Choosing a UX Research Method: Discovery Phase

At Apply, our UX research process breaks down into the following phases over the lifecycle of a project:

  • Discovery
  • Definition & Concepting
  • Development & Validation
  • Launch & Operations

While all these phases offer the opportunity for research, each one has unique needs which vary from project to project. This article focuses on the Discovery phase of the project lifecycle. Stay tuned for future articles that cover the rest of the phases in the lifecycle.


The Discovery phase is all about understanding the problem and the opportunity space before you dive in to solve the problem. Research at this phase allows us to ensure we are tackling the right problem. This is so that once the discovery phase ends, we will have a defined problem and solution space. We usually output information such as personas, customer journey maps, and digital experience objectives in order to support future phase design and decision making.

In the discovery phase, the most common research tasks that we engage are:

  • Assessing the value proposition of an existing or envisioned product offering so we can understand its strengths and weaknesses
  • Investigating the workflow/process a person follows to accomplish a task, either digitally or in real life, so we can identify opportunities for refinement or innovation
  • Assessing the usability of an existing product offering to pinpoint problem and opportunity areas

The approach to the research and the effort required will depend on the scope of your project and your research questions. When we’re developing our research approach during this stage, we ensure that we’re utilizing multiple types of data. This helps triangulate insights and opens up multiple levels of thinking for assessment of opportunities. For example, analyzing a value proposition is a macro level focus, while usability testing is often more centered around micro level details of an experience.

Value Proposition Research

A value proposition is the benefit or value that a user will receive from using your product or service. It’s what your product will do for them or help them accomplish. It’s important to clearly establish what this is because it will guide how you design, build and communicate your product. Value proposition research helps to verify the needs of your users and whether your value proposition is actually appealing or useful to them.

You can do value proposition research for both for assessing existing products and in developing new ones, but there are different questions that we want to answer for each. To determine whether Value Proposition research is a good fit for your product, we consider whether the questions below are the kind that need answering.

In assessing an existing product:

  • How do customers view your value offering?
  • If there is a clear value, does it live up to its potential?
  • Would potential customers find the message you’re sending appealing?

When developing a new product:

  • What value can you create for your customers?
  • How will you set yourselves apart from the competition?
  • What tasks are your customers trying to accomplish?
  • What pain points are your customers reporting?

Common research methods used in the discovery phase with value proposition research include:

  • Interviews
  • Usability tests
  • Surveys
  • Competitive analysis

Workflow/Process Research

Workflow/process research allows us to understand how people accomplish tasks or get things done—the steps, people and artefacts that people throughout in their daily lives and the ultimate goals and motivations of these people. For example, an airline might conduct workflow research to better understand the process someone follows, both online and offline, when researching and purchasing a flight. This type of research typically results in a task analysis and journey maps. The scope can vary from being extremely focused on a single task to a wider inclusion of multiple tasks. The most important things to focus on are those areas that have the most opportunity to be improved or streamlined. You may analyze the steps involved in preparing to purchase an item and identify steps that could make the task easier or ways to provide more value. Problems are identified and opportunities for improvement are discovered.

If these or similar questions come to mind when considering a problem, the workflow/process research is a good fit:

  • What are your users trying to do in your product? What are they trying to accomplish by performing these tasks?
  • How do your users perform a certain task? When should this task be presented to the user?
  • Are there any pain points that the users have in dealing with a certain aspect of their process? Is there an opportunity to streamline or innovate to make a feature or process better?
  • What is impacting your users when they try to perform a given task?

Methods used in workflow/process research include:

  • Goal- and task-focused interviews
  • Contextual inquiry
  • Usability testing
  • Analytics

Usability research

By giving users scenarios where they attempt to use a site or app, you can observe them in action and listen to them as they think out loud. This allows you to see how people currently use your product, or even a competitor’s product, to complete tasks. This immediate feedback gives you insight to uncover problems and discover opportunities to meet user needs. During the discovery stage, this approach is helpful to formulate the problems you want to tackle. In later stages can be used for more testing focused on assessing whether these challenges were addressed. After the Discovery stage when we’re evaluating new designs, we can user test again to see if the problems identified in the Discovery stage have been addressed and improved upon.

If you find that your own questions follow along the line of these questions, usability research makes a good fit for the approach to the product:

  • Where do your users have problems? What causes them to encounter these problemsHow severe are these problems?
  • Can your users achieve a given goal? If not, what barriers are in their way?
  • What are the top issues that users need you to address?

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 approaches to UX research aren’t the only ones we use in the Discovery stage, but they are the most common ones that come up. The approach really depends on the product and what you are trying to accomplish, and it’s different for everyone.

The research methods discussed above tackle user research from three different perspectives. Value proposition allows you to understand how the experience and features of a product need to come together to create value for the user. Workflow/process research focuses on the tasks that the product helps the user complete. Accomplishing a difficult task where other products fail or eliminating an extremely detrimental pain point helps put your product on the path to being a market leader. Usability research seeks to see the product through a customer’s eyes and is a great tool for understanding how products are used by your customers.

Contact us if you want to talk about your next product or UX research project. We’re always happy to chat.