Discovery phase

The discovery phase is about understanding who uses your service. By doing discovery you will gain an understanding of the challenges they face, how they behave and what motivates their behaviour. This understanding will help you imagine better design solutions.

Resist the urge to make assumptions or think about potential solutions – you are learning about users and the challenges they face, not gathering evidence to support a predefined direction.

It can be tempting to skip discovery and design a solution based on similar services or brainstorm potential options immediately. These are solution-oriented design processes, but service design is a user-oriented design process. 

In the discovery phase you will:

  • learn about the people who use the service
  • uncover key insights, themes and patterns
  • document and share the findings

Discovery introduces a new way of working and new skill sets and abilities. A strong multidisciplinary team capable of a wide variety of tasks is needed.

Talk to users

Understanding the people who will use a service helps to create solutions that work for them. Service design engages users throughout the design process so the team can make decisions using observations and evidence, not assumptions.

No matter how much subject matter expertise your team or internal stakeholders may have, it can never replace hearing directly from the people who will use your service, policy or process.

Talking to users (also known as doing user research):

  • helps replace assumptions with observation and evidence
  • gives you feedback for shaping the user experience as it is being created
  • helps you make thoughtful decisions throughout the project
  • is worth your time – it doesn’t have to take very long, but it will add significant value for your users while avoiding lengthy and costly fixes once the service is live

Remember that your service’s users can include internal government staff. Frontline staff often rely on systems or processes to help support public-facing services. Their needs are just as important and should be considered as part of the design process.

Draft a research plan

The research plan outlines what the team plans to learn more about and how they will do it. It’s OK if the plan is brief at this point – it’s a living document that will change as the work evolves. The goal is to ensure that the core project team, supporting executives and key stakeholders understand the research goals and the general approach the team plans to take.

At a minimum, the research plan should include:

  • research goals and objectives
  • key questions or topic areas the team wants to learn more about
  • the team’s planned approach
  • the user groups that will be included in the research
  • your approach to ensuring your research is inclusive of diversity
  • how users will be recruited and compensated
  • any resources or tools the team will need
  • how long the research is expected to take

Read more about how to draft a research plan.

Do research which will help you build an accessible service

You will need to learn enough about your users’ accessibility requirements to let you work out whether the problem space you’re looking at presents any particular challenges from an inclusion point of view. 

Accessibility covers a range of other needs for people who don’t have a disability so you should also think about things like your users’ digital skills and internet access.

The Design Standard, 'Design with users, for users' sets out the minimum expectations on Accessibility and inclusivity.

Recruiting research participants

Depending on who your target users are and your project budget, there will be multiple ways to recruit research participants.

If you are looking to engage participants who are easy to reach (such as university students, parents or those with a driver’s licence) then external user recruitment firms may not be needed. Recruiting participants can be a lot of work so plan research participant recruitment ahead of time.

Common research methods

There are a variety of research methods you can use that will help you understand user needs and behaviour without having to find large, statistically significant sample sizes.

You can use most techniques across several of the service design phases. Our user research guide will help you use some commonly used research methods during the discovery phase. Some of these methods are:


Method Description Purpose
User interviews Semi-structured one-on-one conversations with users of a service. To understand more about users, their perspectives and prior experiences.
Observation Watching users as they use a service in a natural context or how they go about their daily routine. To learn how a service fits into the everyday lives of users and how they behave in practice.
Usability testing Asking users to complete a series of certain tasks while interacting with a service in a simulated environment. To identify common challenges users experience while interacting with a service and learn more about how they expect a service to work.
Diary studies Having users document their thoughts, feelings and actions while using a service over a certain time period. To discover the daily habits of users and gather data on long or unpredictable processes.
Service safaris Going through a service first-hand while documenting your experience and the steps you take. To learn how a service works and how the various components of a service fit together.
Card sorting Asking users to physically organize topics into groups and hierarchies that make sense to them. To understand how users interpret and categorize information related to a service.


Avoid relying on traditional research methods like surveys or focus groups. While they can help you understand what people think or believe, they can’t tell you much about why. Before using any research method, learn its strengths and limitations to make sure you choose the right tool for the task at hand.

Regardless of the research method you decide to use, always make sure to compensate users for their participation.

Find out more about user research methods in the user research guide.

Turn research into insights

Turning research findings into insights that can help inform the design of the service can be challenging.

User research should not be used to create a list of requirements that must be implemented. The goal is to uncover key insights, themes and patterns that the team can use to develop creative solutions that address the underlying needs and behaviours of users.

Look through your research findings for groupings and patterns. Analyse your findings and turn them into insights that can inform your later work.

For an insight to be actionable, it needs to include both the context (what you observed) and the motivation (why users took the action they did).

You can use these insight statements to generate “how might we” statements that will help form the foundation of the ideation process in alpha.

Document research results

Reviewing transcripts and summary reports may be helpful, but there is no substitute for what team members and stakeholders can learn from being directly involved in the research process – even if they’re just observing user research sessions.

That said, you will always need ways to synthesize, document and present your research findings.

Our user research methods guide can help you provide common research outputs to help in presenting your findings.


Method Description Purpose
Personas Mini-biographies of fictional people that represent user groups you’ve uncovered during research that share similar behavioural patterns, beliefs, attitudes and challenges. Help identify behavioural patterns across similar user groups and provide a quick reference of who should be considered when making design decisions.
Journey maps Diagrams that outline the end-to-end experience users take to complete a task and the touchpoints along the way. Help identify opportunities for service improvements and outline what users are thinking, feeling and experiencing at different stages of a service.
Current state service blueprints Diagrams that outline the processes, supports, systems and policies that are involved at each stage of a service and how they are connected to the touchpoints and actions users take. Help build an understanding of how the internal workings of an organization interact with and support the service.


Adding direct user quotes and short video or audio clips of your research sessions will give your documents extra weight – hearing users speak directly about a service and their frustrations is a very powerful tool.

Share your findings

User research is only useful if your team can use what you’ve learned to improve your service. Once you've documented your insights and findings, take the opportunity to share findings with people outside the team.

You should include stakeholders and sponsors of the project but also consider others working on similar things, or in similar ways, so that we can compare and learn more about our users and design approaches. It helps us improve our research practices.

You may want to hold a showcase where you present your findings, but may also want to consider creating a research wall, presenting video clips of your research, or blogging on a departmental blog. Make sure you respect privacy and have participant's consent when making and sharing notes or recordings.

See more on how to share research findings in our user research methods guide.

Completing discovery

All services are different, but most projects need 6-8 weeks to complete discovery.

By the end of discovery, expect to have:

  • a clear understanding of the existing service landscape
  • detailed knowledge of who uses the service, their frustrations and motivations
  • a documented set of user needs and insights
  • a list of barriers that could prevent user needs from being met
  • a recommendation on how the work should proceed

Stopping after discovery

Not all projects should go beyond discovery. It’s acceptable – and sometimes advisable – to end a project at this phase if that’s what the evidence supports.

Consider stopping the design of a service if research indicates that:

  • there is no user need for the service
  • the user need is already being met by an existing service, either internally or outside of the NSW Government
  • more research is needed to fully understand the problem space

If it makes sense to stop after the discovery phase, don’t consider your project a failure. The purpose of discovery is to understand users and figure out what they need. Sometimes that means changing plans or taking a new direction, and that’s OK. It’s better to refocus efforts than to design a service that will be unsuccessful.

This content is based on's Service design playbook and draws on the GOV.UK Service Manual's How the discovery phase works guide (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Licence).

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