Discovery: The Most Important Part of Your UX Budget

If someone asked you to name the most important deliverable a user experience designer helps create through the course of a web design and development project, what would you say? Personas? Sketches? Wireframes? Information architecture? Customer journey maps?

Nope. Those are all good things, but you know where the real value lies? User insights.

User experience, as a discipline, requires deep knowledge of the audiences we’re serving in order to be maximally valuable. The best time to invest in this is as early in the project as possible, during the discovery or research phase. As a UX designer, I’ve learned there’s often a schism between what I’d really love to do early in a project to build up that foundation, and the reality of what a client feels is a justifiable use of project time and budget.

If I take off my “UX hat,” I can understand the resistance. The deliverables of UX discovery don’t seem all that actionable. They’re not super sexy. There’s no wireframes, no flows, nothing that a stakeholder can point to and see how the thing they’re so invested in building is beginning to take shape. I get it, I really do. But I still hear sad trombones every time these customer research activities get culled from a project that I know would really benefit from them, especially when the rationale is “to save money” or “to save time.”

The truth is, when UX discovery gets trimmed, the project is immediately at greater risk, not less.  This can be a hard sell, but it’s one I’ve decided is too important to not renew my focus on this year as a conscientious UX professional.

I don’t expect you to just take my word for it, though. Why is UX discovery so important? Well, if you were sitting across the table from me and we were discussing it, this is what I would share with you to encourage you to invest a larger share of your admittedly precious project time and budget in this unsexy, but critical, deliverable:

It’s going to make the end result better (and more profitable)

When we spend appropriate time figuring out who your audiences are, asking questions of them and extracting what they really want (versus what you think they want), we have a dependable roadmap to building something that will be immediately valuable to the very people you’re trying to reach. That usually translates directly into higher sales, leads or whatever other goal it is you’re trying to accomplish. On the flip side, your costs associated with maintaining and supporting that experience go down because it’s right on target. And when you combine a more effective experience with lower support costs, your profitability goes up.

It’ll make your pain points go away

Building something that delights your customers usually ends up being pretty delightful for you, too. When we build something that’s well-informed by real customer insights, you’re likely to hear fewer complaints, get fewer bad reviews, and receive fewer angry or frustrated customer support calls. Likewise, when your digital offering allows your users to accomplish their goals, you expend less energy (and money) trying to accommodate for deficiencies in usability, conversions, or lead generation introduced by a suboptimal design.

It’ll reduce development costs

You wouldn’t ask an architect to speculatively build you a house to determine if you like the floor plan, would you? Development is not the time to prove out theories or try alternate approaches. Coding is usually the most expensive part of a project. By the time your project gets into the hands of the development team, you want it to be extremely well-defined, expertly described, and ready to implement with minimum flux. UX discovery ensures the project direction is correct, and then the resulting design deliverables of sketches and wireframes allows the luxury of economical trial and error before a dev ever sees it.

It avoids the costliness of incorrect assumptions

While you may feel you know your customers pretty well, there’s a classic caution in the UX world that “You are not your users.” When clients defer a robust discovery process, it’s often because they feel confident they know what their customers need. If you come to the table with this assertion because you already have an active customer research and feedback process in place, my comfort level goes up. But this is rarely the case. It’s always your prerogative to decide to speak for your customers, but it introduces risk. If you’re wrong, and we build to your specs versus to what your customers actually want, you’ve set yourself up for either a suboptimal experience speaking dissonantly on behalf of your brand, or a costly redesign.

It will help us meet your deadlines

As a stakeholder, one of your primary concerns is likely around timeline. You may be working toward a commercial launch or trying to get something accomplished within a budget cycle. While this is sometimes the genesis of the “it takes too much time” resistance to UX discovery, the truth is that robust user insights are an effective regulator of project schedule. When the development team’s marching orders are informed by user research, they’re solid and dependable. This makes your dev team that much more efficient and better able to accurately estimate and complete the work in a streamlined fashion. Without those insights as the project’s “north star,” it’s easy to muddy the waters by changing direction or introducing new scope. This slows down delivery, endangers the timeline, and may even reduce the quality of the end product.

It will foster customer loyalty and retention

You’ve likely heard the axiom that it’s cheaper to retain existing customers than get new ones. This is absolutely true. Often, clients think of loyalty as something that’s directed at their brand. Well, you may not have considered it this way, but the experience your customers have on your website is a huge part of your brand. It doesn’t matter how expertly your logo has been designed or how engaging your content is, if the whole thing is difficult to use, has poor focus, and doesn’t allow your users to accomplish their goals quickly and easily, they won’t stick around. Conversely, if you give them a frictionless, delightful, goal-oriented experience that directly meets their needs, they’re that much more likely to become loyal brand champions, returning again and again, hearts (and wallets) open.

It’s a hard truth that constraints don’t always allow us to do everything we wish we could do. It’s the nature of the beast and it’s certainly not a frustration limited to UX. My position is there’s little benefit in taking a purist’s stance and digging in my heels if I’ve done a responsible amount of advocacy and I’m still hearing “no.” That said, my hope is that the benefits of UX discovery speak for themselves. It may not be the sexiest part of your project, but it can easily rank up there as one of the most substantive and valuable. While I titled this post to indicate discovery is one of the most important parts of a UX budget, that’s not actually accurate. It may be one of the most important parts of your budget, period. The benefits are real and they’re significant. Don’t let your project, or your business, miss out on them.

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