a benefit from using your app, they won’t bother.

The more you can do at the outset to define the opportunity you see, the better success you will have at actually 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 the book, Lean Customer Development – Build Products Your Customers Will Buy, Cindy Alvarez notes that “customer development is critical to success but grossly underutilized.” The book offers a practical education in customer development, noting that only customers make a product successful. As Alvarez states, “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 by enabling you to know which features are critical and which are not.

To help define the opportunity and be best prepared for the workshop, your team will want to work together to consider questions like these:

  • What problem will this app solve? (your value proposition)
  • For whom will you be solving that problem? (your target market)
  • How big is the opportunity? (your market size)
  • How does your target market address the problem currently? (minimum expectations)
  • What features are critical for success? (requirements)
  • Why are you best suited to do this? (your differentiator)


Competitive Analysis

Once you have defined the problem you want to address as clearly as possible, you need to learn about the solutions that are currently available. If you desire to sell an app externally, these alternatives will become your competition, and you will need to quantify what unique value your app will bring relative to them. If you are looking for a solution to gain internal efficiencies, this research will tell you if you can use an off-the-shelf app, which could save you money and/or time, or have something built that is tailored to your unique needs.

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. You will also want to directly search Apple’s App Store and Google Play in a similar fashion. 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. 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 does already exist, you have to 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

While understanding the competitive landscape can give solid insight into obvious hazards opposing your market entry, there is no guarantee of success if current competition is weak. Industries are constantly changing and buyers, suppliers, and other companies are all dynamic factors influencing who will prevail and profit. Industry analysis may not be possible until later in the app development process, but we note it here since any insights you can bring to this end are always useful.

Discovery Phase: The Workshop

Once you are armed with as much information as you can gather on the user need and business opportunity, you are ready to engage in a discovery workshop with your app development partner.

Discovery Workshop Goals

In our company, we use the discovery workshop to marry our technical and process expertise with your user and market knowledge, in order to analyze the opportunity from every angle. Again, the end goal of discovery is visualization of the entire scope of the app, defining a feature set that will drive app goals and create real value for users.

While we desire to dream big during the discovery phase, we actually 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 chatbot or an Alexa skill) which is as simple as it can be, while still providing a useful and enjoyable experience.

Why do we suggest this? Simpler products are easier and less expensive to design, build, and maintain. Building an MVP also allows you to get out and get real user feedback on your actual 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 trial with your user base.

Discovery Workshop Methods

There are various ways to define your MVP, but our company uses a methodology called User Story Mapping to layout the needs of the users and ensure that the various use-case scenarios line up with the product objectives. By clearly describing who your users are, and how, when, and where they will utilize your product, the minimum requirements for a viable app are best able to surface.

This user centered approach also sheds light on some basic technical decisions that need to be made early on, such as starting platform (iOS, Android, web, etc), device form factor, integrations, and analytics.

While app analytics are covered in another post, we will note that it’s important to define success 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 in the right analytics tools later in development. Even the first iteration of your app should have at least one key metric that you are evaluating to know you are on the path to success.

Discovery Workshop Output

Once the MVP has been defined, our designers spend time developing sketches, and then wireframes, in order to help your stakeholders visualize the user experience. These wireframes can not only serve internal teams, but also provide a way to get external feedback. Before any coding is done, the wireframes can be turned into visual prototypes that enable user testing and feedback.

Closing Thoughts on the Discovery Phase

While it can be tempting to gloss over the discovery phase, time invested prior to digging into app design and development will reap significant benefits later. A robust discovery process will enable you to clearly identify your user baser and define what will create real value for them. It will also guide you through creation of a feature set that matches those goals, and enable you to test it out while it’s still easy to make changes.

Please contact us if you’d like to explore an app idea!