Get a head start on digital projects: include content from the Discovery phase

5 minute read

Using agile methods and processes on digital projects is a mindset. Being flexible and iterating designs. Being able to easily rub something out or throw it away, if it isn’t working for users. “Let’s pivot”, that is, “Let’s rethink and take this in another direction” is a positive, as long as it’s based on user evidence. This is where a Discovery phase can help.

The Discovery phase

But before designing, usability testing, iterating and developing can start there’s the Discovery phase. Exploring user needs, and the background to those needs.

Graphic showing Discovery, Alpha, Beta and Live project phases
Graphic showing Discovery, Alpha, Beta and Live project phases, credit Government Digital Service.

If there’s no content designer assigned to be involved in the Discovery phase of a project, you need to make noise about changing this. Often content designers are brought in only after Discovery. Sometimes as late as Beta. By that time, the design route being developed has already been decided on, and vital content input has been completely missed.

No content expertise at the start of digital projects is a risk

This ignores the usefulness of a content designer or strategist in the early stages. Each member of a multidisciplinary team brings a different, unique skill, as I expanded on in my blog post about why multidisciplinary teams are good. Content people will notice things that others will not.Which could mean your product fails. Yes, it’s as simple and dramatic as that.

Examples of some content insights

A good content person knows:

  • You’ll need a clear, readable, memorable and short campaign URL or hashtag on a poster otherwise people will forget it, or not even get through reading it.
  • Users just won’t read or understand the details of a dense, legal-term heavy letter, or spot a website link at the end or lost in the middle of it if it does not stand out as a link.
  • Users may exit your site before they’ve really arrived if your cookie policy is passive aggressive.
  • People accessing site content using screen reading software will go to your competitor if your website is inaccessible.
  • There’s no point using the words “waste disposal unit” across all your channels when your audience uses the word “bin”.
  • They can help out in what might be thought is a purely technical development area, by telling you not to include a 1 or an l in the passcode you send them.
  • Not to make assumptions about users based on site analytics. A son might be logged on with a parent’s profile on the family computer. A housing advisor might be looking something up for a vulnerable user or a volunteer might be helping someone without digital skills.

Case study: content design for a service

I joined a project in mid-Beta, with hundreds of issues logged in GitHub that several iterations of design and user-testing had not resolved. Once I was involved, I pushed to perform an overall content review of the prototype-in-progress for a service. I had to push for this as the already well-established team were addressing each issue individually at that stage. But I could immediately see there were a lot of best practice content fixes that needed to be made across the service.  

Screenshot of a GitHub branch
Screenshot of a GitHub branch, credit Yancy Min, Unsplash.

Once I’d been allowed to give the prototype a content facelift, about half of the issues disappeared in the next round of user testing. And as the project continued with a content designer on board, the service designer I was working with was asked what he was taking to result in all the improvements. He answered: “content design”.

How a content designer plans during a Discovery phase

User research

  • Attends Discovery user interviews.
  • Researches and analyses website visitor stats.
  • Looks at what users are saying relevant to the product/service on other channels, like Twitter and forums.

Service research

  • Looks at all current content around the product/service.
  • Looks at competitor sites.
  • Maps live user journey, identifies pain points.

Processes research

  • Interviews stakeholders, like policy team and product owners.
  • Discovers what internal processes are influencing the content and the shape of the service – for example, something could take 5 working days more than it needs to because a form is download, print and send (add mailroom processes and opening a backlog of post), rather than complete online.


  • Translates research into user needs and acceptance criteria.
  • Applies top user tasks analysis to prioritise these.
  • Maps against organisation’s goals to show how answering user needs with better content will serve these goals

After the Discovery phase, planning continues

In Alpha (various design options phase) and Beta (developing one preferred design route into prototype phase), content designers keep on researching and planning. For example, using Google trends and other sources to find the words users are using before writing any content. Sketching is also a big thing. It helps us consider and reject or take forward conceptual ideas for page design and journey flow, information architecture, online tools and more.

Spreadsheets usually feature a lot too.All of this happens before a word is written. Content is more than words. Content is planning. And a lot of thinking. And then it is design as well as words. Because the thing the user needs might be, for example, a tax calculator tool, rather than a dense explanation of how much tax they are liable for in various scenarios.

How a content strategist plans

Content strategists start before Discovery. They meet with the transformation or product lead in advance of the project.

In Discovery they can be involved in the activities listed out above for content designers. They might also advise the transformation lead on internal process changes, like making that form online for instance.

Strategists demonstrate the benefits of more efficient content governance to wider staff involved in the process of content production, not just the creative team. They are highly experienced in business operations as well as user-focused content and service design.

They are well-positioned to make recommendations that come out of Discovery, a common example being grouping content by user need rather than organisational structure.When a strategist is available for a project, they bring skills and experience that really helps with the task of prioritising content based on organisational goals.

Achieving content presence on a project

As a content designer or strategist you may be thinking, yes but how do I get invited to Discovery and earlier planning stages?

Here are some ideas:

  • Advocate for content whenever you can.
  • Invite non-content colleagues to content show and tells. Show them something really good, and easy to relate to, like the GOV UK Design System examples of error messages done well.
  • Save examples of your content design work. If you hear of an upcoming project without any content representation on it, schedule a chat with your design studio manager or programme lead and present them with a portfolio showing how content helped in past projects.
  • Get involved in discussions on internal channels your organisation might use, like Slack or Yammer, not just about content and design but about business goals. Show how content design can support those.
  • Attend digital industry events, and represent for content.

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Cheat Sheet

Convince Your Clients

A handy one-sheet to share with your clients to convince them to put content first.

About the author

Lizzie Bruce

Lizzie is a content consultant at Content Design London, where she runs workshops and training courses. She’s previously worked at GDS and has 15 years’ content experience in the charity, public and private sectors. She is motivated by creating user-focused, inclusive content design and is currently coordinating research for the collaborative Readability Guidelines project. She also writes content UX articles for Prototypr and Digital Drum, and has created a set of writing for web best practice tip cards.

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