Design and Discovery are often used interchangeably. For example projects may begin with a ‘design sprint’, but the actual scope of the work is better described by the word discovery.
Making the terms ‘design’ and ‘discovery’ synonymous flattens what should be a interdisciplinary exploration into a design-centric funnel leading to an actionable deliverable.
The agile process, too, contributes to the pressure to start the design process and produce something actionable. Agile assumes a clear vision has been communicated. But the existence of design sprints and sprint 0 tells us that is often not the case.
Designers are in some ways better equipped than other types of teams to do the hard work of discovery. We are abstract thinkers and we leave our siloes often. Research is a natural part of our process, we empathize with users, and cast a wide net looking for inspiration. But that does not cover the scope of what discovery should be: intense evaluation of the problem, any existing solutions, changing market forces and trends, capacity for delivery, budget constraints, internalizing user needs, and —finally— ideation.
Flattening that process into a ‘design sprint’ creates a massive blind spot. If the business logic behind the effort is wrong the design team wont come to that conclusion. Instead, they will compound the issue by doing their job well: they will deliver something beautiful that meets all stated criteria. Because of that, it will be convincing and critiques are even less likely to surface.
To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a designer, everything is a design challenge. A discovery phase should produce something messier, a “here’s where our thinking is at” type of deliverable. It might provide counsel to proceed or to pivot. It might include some degree of prototyping or other visuals. The research involved will certainly inform the design and development work to come. It might include traditional design sprint deliverables, if it gets that far.
Whatever the specific deliverable is, individuating the process of ‘design’ from that of ‘discovery’ helps each reach it’s potential. Discovery is an interdisciplinary investigation. Design breathes life into the findings.
Each plays a critical role in creating a product, but they are not synonymous or interchangeable.