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Author: Sam Menter
Illustration: Helen Couper
A discovery project is an intensive research process designed to understand the problem that needs to be solved before building or changing a service. This means any subsequent strategy can be based on evidence not guesswork, reducing the risk of project failure and ensuring public money is spent effectively.
It’s important to run a discovery with an open mindset because it will uncover unmet needs which, in turn, trigger creative ideas to meet those needs. The ideas may be very different from those your organisation had prior to discovery. Consequently whatever you end up building or changing will also be different.
Here are three examples of discoveries we’ve run which have significantly changed the focus of a project to achieve more impact:
The NHS commissioned us to run a discovery exploring the needs of children and young people looking for mental health support. Following Covid-19, waiting lists had grown significantly.
There were initial ideas around a dashboard displaying wait times to manage people’s expectations.
But following discovery it became clear that there were ways digital could be used to do much more than manage expectations. In addition to the long wait for an appointment, a big problem for children and young people was the lack of support before an official referral.
Although there were many services outside the NHS where people could get support, people simply weren’t aware of them or how to access them.
So rather than a dashboard it became clear that a support finder would have much more impact. And it would also be much more likely to be used by people with low digital skills if it worked via SMS not just via a website.
The subsequent tool that we designed helps people find a service specific to their needs and shows them how to access it. It’s been a resounding success: in the first eight weeks following launch, over 4000 people used it, and over 60% of these via text.
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DCMS commissioned us to run a discovery to uncover what people needed from Cyber Exchange, a service designed to connect and support the cyber industry. They wanted to know where to invest to have impact.
The team asked us to explore how they could integrate online education and a jobs board into the site. Our research revealed that people’s needs in these two areas were being well met elsewhere and without significant investment, it would be hard to have impact.
The work also revealed that, overall, the service would be more effective if it scaled back on features and functionality. This led to refining the proposition and honing in on the areas where people felt it had most value - the directory of UK cyber businesses and promotion of funding opportunities.
The discovery saved DCMS significant investment and made the service simpler and more effective.
Getting an autism diagnosis for your child can take up to two years. This is a difficult time for parents. We worked on a discovery to uncover how digital might help improve experiences.
Before we started, there were assumptions about what people needed and which changes would be most effective. There was a general feel that the answer was a case management system.
Through discovery we uncovered detailed evidence of the needs of parents, carers and professionals. Our work moved the thinking on from “we need a case management tool” to “there is so much we can do to improve the experience for parents”.
Yes, a case management tool is part of the solution, but what will have more impact for parents is better communication, more emotional and practical support and clearer signposting around what’s happening.
There can be a misconception that running a discovery is about asking users what they want, with the risk of ending up with a huge backlog of features and functionality. But the reality is very different.
Through discovery we uncover a deep understanding of behaviour and needs which in-turn reframes thinking and changes the destination. Discovery provides the evidence you need to move forward with confidence and hone-in on meeting those needs that will have the biggest impact.