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How to run a website discovery session

Becky Taylor • 4 minutes

The first website redesign project I managed happened to be one where I was thrown in half way through.

Yikes! When you inherit a project, things may not have been done your way, but you just have to pick up and push on. The biggest lesson I learnt from this project was that you really need to understand the purpose of the business/organisation you are producing the site for, and what function the website needs to perform to support their goals. Without this knowledge, the launch will only deliver generic results.

Enter the website discovery session, a meeting between the project team and client to understand a business inside out. Use this time to ask questions such as: what are their goals, what is their strategy, how do they operate and where can a website support their activity. The answers to these questions will arm you with the knowledge to deliver a bespoke website, with content and design that will deliver measurable results.

Who needs to be involved?

It’s great to have a representative from each department of a business. The more buy-in you can get from day 1, the smoother the project will run. By getting a range of voices in the room, it will quickly become clear if any objectives conflict and you can reach an agreed shared goal. It’s better to go into a project aware of these dynamics than have two departments fighting for homepage prominence down the line. If you can’t get everybody around a table, consider follow-up surveys or interviews to make sure all necessary opinions are heard.

What’s important to understand from the outset is how many stakeholders are involved and who the ultimate decision maker is.

How long should a discovery session be?

Typically a good discovery session will last a full morning or afternoon. I recommend scheduling 4 hours and if possible wrap up a little early – though if you get really good discussions going, every minute will be time well spent. Snacks are a must and activities will help break up the interview style element of the session.

Setting attendee expectations

It’s good practice for any meeting to set expectations and requirements but it’s also likely that many of your attendees will not have been involved in a session or project like this before, so make sure they know what the purpose of the session is and how they will be expected to get involved. Ahead of the session ask for the following items so you can do some preparation to build a clearer picture of the business:

  • Branding guidelines – To support your design team and potentially highlight another project opportunity
  • Organisation chart – This will help you decide who to invite to the session
  • Full product/services list – Current websites may not be up to date and you’ll learn from how the business currently categorise their services
  • Marketing resources list used with examples (eg. brochures, newsletters, webinars) – This list will show you what other collateral you can use to to support the website
  • Marketing calendar (or indication of past/future 3 months marketing activity) – To show you how the business communicates externally
  • Competitor list (local/national) and by service if applicable – To do some more research into the market

Once this information has been provided, there shouldn’t be any preparation for your attendees. It’s a good idea to send over a meeting agenda with proposed outcomes and a list of who has been invited.

A website discovery session template

This is the agenda I have used to run website discovery sessions:

1. Interview element

  • Business Vitals
  • Products/Services
  • Target Audiences
  • Marketing/Communications
  • Website
  • Content
  • Social Media

Whilst you’ll be asking lots of questions to get under the bonnet of the business, try and encourage group discussions around the questions. This if often where you’ll find the most interesting and useful information for your project.

2. Exercise: Mapping a buying cycle for products and services

Ask your attendees to talk you through their customer lifecycle from awareness right through to retention to show you where there are opportunities for the website to support each stage.

3. Exercise: Audience profiling

Start by getting your attendees to list all the groups of typical target customers. Time dependant, write personas for these groups (demographics, needs & goals, and behaviours). Or as an alternative to personas you could also try out user stories to understand the motivations of the target audience. Getting to know the business’ target audience is essential to understanding the business and who the website really needs to work for.

4. Exercise: Tone of voice

If this has not already been defined, now is a great time. A quick exercise for this is to give 3-5 post-its to each person and ask them to write down a word/phrase per post-it that they feel reflects the tone of voice of the company. Then you can collate and see where the groups agrees and select the top 5 words/phrases to give you foundations for developing voice and tone guidelines.

This agenda should give you a good overview of the business you are designing for. There will inevitably be follow up questions required but by kicking off your project with a session like this, you will set your team off from an informed position in order to develop the right strategy for the website.

The follow up

After the session you’ll need time to digest what you’ve learnt (and maybe a beer, note: never book any other meetings on the same day as the discovery session!). Write up the learnings and share them with your own project team, or even better run a debrief with those that couldn’t be involved. Depending on your project scope, I’d also recommend writing a website strategy document to share with your client. This document should outline:

  • The understood business goals
  • The target market
  • The goals of the website

This document will serve as a handy reference at each stage of your website project to sense check key decisions on content architecture and design.

I hope you found this overview useful, and good luck with your future discovery sessions.

How to run a website discovery session

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About the Author

Becky Taylor

Product Marketing Manager, GatherContent

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