Pre-discovery phase

The pre-discovery phase is about creating a strong foundation and preparing for the work to come. It involves ensuring everyone involved in the project has a common understanding of the desired outcomes and the approach the team plans to take.

In the pre-discovery phase, the primary goals are to:

  • understand the problem space
  • ensure funding supports agile delivery of service, not an output
  • align the team’s desired outcomes, assumptions and expectations
  • plan how to approach the research in the discovery phase
  • set clear expectations with executives and stakeholders

Understand the problem space

It’s important to understand the existing service landscape before creating a research plan. The best place to start is by absorbing as much information as possible about the problem space that needs to be solved and (if there is one) the existing service.

Learn about the landscape from:

  • supporting policies and legislation
  • user feedback and complaints
  • quantitative metrics related to the service
  • reports or briefing notes
  • experiencing the service for yourself

Find time to speak to the program area or executive sponsor who initiated the work. Find out why this work was initiated now, if they have any apprehensions or expectations and who should be included or consulted throughout the process.

Teams are often asked to work on a particular solution instead of exploring a known problem space. Activities like “the 5 whys” can help uncover the underlying issues that led to this work and better focus the research during the discovery phase.

If your service aligns to a Premier’s or State priority, government objective or commitment you should document how it contributes to that target.

Ensure the funding supports agile delivery of a service, not an output

It's important to frame the work you are setting out to do as designing a service - not as iterating towards a predetermined output. Research is key.

Plan to track the value of the work from the outset, so you can build a case for further funding or stop work if value is not proven. This is even more important if funding only covers early phases of delivery.

Stopping part way through discovery (or alpha) will make it much harder for you to demonstrate value.

During pre-discovery you also need to plan, source and budget for a sustainable multidisciplinary team that can design, build and continuously improve the service. Consider how your team roles and funding needs will change across the phases of delivery.

Align the team

Before work begins, it’s important that the team has a shared understanding of the current problem and a vision for what it needs to achieve.

Research and identify the relevant outcome, policy intent or purpose of the service and what success might look like.

A foundational workshop or collaborative kick-off session is a great way to initiate a project and create team alignment. It might include:

Set expectations

Setting clear expectations with key executives and project stakeholders before moving to the discovery phase will help future phases run more smoothly.

Take time at the outset to:

  • ensure your stakeholders understand how the agile delivery phases will work to solve an outcome
  • explain how evidence and user research will form the basis of design decisions
  • ensure that stopping at discovery is seen as an acceptable outcome
  • be clear that the team’s exact outputs can and should change as part of the delivery process 

Service design is a new approach for government, so come prepared to answer a lot of questions. It’s OK if you don’t have all of the answers at this stage – you won’t know how the work will unfold after the discovery phase until later on.

Once everyone has agreed on team roles, ways-of-working and project expectations, write them down in a project charter or project plan.

Completing pre-discovery

All services are different, but most projects need 2-3 weeks to complete pre-discovery.

By the end of pre-discovery, expect to have:

  • gained an understanding of the existing problem space and desired outcomes
  • co-created a shared problem statement for the team to research
  • identified key user groups to include in research
  • have funding to explore the design problem
  • aligned team members and stakeholders on the agile delivery approach and set clear expectations

Ensure you are planning for how you will meet the NSW Design Standards at each phase as your service takes shape.


This content is based on Ontario.ca's Service design playbook (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Licence).

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