Freelancing Fundamentals: The Project Discovery Phase

How do you know what all’s entailed in a project? You get the stakeholders together and ask them. That’s the project discovery phase in a nutshell.

The goal of this discovery phase is to understand the client’s business so that you can partner with them to help them make the best decisions possible considering their aims and budget.

This post is part of a series called Freelancing Fundamentals: How to Take a Project from Cradle to Launch.

The discovery phase of a project is technically part of your onboarding efforts, but I broke it out as its own topic because discovery is such a crucial element to the success of the project . It’s easy to confuse discovery with project scoping (which we’ll be going over next time) because they’re kissing cousins. But there is a distinction.

Your discovery process acts as the forward scout for project scoping: Discovery reveals the needs of and requirements for a project while project scoping details the actual work that needs doing.

Discovery pretty much asks two basic questions:

  1. What’s the client looking to achieve?
  2. What pile of resources (like time, money, assets, or technology) are available to help them do it?

Use the Discovery Phase as a Mutually Beneficial Learning Tool

The discovery process gives you an opportunity help clients figure out what they actually want. It benefits you and your potential client in (at least) three specific ways:

  1. Helps your client hone in on ideas they were unclear about before you started discussing their goals.
  2. Reveals aspects of a project to the client they’d not considered before you started asking questions.
  3. Helps figure out if you and a client aren’t a good match for the project. (That’s a good thing, I promise!)

Client readiness — in terms of both resources and emotional commitment — is a huge factor in a project’s success. Trust me, pulling off a successful project discovery saves you (and your client) a lot of headache and wheel-spinning.

It doesn’t have to be fancy to be effective

Newer freelancers typically don’t land huge clients with big-deep pockets and a ton of organizational cogs early on. This means that — until you need a more sophisticated level of information — you can get by with a simple discovery system.

Over time you will learn how the discovery phase of your project management needs to be custom tailored to work best for your business. Like anything else, you’ll recognize a pain point, then tweak your process as you go.

At the least, you need to find out things like:

  • Whether the project is need-based (“I need XYZ and realize I’ma have to pay for that.”) or budget-based (“I only have this pile of dollars here. How much can be done with them?”)
  • What problems does the project address or solve
  • The client’s vision for an ideal result

You’ll also want to communicate a few things. For instance:

  • What’s manageable time-wise? Unrealized expectations have killed many a solid reputation and relationship, so make sure the time-frame is clear at the outset.
  • What’s manageable work-wise? Are you a good fit for this project or should you recommend someone more specialized?

Whether these are questions you ask in an online inquiry form, an email, or an onboarding document, find something that gets you the information you need to help steer the conversation in the right direction.

Is the project an investment or an expense?

We all want a client to show up and say, “Here’s what I gotta have. Please take my dollars and do what you have to do to make that happen.”

The reality is, though, that at some point we’ll be facing down a prospect who has a strict budget and wants that are, um, outsized in comparison to the funds allotted. It’s happened to me a jillion times and it’ll happen to you, too. But don’t let it discourage you. Look at this scenario as a positive: it opens up the opportunity for you to have the conversation about the difference between an investment and an expense.

When positioning what you are doing for your client as an investment that will pay out dividends, you may end up informing the way they see the work. Viewing their proposed project as an investment could very well encourage them to funnel more funds toward it.

If that doesn’t turn out to be the case, then at the very least you’re able to communicate that you can craft a solution that’s in line with the budget they’ve given you. Or, alternatively, this might be the time to introduce them to another vendor and wish them well. Either way, you’re educating the client, giving them a better perspective on what their money will buy them.

Ways to Deepen the Project Discovery Phase

As you gain more experience as a freelancer (not to mention a deeper roster of clients), you’ll probably find that a bare-bones discovery process is no longer enough. When multiple tasks start pulling your time and attention in different directions, you benefit from a more detailed form of discovery.

Get answers before the first client call

Profitable Project Plan

Beyond the “inquiry questionnaire” — most likely found on your contact page — you should develop a more in-depth questionnaire that you’ll reference in your first call. (Hubspot published a great list of comprehensive client questions that you can crib from.)

I suggest sending over the questionnaire before the discovery call happens. This prompts them to think about their answers. You’ll then go over the questions one at a time with them during the call itself.

Those clients who are more steady on their feet get the questionnaire from you, fill it out, and send it back over before the call happens. This sets the stage for that call and allows you the space to roll their answers around mentally. You’ll be able to prepare notes that include a list of points to go over or further questions to ask.

You can schedule a follow-up call, too, so that you have a couple days to go over their responses and can address any trouble spots that discovery has uncovered.

Get everyone on the same page

Get in the habit of kicking off every web development project the same way: before any other work is started, come up with a list of goals the site should achieve. This includes things like what users can do when they come to the site, any unique content management needs, and anticipating the expectations of mobile users. You’ll have answers to some of these from the original questions you asked, but new ones always come up as you continue to talk through client and user needs. After a little back and forth revising, both you and the client can agree on the requirements.

This becomes a very valuable document. Now when you make decisions or get feedback, you both have this list of goals to refer back to. It’s something that you can (gently) point to if unproductive suggestions are made. Being on the same page is a beautiful thing and promotes project harmony. 🙂

Pro tip: What not to do… This is not the time for you to think about what tools you’re going to use get the job done. This is the time to think about the problem the client is trying to solve. As my friend Chris Lema says, this is a time to marinate in the problem space.

Deliver the right kind of surprise

Overall, a solid discovery process helps everyone involved in a project avoid the wrong kind of surprise, like budget shortfalls or unfulfilled wants. It also helps map out the project scope document, which I’ll be covering in the next installment of this series.

One way that discovery helps you bring home a win is giving you to the ability to deliver a smarter solution than the client realized was within reach. This is the right kind of surprise, one that a client appreciates; it’s also one that will earn you their loyalty, which translates to return business and referrals.

Jordan Rupp is a total discovery rock star, and he recently joined me on the Office Hours podcast to talk about discovery and some processes he has in place to help deftly navigate this part of a project. Head over and check out that episode for a more in-depth exploration of what a well-executed system of discovery can do for your freelance projects.

p.s. The Project Discovery Phase Deserves Your Due Diligence

This part of the process involves a lot of digging – tedious digging. It’s not as fun as opening up your design tools or your code editor and actually building stuff.  But! If you’re thorough in working through requirements with the client at the beginning, the final product and (just as important) your relationship with them is going to reap the benefits.

And guess what? If you don’t do this phase well and “new” requirements emerge mid-way through a project that you didn’t account for in your bid, that’s you’re fault. It’s your responsibility to ask the right questions of your client up-front.

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