Back to top
Modern art version of a human eye

“You’ve got to walk before you can run.” Your business needs to build an app … yesterday. The trouble is that app development is a process, not a sprint. (Well, it includes sprints, but that’s another article.)

From idea to design to coding, a lot goes into building a successful app. It just isn’t realistic to do it overnight. A crucial piece of this process is discovery, which helps you plan your project and determine product viability. In this post, we dig into the discovery phase of a software project and how it sets your app up for success.

What is the discovery phase of a software project?

In development, the discovery phase is the research and planning process between the client and the development team that happens before an app build. At a high level, discovery establishes several things, including:

  • Project goals
  • The scope of work
  • Deadlines
  • User experience needs
  • A plan for building the app and incorporating technologies

From beginning to end, discovery can take anywhere from two weeks to four months. Your project’s discovery phase will depend on its complexity.

What are the steps in the discovery process?

App discovery is comprehensive. From having your first conversation with possible development partners to finalizing your plan to build the product, the discovery phase of a software project includes at least nine steps.

1. Contact development companies.

With any software project, the first thing you have to do is dip your toes in the water. Get in touch with a development company (or several) and start a conversation about your project vision. Any team worth their salt should provide you with a rough estimate of how much your new app will cost to build.

2. Define your goals.

Moving forward, as you select a development team and continue your discussions, think about what you want to accomplish. At this point, you should be able to answer these core questions:

  • What problems will my software solve?
  • What are its must-have features?
  • What platforms do I want to support?
  • How will my app be different from similar products?

Apps without a purpose or the right technology don’t attract users. Define goals to create a product that will stand out.

3. Define your audience.

Who do you want to reach with your product? Maybe you’re building a financial reporting app, so you want to attract a B2B audience. Or perhaps your idea is better suited to consumers who want to easily order food. You can define these groups—as well as other relevant demographics—through a variety of means, including:

  • Demo products
  • Focus groups
  • Surveys
  • A/B testing
  • Personas

Each strategy takes you directly to the people you want to target, allowing them to tell you what they want from your software so you can better align your goals.

4. Conduct competitor analysis.

Keep your eyes on the enemy. We’re kidding, but competitor analysis can help you find ways to differentiate your software in the market. What niches can you fill, and which needs can you meet that don’t have quality solutions?

  • Do similar apps charge customers to download or use their product?
  • Are other apps missing key features that customers keep requesting in reviews?

Think about what you could do differently to meet these lingering needs and win customers from the competition.

5. Identify required features.

Apps are iterative, but they still need a solid framework for full functionality. Here, work with your development partner to determine what features your app needs before it is released as a minimum viable product (MVP). These features might include:

  • The base elements of placing an order online, if you’re a restaurant.
  • The ability to create and complete tasks, if you’re building a to-do app.
  • The ability to purchase and present a ticket, if you’re creating a theater app.
  • The necessary support for accessibility features.

Nail down the basics to get your product out into the market sooner, and brainstorm possible secondary features that can be deployed as updates.

6. Determine project requirements.

Beyond features, you need to dig deeper into your app’s technical, functional, and usability requirements. Work with your team to define the best technologies and create an app that is maintainable, scalable, and performs to expectations.

Taking this step in the discovery phase of a software project can pinpoint any risks that might influence the scope, delivery time, and project viability, such as:

  • A lack of market for your product
  • The wrong technologies
  • Complex coordination with external partners and platforms
  • A committee of stakeholders instead of a product owner
  • Expensive maintenance needs
  • A lack of product scalability

7. Create a wireframe.

Once you reach wireframing, your development team takes the reins, using their expertise to brainstorm how your product will work. They will map out core elements as a skeleton that forms the basis for the final design, including:

  • Navigation placement
  • Page elements
  • Content placement
  • Transitions between screens

Your wireframe is the blueprint that shows the user journey through the app.

8. Begin to draft your design.

If the wireframe is the blueprint, the design is the mock-up. If needed, your development team could start to establish your future project design using industry standards and your needs as guideposts. In this step, they will:

  • Explore some initial concepts for branding.
  • Discuss general design patterns.
  • Develop a brand voice for messaging.

Because it influences the user experience, design is often a prerequisite to building a winning app.

9. Prepare the final specification.

Congratulations! Once you reach the final specification, you’re at the end of the long (but necessary) discovery phase of a software project. The final specification is a culmination of your teamwork with developers and becomes the playbook for your project. In it, you can identify a cohesive plan, including:

  • Development processes
  • Team members responsible for each stage
  • Stakeholders
  • Product features
  • Technologies that will be used in the project
  • Detailed estimates for each feature and potential risks

With a master plan in place, your development team can get to work building your new app so you can wow users.

Why do you need discovery in a software project?

“But can’t I just skip it? I really need to roll this thing out.” You could, but skipping the discovery phase can lead to problems during the project build or with the end product.

When you can’t go without it …

Sometimes the discovery phase of a software project isn’t just a best practice, but an absolute necessity. You know you can’t overlook discovery when:

  • There are many voices in your company who all have different requirements.
  • Your project seems complicated, with many requirements.
  • There is a “red ocean” full of competitors.

Break up the noise and uncertainty by walking a strategic path with a development partner.

What happens without discovery?

If you cut corners and skip the planning when building an app, you set yourself up for confusion, misalignment, or failure. If your app’s requirements are vague and there isn’t a clear vision of where the final product is headed, no one—from your internal team to your development partner—will know what to expect. This level of disorganization could lend itself to problems:

  • People might misunderstand your key idea.
  • Your app might be built incorrectly.
  • The project may stall out.
  • Your app build will require more time and money.

Instead, foster successful execution and avoid hiccups by doing the legwork during an in-depth discovery phase.

Get a head start on your app development project.

Building a successful app takes time and planning. If you want to produce a product that meets people’s needs, you can’t ignore discovery. By undergoing an in-depth discovery phase for your software project, you and your development partner can make the project’s intentions and goals clear.

Do you have questions about the app development process? We can help. Get in touch with us at Detroit Labs to explore your next development project.