Two women having a meeting

What is Website Discovery and Why is it Important?

Maya Angelou may not have been talking about building a website when she said the famous quote, “You can’t really know where you are going until you know where you have been,” but it surely does resonate with me when it comes to the early stages of a website project.

Website discovery does exactly what Mrs. Angelou is alluding to: figure out what’s happened up until this point so we can pave the way forward. For example, questions that will arise during website discovery might include:

  • How long has the business been around?
  • Does the business already have a website and if so, why is now the right time for a redesign?
  • Who is the target audience?
  • What challenges does the business face?
  • Who are the competitors?
  • How do customers find you and how do you want them to find you?
  • If you already have a website, who is visiting your website and how did they arrive there?

Building a website without asking these important questions would be like building a house without blueprints or driving without directions. 

Before I dive into what website discovery involves and why it’s so important, allow me to share what I used to do for discovery and what I do now.

Old Way #1

When I first started in the web design and development business.

A potential client would contact me via email or Facebook and I’d ask them to complete my contact form. The form asked a few basic questions about their business, goals, and budget. Then, we’d hop on an intro call that would sometimes go on for up to an hour. Next, I’d send them a detailed questionnaire and we’d schedule a Skype session to go over their answers with the hopes of getting clear on the full scope of their project.  

The Skype session would last at least two hours (or longer) and then I’d spend many hours working on a document that summarized everything we discussed and included their project quote.  If the client agreed to the summary and quote, I would send over a contract. After they signed the contract, I’d send the invoice for half or one-third of the total fee. At this point, I had spent at least five hours on the project communicating via email, reviewing the completed questionnaire, researching any special features they wanted on their website, and preparing their summary and contract. I didn’t charge for any of my time and labor up until this point in the process.

Thankfully, most clients would sign the contract and move forward with the project. A couple clients did not proceed, one of which still hasn’t rebuilt the website we discussed so thoroughly (and it’s been at least five years since we spoke).

Old Way #2

After a few years under my belt in the web design and development business.

A potential client would contact me via email or Facebook and I’d ask them to complete my contact form.  This time around, the form asked a few more preliminary questions to give me an idea of their business, current website situation, what other design or technical needs they had, their timeline, and their budget.  We’d hop on an intro call via Zoom with a goal of no more than 30 minutes, as it was intended to be a meet-and-greet to determine if we were a good fit to work together. 

During the intro call, I let the client know that I’d be sending over a detailed questionnaire right after our call. Then, after reviewing the questionnaire, I would send over the invoice for a “website strategy consultation” (as you can see, I was now charging for discovery, and the cost was $500). Once the client paid, we would schedule the two-hour Zoom session. The goal of the strategy consultation was for me to ask as many questions as possible to be able to understand the full scope of the project.  The client could ask questions, too, of course.  

Following the strategy session, I would put together a project summary which typically involved 2-4 hours of work. As soon as I pressed send on the email with the project summary, I sent the email with the project quote which included payment options. I needed to know the number of installments the client preferred in order to add that information into the contract. (Geez, I really liked to add on more work for myself, didn’t I?)

After the client accepted the quote and signed the contract, we’d dive into the extensive website building to-do list, and project went on without a hitch. Hmmm, not quite!

One might think that a detailed questionnaire, a two-hour conversation, and an extremely thorough project summary would be sufficient and that there would be no more questions.  All would be crystal clear, and we could charge forward with confidence knowing that we had a great plan in place, priced the project accurately, and estimated the timeline appropriately.

Well, things don’t always go as planned. One long questionnaire and one intense Zoom session was still not enough to accurately quote projects. Furthermore, the contract — while put together collaboratively with an attorney — still didn’t include enough parameters to account for changes, endless revisions, and additional features and/or pages. The result: undercharging nearly every time, becoming resentful (of myself and my clients), and a scope that wasn’t clear enough to refer back to when the client wanted more. 

Let’s just say that there were numerous projects that may have been quoted for, say, $3,500, but in the end, with all the additional features and pages, it could have easily been a $10,000+ project.  Unfortunately, the language in the contract combined with insufficient planning and estimating from the beginning did not allow for additional fees (or I didn’t feel comfortable going back to the client when plans changed). But, that’s on me, and I’ve learned a lot over the years.

My biggest takeaway from my old ways is that you can plan and plan (and plan!) and still have unexpected changes and additions after the client signs on the dotted line. Having proper language in the contract and not being afraid to act on that language is what will make me grow as a business owner and web designer and developer. 

At the time of this post, I have been working with clients to build websites and brands for ten years. I’ve had a bit of experience thus far, and I’m still learning and growing and look forward to continuing to hone my process, deliverables, and overall client experience. Which is what has led me to: The New Way.

