You’ve finally done it. You’ve decided it’s time to invest in a new website for your legal or financial services firm—and received approval from your executive leadership team, too. Maybe your current site suffers from performance issues. Perhaps it doesn’t do a good job of showcasing your firm’s unique positioning. Or maybe it simply looks outdated. Whatever the reason, you know it’s the right thing to do.

But you also know that a full website redesign is a major investment. And, like any good marketer, you’re hoping to get it done as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. In fact, you might even be tempted to skimp in certain areas—like, say, the discovery phase—to save money and get things moving along more quickly. Can’t you just skip discovery and write up a brief or meet your design team for a quick download instead?

Not so fast.

Any good website designer will tell you that the discovery phase is a non-negotiable. It isn’t just a sly way for design firms to charge more money for a “robust” process. It’s the cornerstone of excellent design. After all, good design isn’t magic. It doesn’t just spontaneously happen. It’s the product of finely honed design skills coupled with clear objectives, research and mutual understanding. Your designer brings the former to the table. The latter can only be achieved by way of discovery.

In this white paper, we’ll explain why you should never bypass the discovery phase. And we’ll advise you on how to make the most of the discovery phase to lay the foundation for a sharp new website. One that elevates your brand, speaks directly to your prospects and propels your business forward for years to come.

What is the Discovery Phase in a Website Design Project?

The discovery phase of a website design project is all about information-gathering and research—activities that are crafted to bring your design team up to speed on your project requirements, your firm and your competitive landscape.

Remember, your website’s design should do much more than just look nice. In today’s digital-first world, your website is your firm’s digital “front door.” More often than not, it’s your prospective customer’s first (and sometimes only) touchpoint with your brand. Which means that it has a big job to do.

Your website’s design should:

  • Accurately reflect and refine your brand
  • Elevate your firm’s unique differentiating factor
  • Visually set your firm apart from the competition
  • Educate your prospects about who you are and what you do
  • Quickly guide your site visitors to the information they need
  • Convince your prospective customers that your firm is the right one to meet their needs
  • Accurately reflect your recruiting offer 

When you hire a new website design partner, they bring key insights about the latest design and UX  trends to the table. But not even the most robust brief can give them the detailed information they need to craft a design solution that meets the other criteria listed above. Only the discovery phase can do that.

The Discovery Phase Process

Different design firms handle discovery in different ways. At Decker Design, we’ve developed a comprehensive, research-driven process that paves the way for the strategy phase that follows. Our discovery process includes the following steps:

1. Current website assessment

We start by digging into the details of your existing website to take stock of what’s there and how it is performing. Take user flows, for example. We do a deep dive into Google analytics to understand how users are interacting with your current website. Those user flows will likely look very different depending on your business model. If you’re a corporate firm that relies on referrals, your visitors probably enter your website via a partner or executive’s bio page. And if you’re a law firm that represents whistleblowers or a B2C financial services firm, a higher percentage of your users may come from organic Google searches.

By mapping user flows, we uncover which specific pages on your current site are doing the heavy lifting. Those are the pages we’ll want to prioritize during the design phase.

2. Competitive analysis

Next, we perform a competitive analysis. We look at your firm’s current competitors (the ones you most frequently compete with for business) and your aspirational competitors (the ones you want to compete with).

By reviewing each of your competitors’ websites, we can uncover the top trends in your category. Are your competitors’ websites designed with an emphasis on recruiting? Customer loyalty? Employee retention? PR issues? What features are they putting on their websites? And to what extent are they using design elements like motion to deliver a more visceral brand experience?

By the time we finish our competitive analysis, we can easily point to the most overused design clichés within your market—and identify fertile areas of design opportunity for your firm.

3. Stakeholder interviews

The only way to really know what authentically sets your firm apart is to talk with the people who know you best: your employees and customers. Our stakeholder interviews are about so much more than learning your team’s aesthetic preferences. We use these key conversations to understand how your firm is currently perceived both internally and externally.

Even if you are determined that you know your market well, our findings may surprise you. What we learn in these conversations allows us to refine your firm’s positioning and chart a design direction to support and amplify it.

