Choosing a User Research Method — Discovery Phase

Thought Leadership

By Rabiya Samji | August 11, 2020
UX Design

A few months ago, I published an article about why user research is such a critical component of developing a successful digital product, especially when trying to get it to market quickly.

At Apply Digital, we break down UX research into four phases that happen alongside the lifecycle of a project:

  1. Discovery

  2. Definition & Prototyping

  3. Development & Pre-Launch

  4. Launch & Growth

User research during each of these phases offers unique opportunities to fine-tune and inform the development of a digital product. My team and I will delve into Apply Digital’s approach to UX research during each of these phases in a 4-part series published bi-monthly here.

To kick it off, let’s first examine the way UX research can help shape the Discovery phase of the digital product lifecycle.

User Interface Drawing

User research in the discovery phase

The Discovery phase is focused on understanding a digital product’s purpose and the problems it’s designed to solve from Day 1.

User research in the early Discovery phase allows us to make sure we’re tackling the right problem. It also ensures that we’ve defined what that problem looks like and that we can see all of our options for solutions. Finally, it equips us with a plan for action that will carry us forward into the next phases. The goal is to emerge with insights that can be used to inform personas, customer journey maps, and digital experience objectives that guide future design and decision-making.

The most common research tasks that take place in the Discovery phase include:

  • Assessing the value proposition of an existing or envisioned product offering and weighing this against a product’s strengths and weaknesses

  • Investigating the process a person follows to accomplish tasks related to the digital product, both in-app and in real life, in order to find unexpected ways to innovate and refine

  • Evaluating the usability of an existing digital product offering and pinpointing problem and opportunity areas

Every digital product is different, and so naturally our approach to the research differs based on the questions we are seeking answers to. But no matter the product, one thing holds true- data is king.

Triangulating our qualitative insights with data eliminates blind spots, and allows for critical thinking at both macro and micro levels. For example, analyzing a value proposition focuses on macro-level business challenges, while usability testing of the existing product is often centered around micro-level details.

#1: Value proposition guided research

A value proposition defines the benefit or value a customer gets from purchasing a product or using a service. When it comes to digital product design, keeping the product’s inherent value proposition in mind can help guide effective user research.

By considering a product’s value proposition during the Discovery phase, we can make sure we design, build, and communicate about the product in a way that holds true to this value. Value proposition guided research revolves around verifying the needs of the users, and gauging whether or not the value proposition is actually appealing or useful to them.

Research can be done to both refine the value proposition on an existing product or to develop a value proposition for a new one. Here are some of the questions we try to answer:

When assessing the value proposition of an existing product:

  • How do customers view the value offering?

  • If there is a clear value proposition in place, does it live up to its potential?

  • Would potential customers find the message the product is sending appealing?

When developing the value proposition of a new product:

  • What value does the product create for the customers?

  • How can the product set it apart from the competition?

  • What tasks are the customers trying to accomplish?

  • What are the pain points that the customers are reporting?

Common research methods used with value proposition research include:

  • Interviews

  • Surveys

  • Competitive analysis

Person Checking Boxes on Paper

#2: Workflow and process research

Workflow and process research allows us to understand how people accomplish tasks or get things done. We look at things like:

  • The individual steps people take on their way to a larger task

  • The relations that they depend on

  • The type of artifacts they use

  • The motivations that drive them

The goal here is to identify challenging areas of a user’s process that also offer the largest opportunity for streamlining and improving.

As an example, an airline might conduct workflow research to better understand the process a customer follows online and offline when researching and purchasing a flight. This research typically results in a task analysis and various journey maps. The scope might be very focused on a single task or may cover a larger span of multiple tasks and goals.

Workflow/process research is a good fit if we want to answer the following questions:

  • What are the users trying to do with your product?

  • How do users perform a certain task?

  • Are there any pain points that the users have in dealing with a certain aspect of their process?

  • What is impacting the users when they try to perform a given task?

  • Is there an opportunity to streamline or innovate to make specific features or processes better?

Methods used in workflow/process research include:

  • Goal- and task-focused interviews

  • Contextual inquiry

  • Review of behavioral analytics

Person Drawing Designs on Paper

#3: Usability research

Through usability research, we study people as they attempt to use a website, app, or digital product.

By observing users in action and listening to them as they think out loud we can see how they interact with the existing product or even a competitor’s product.

This immediate feedback gives us insights needed to uncover problems and discover opportunities to meet user needs. During the Discovery stage, this approach is useful as it helps us understand the problems we want to tackle. In later stages, usability research can again be used to assess if the challenges identified were addressed.

Usability research is a good fit if we want to answer the following questions:

  • Can users achieve a given goal?

  • At what points do users encounter problems when using the product?

  • Is there a root cause of the problem?

  • What workarounds are being used to navigate past a known problem?

  • How can the existing experience be improved?

There are many different ways to conduct usability testing. This testing can be remote or in-person, moderated, or unmoderated. It can be done with paper sketches or high-res mockups, across broad strokes of the product, or focused on a particular task. It really depends on the product and the objectives of the research.


These aren’t the only approaches we take to UX research during the Discovery phase here at Apply Digital, but we do turn to these techniques more often than not because of the inherent value they bring both to the development process and the quality of a digital product in the long run. Ultimately, our approach depends on the need of the product and the client.

If you would like to know more about how your products could benefit from user research reach out to us at