The New Way

The way in which clients contact me is the same as above; however, my initial project inquiry form has a few more questions to give me a better idea about the client’s current branding and/or website situation before we hop on our intro call via Zoom. The beginning process is similar to old way #2 in the sense that we have a brief intro call to ensure we are good fit. After the intro call, before investing any time or labor into the project, I send the contract and invoice for discovery (the fee is $1,250). Not only is it a lot of work to review a client’s completed questionnaire and begin strategizing based on their responses, but it’s a lot of work for the client to complete it. The best client relationships begin with thorough, thoughtful answers. Therefore, there’s just as much of a time investment on the client’s end as there is on mine. 

After the client is on board for the full discovery process, we begin a series of three questionnaires (vs. one very long, overwhelming one) and three strategy sessions (four of each if the client needs branding as well). Breaking everything up allows all parties to do any necessary research or homework in between questionnaires and sessions, and it gives us a little time to breathe.

Each questionnaire focuses on specific aspects of the website building process (and branding, if applicable), including SEO, design, functionality, the number of pages needed, and more. By the time discovery is complete, I have a very clear picture of the scope of the project, and the client has agreed to the site architecture, number of pages, design preferences, and any additional features or functionality that have been discussed. I deliver a Project Roadmap, the contract for design and development, and the first invoice. Then, design and development can begin.

With a more strategic discovery process, updated contract language, a thorough Project Roadmap, and a sitemap the client signs off on before we begin design and development, those feelings and notions of resentment, undercharging, and beginning a site build without a clear plan are nearly nonexistent.

So What Exactly is Discovery?

By now, you probably have a pretty good idea of what is involved in discovery simply based on the details above. But allow me to break it down so we’re all on the same page (hint – that’s exactly what we’re hoping to accomplish with discovery, getting on the same page).

The purpose of the discovery process is to gather important information about your business, your goals and wishes, any relevant website history we may need to take into consideration, and the features and functionalities you want and need on your website. If we don’t know this information, it is difficult (or nearly impossible) to outline the scope of work, provide an accurate project fee, and set a realistic timeframe.

Discovery will:

  • Lead to better solutions
  • Focus on the objectives (not just the deliverables)
  • Prioritize user needs (vs. just the goals of the project)
  • Allow all stakeholders to get on the same page from the beginning

The goal of discovery is to ensure that the design and development phases run smoothly and efficiently. As mentioned above, discovery consists of three questionnaires and three strategy sessions (four of each if you don’t already have your branding — logo, color palette, typography, brand guidelines). 

After each questionnaire is completed, we’ll have a strategy session via Zoom where we review the information in your questionnaire and cover any additional details and questions. Shorter strategy sessions ensure that we stay on task and have the opportunity to tackle any “homework” that may need to be done before the next session. For example, if we’re looking at integrating a certain feature on your site and there are numerous options to choose from, I may need to research those options and send them to you for review before our next session. Depending on the option you choose, it may affect the timing and cost involved, which will be included in your Project Roadmap.

The questionnaires and strategy sessions focus on topics such as:

  • Getting to know your business
  • Website goals and project expectations
  • Website content and functionality
  • Email marketing and SEO
  • Site design
  • And much more!

Following our final strategy session, you’ll receive your customized Project Roadmap. This is a detailed summary of our strategy sessions as well as a sitemap for your website. The Roadmap will ensure that the scope of your project is clear and approved before moving to Phase Two — the design of your website. You might think of this like you’re hiring an architect to draw up the plans for a building. Once you have those plans and estimates, you can make a better decision on how and when to execute the project. 

Learning everything about your goals and needs before we begin designing or building your site is the key to success — the success of our work together AND the success of your website.  

What if I Don’t Think I Need the Full Discovery Process?

If you have a website and are looking for a redesign or rebuild, we may not need to go through the full discovery process. It will depend on how long ago your website was built, what types of changes you have in mind, if you only need development changes or if you also need a fresh design, or if you simply need a few tweaks. The best answer I can give you without knowing more about your particular situation is: fill out my project inquiry form, then we’ll talk and assess the situation.

Conclusion

Planning and strategizing are crucial steps in the website building process, and no one will benefit from skipping them. If you jump into such a significant part of your business too quickly or without a strategic plan, you may find yourself spending more time and money than you would have if you had taken the time for discovery (at least in some format) from the beginning. 

Web designers and developers who don’t ask you a plethora of questions to get to know you, your business, and your goals are likely not building you a strategic solution.  Instead, they are throwing words and graphics up on the screen without keeping your target audience and business goals in mind.  

Do you have questions about discovery? I’m happy to share the scoop! Ask me below or get in touch here.

Stefani Harris

Hey there! I'm Stefani, your website strategist, designer, developer, caretaker, and proud Google nerd. I believe in taking a mindful, holistic, and collaborative approach to accomplish your website and tech-related goals. Click here to learn more about me and Exhale Design Co. I look forward to meeting you and working with you!

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