4. Consensus-building

Finally, we gather all of the key stakeholders within your firm together to discuss our findings. Our goal is to share fresh insights, make actionable recommendations, reconcile differences of opinion—and build consensus as we prepare to craft a strategy to guide your website’s design.

The Benefits of Investing in a Rigorous Discovery Phase

The discovery phase is required to give your design team all the information they need to make strategic design decisions. If you skip or shortchange this stage, your designer may as well be throwing spaghetti against a wall to see what sticks. They may still arrive at a visually pleasing end product. But the design won’t be strategically driven. And it almost certainly won’t drive the sort of business results that a research-driven design process can produce.

But discovery isn’t a one-way street. It’s not just about transferring necessary information about your business to your design firm so they can get up to speed on what you already know. Your firm stands to gain from the discovery process, too.

By investing in this key phase, you will:

  • Lay the groundwork for a smooth and seamless project, including an on-time and on-budget execution
  • Gain critical insights into how your business is actually perceived
  • Learn how your prospective customers are using your website (and why it matters)
  • Identify or refine your brand’s authentic differentiating factor—the nuanced differences that make your firm worth hiring
  • Build consensus among your partners or executive team
  • Maximize the ROI of your website design investment

How to Squeeze the Most Value Out of the Discovery Phase

As with any external partnership, what you get out of the discovery phase depends on what you put into it. Your design partner will take the lead. But your contributions matter, too. Here’s what you can do to ensure that your discovery process is as fruitful as possible.

1. Know who you are

Discovery is an incredible opportunity to learn more about your firm’s brand—who you “really are” in the eyes of your most important audiences and who you want to become. But the starting point is what you know about your firm today.

What is your place in the market? How are you currently positioned? How do you wish to be positioned? Who are your competitors? And who do you wish you were competing against? You should know the answers to these questions before you begin the discovery process.

What you learn in discovery will almost certainly change the way you answer those questions. And, by extension, refine or even revolutionize the way you brand and market your organization.

2. Know your underlying goals

Why did you decide to redesign your firm’s website in the first place? What are your primary objectives in redesigning the site? And how will you measure success? You must know the answers to these questions—and how to clearly communicate your objectives to your designer. Simply saying, “We want it to look more sophisticated” won’t cut it. For one thing, “sophistication” is subjective. What it means to you may be totally different than what it means to your designer. And for another, it doesn’t tell your designer what you actually hope to achieve in redesigning your website. Why do you want it to look more sophisticated? That’s the more productive question.

For example, let’s say your top goal is to beef up your recruiting efforts. Your designer will take a very different approach to your project than if your biggest concern is, say, elevating your flagship practice area or financial product. The more clear you are in terms of the primary business objectives driving the redesign, the more your design firm can tailor their efforts to support those goals.

Building a solid business case for your web design project isn’t just a smart idea for gaining internal approval on the project. It’s a way to guide your designer’s activities from start to finish.

3. Take a content-first approach

When it comes to your firm’s website, art and copy go hand in hand. Your designer can only take your website design so far without knowing what you actually plan to say. Unfortunately, many organizations (and even some designers) leave content until the very end. That’s a mistake—one that will likely cost you in the form of subpar designs or expensive rework.

Remember, content drives design and functionality. Not the other way around.

Discovery is the time to figure out your new content plan. And the activities that take place in an evidence-based discovery process can shed light on what it is you actually should say. Before you begin the discovery process, set the stage for a thorough audit of your current website’s content. Make a spreadsheet of all the copy on your site and where it is located. Then, as you gain insights from your design team’s research activities, you can decide what to cut, what to leave untouched, what to rewrite and what to add.

4. Partner with the right designer

Not all designers will insist on a comprehensive, research-driven discovery process. The order-takers of the world may be more than happy to start designing based on a “discovery” process that consists of little more than reading your project brief. Do that, and you may save money on the front end. But you’ll risk paying for a cookie cutter end-product that does little to differentiate your brand.

Be sure to ask your prospective design partners how they handle discovery. The answers they provide will tell you all you need to know about how strategic their approach really is.

Want to learn more about how Decker Design works with legal and financial services firms like yours to design business-driving websites? We’d love to connect.

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