Everyone has ideas and assumptions, hunches of what kind of experience will speak to people. A user experience professional knows to control these natural impulses to really listen and observe others in context of their environment. The best user experience is the result of a methodical process that peels away at the laways of a problem to uncover opportunities.

The Discover phase aims to do just that. It’s about grounding ourselves and immersing into a problem, the people and the environment. It’s about exploring the landscape of a digital experience and the people who interact with it. It’s meant to open our minds to every emotion, concern, delight of the people we will ultimately serve with our design. To Discover is to allow yourself to see everything anew.

Every project starts with theories, assumptions, and observations; and it’s through the UX process that we start peeling away and either confirming or defuncting ideas. The Discover phase helps us put everything out on the table as an important first step to understand what we know, what we don’t know, and what we should do next. Here are some of the things we need to contemplate during the Discover phase:

  • What do we know?
  • What don’t we know?
  • What are the needs of the business?
  • What are the needs for customers?

There are many tools and methods that can help answer the questions above, below are some of my go-to methods: Usability review, SME and User interviews, Persona definition, Surveys, and Review of analytics.

Usability Review

I find Usability Reviews absolutely delightful. It’s a fun way to dive in and start understanding the current state of a digital product or experience. With heuristics you look at things from the perspective of best-practices and you go through an experience in detail to identify areas of questions and opportunities.

Performing a usability review can generate A LOT of information; screenshots, flowmaps, annotations for open questions, usability rating and recommended next steps. The amount of information is fantastic but can be unwieldy and that is why usability review can suffer from a one-and-done approach where the documentation is created once and never looked at again. The key to a good usability review is not only gaining the insights but presenting it in a way that is digestible and informs across the life of a project.

To avoid the pitfalls of usability review, a good review is folded into or is a driving force of a strategy document. It cannot live by itself. It needs clear objective, scope, and next steps.

A successful usability review document gives you a great roadmap that works as a foundation to every other step in the UX process. It’s a document that can be referenced throughout the project and keeps you focused on the problems to solve. A good heuristic analysis is frank and objective without being negative.

Read more on conduting, presenting, and delivering great Usability Reviews.

Subject Matter Expert (SME) interviews

As UX professionals we are usually brought in by business or IT professionals to help gain the perspective of design and/or customer (user) experience. Which means there is typically someone who is a deep expert in the subject at hand, hence the term, subject matter expert or SME.

Where heuristics are important to understand the current state of a product or experience, SME interviews are an important first step to understand the subject matter and the expert you’ll be working closely with. Making SME interviews important for 2 vital reasons: understanding the subject at hand and as a first step to start building trust with your key stakeholder(s). These experts will typically be people you’ll come back to time and time again and sometimes are sponsor of the project so take the opportunity to start understanding and building that trust.

In subsequent articles we’ll discuss some techniques and prep activities to make SME interviews go right.

Surveys & customer interviews

With Heuristics and SME interviews we gain fundamental understanding of the subject matter, goals of the business and state of things. We then need to understand where we live in the hearts and minds of people using the product. We can do that several ways including surveys and holding customer interviews.

Survey tools are prevalent across our industry nowadays. There’s a reason for that, they are great tools to gain additional perspective. With surveys, it’s all about what you ask and how you ask it. Its additional data points begin to provide a breadth of understanding of what people think of the product or experience. I find surveys to be an important input point but it needs to be layered with other type of data to truly gain insights into the people we serve.

Where surveys provide self-reported data, customer interviews provide an additional layer of information: empirical data. Empirical data is essentially personal observation and experiences. Connecting directly with customers allow us to better understand their thought process, how they speak, and how they think. It allows use to listen and observe. It grounds us in the human sensibilities that is so vital to what we do. Empirical data also provides words and phrases that become important to quote so we can become the voice of the people we represent across the entirety of a project.

Data garnered by things like surveys and analytics can be very dry. With empirical data as another layer added on top we get a fuller story with personal experiences grounded in objective facts.

In the future we’ll get into tools and best-practices for setting up surveys as well as techniques with connecting with customers during customer interviews.


For their simplicity and usefulness, Personas have to be one of the most brilliant tools at our disposal. Personas are essentially cheat sheets that connect us to the people we ultimately serve. With timelines, deadlines, and digital tools; it’s too easy to disconnect from our humanity. As UX professional it is our empathy, our ability to relate and communicate with others that makes us who we are. Personas are a vivid picture of the people we represent. They put a face to data and ensure we and everyone on the project makes decisions based on what’s best for the humans.

Coming in to established digital experiences typically means there’s an understanding (at least general one) of the people the product serves. It’s been my experience that typically this information tends to live in the minds of a couple key stakeholders or SME’s. So during Discovery it’s imperative to get to know who the product serves and why it benefits them. There are simple persona documentation techniques that will get you rolling on understanding and visualizing the people you serve so you can better speak with their voice and tell their stories to others.


For established digital experiences, looking at the analytics is imperative to start uncovering quick areas of opportunities. In my experience, analytics data is pretty difficult to come by. It often means hunting down the right person in an organization and asking the right questions. Sometimes analytics are put in place that don’t provide a clear picture so it takes a lot of back and forth to add tagging or understand how to best interpret what is there. Having analytics is important but having discussions on what the numbers mean is imperative.

As UX designers we tend to leverage analytics reports but not track and create them ourselves. In subsequent articles I’ll provide guidelines and suggestions on what to ask and look for in analytic reports.

A good discovery process means we have married industry expertise with objective data from survey and analytics and brought in the emotional needs through persona development and user interviews. We’ve establish relationships with key stakeholders and began outreach to customers. In discovery, we ground ourselves in the opportunities and gain the fundamentals needed to Imagine.