'In the Ring' Podcast: Melissa Curra from SUMO Heavy on the Importance of Discovery

John Suder
Mar 15, 2021

This is an edited and abridged transcript from our 'In the Ring' podcast series about discovery.

For the next six weeks, we'll be sitting down and talking with Melissa Curra, SUMO Heavy's Director of Strategy to break down the entire process.

You can also listen and subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Discovery, in the simplest terms, is the process that consulting firms and web development shops use to gain knowledge about an upcoming project. It's where all the requirements, features, and goals are spelled out. 

This has been a hot topic as of late, and it's something that we're very passionate about. Through much trial and error over the last 10 plus years, we here at SUMO have developed our own methodology around discovery. Over the next few episodes of our podcast, we'll be sitting down with Melissa to break down the whole discovery thing –  from what's involved on the consultant side, as well as the client-side and some of the pushback so that consultant or a webshop might receive and how to counter that. 

John Suder: For this episode, we're going to start with the basics of discovery. For lack of a better question, explain discovery to me, like I'm five.

Melissa Curra: Discovery is a time where we really get to understand your business, its workflows, its needs. And then we figure out the most cost-effective way to build out what you're asking for.

John: Why is discovery necessary? And I'm asking that pretending that I'm a client, I'm going to come to you and say, 'why is this necessary?' How do you respond to that?

Melissa: Discovery processes and the discovery time is necessary, especially for the agency that's responsible for implementing your product or site. It gives them their chance to do their due diligence. A lot of these sites, marketplaces, products, and features are design-heavy. They're complex. And people have a lot of time and money invested in these things. There's a lot of expectations. So when you're asking an agency, and especially a development agency, who's going to turn these tasks around, and then be expected to build upon them, their due diligence is what you're paying for. It's part of this process for eCom agencies to build out these things. And overall, everyone's going to be more satisfied if you do a thorough discovery process with the agency you're hiring. 

John: So what do you do with a client that says, ‘Is it worth the cost’? How do you justify that?

Melissa: That's a question I get asked often. And it's a completely valid question. I justify the cost of any type of discovery, no matter how long it is, and no matter how much the time commitment might seem, internally, I justify the cost by saying: the more thorough the discovery, the quicker you can turn around when that discovery is finished, and get to work. 

If the discovery is shoddy, it's not as much of a commitment. You're getting, for lack of a better term, a bargain type of experience here, and you're cutting corners. That's all going to be reflected in the site, in the product, in the features, and in the roadmap. That's why I think it's worth the cost. Due diligence is underrated.

John: What do you do with a client who says, ‘Okay, you know what? We're all in. We're going to take this painful journey that's going to cost us time and money,’ but what do you do when you know that the client is withholding things just to get this process out of the way?

Melissa: Here at SUMO, it just doesn't happen. Because it becomes very apparent very quickly. Code and infrastructure are things that don’t lie. It's very straightforward. Usually, when we do our discovery process with clients because it is so thorough, we're able to catch things. And clients want to be transparent and straightforward because they quickly realize that we are here to get this done for them and to build them what they need, and the experiences they need. So usually, we don't find ourselves in that situation, if I'm doing my job well, I can smell that coming off the elevator.

John: I can just see someone saying, ‘Let's just get this information out of them and give them just the bare minimum of what they need to get this “discovery” done’. But as you said, code doesn't lie. That stuff comes out in the wash later on. 

You touched on what we do here at SUMO Heavy in terms of discovery, and we'll touch on that in later episodes. How do other consulting firms and webshops and agencies do discovery? I know there are different levels of that. But how do other companies do this?

Melissa: Tons of agencies do their own version of discovery. Some of them may be more broad and meta than others. Sometimes they're based on an RFP or a statement of work. They use their discovery process to weed out the details and set expectations. Perhaps there's a time period where design and style need to be factored into the equation. So it depends on which type of agency you're going to. For example, you have design agencies, you have consulting agencies, you have dev shops. People have their own version of this, but it's pretty ubiquitous at this point. And I would say that if you're getting into a situation and agencies not mentioning any type of discovery, or it hasn't been brought up – make your own inquiry. It might be something that they do, but they're not offering because it's not the most cost-prohibitive thing for you at the moment. But it's worth asking, because, again, you have to really think about the specifications you're building for the project at hand, the team that you're allowing to manage this and see it through, and their level of commitment to details.

John: If your company is going to go through a thorough discovery, there's a lot of information that's being shared, not from just the client, but also from the agency. Can you walk us through the types of information that's exchanged through a typical or non-typical discovery?

Melissa: They vary. Here at SUMO, it's a several-week commitment, where you're equipped with a holistic team. You get me, who represents the planning and project and product front. Then you have technical implementation managers, engineers, designers, who are going to work with you and really 'roadmap' what you've laid out here. It could be a feature or site, a marketplace, all these things. 

Usually, people have something really specific in mind or clients know what needs to be built. But some of those technical details, those choices that they have to make get a bit murky, which is completely understandable. They're not technical experts. They're not engineers themselves, which is the whole reason they've come to an agency in the first place. 

Our goal is to not only guide through those choices through our discovery process, but understand how decisions are made within your organization. How processes are documented, how your current technical infrastructure is documented, and all the things that work within this feature site product that may provide roadblocks or constraints. Maybe they could be improved upon, maybe you're spending more than you need to currently. 

Through our weeks of discovery, what comes is an actionable roadmap. That's really the natural progression of a discovery here at SUMO. Our goal throughout that discovery is really just this course of action so that when that discovery is over, there's really no time lost due to poor planning, or anything that might have been missed, or any holes in your process. Because we want to be able to pick up that next day and get to work and get our developers this valuable resource, and this valuable commodity to work.

John: You’ve got someone in the discovery process and they perhaps have in their head a specific date, and they say, ‘We're gonna give these guys six weeks,' and you look at all the information presented, and you think 'no, it's not gonna take six weeks,' it may take longer. How do you push back against that? If they have this date in their head because they're probably ‘champing at the bit’ and ready to get started? How do you say, ‘slow down, let's get this done right.' How do you push back against that?

Melissa: We essentially say it that way (but more diplomatically). At SUMO, we rely heavily on documentation. It's an intense process. And it's a time commitment. However, our goal is to be as realistic with our clients as possible. Again, that due diligence, we don't want to make false promises and over-extend this project. Our goal in discovery is to build a super realistic MVP with you. When you start the discovery process with us, we use your goal. 

Let's say they put out a date and a deadline. We use that as a guidepost. We want to respect what you (the client) have promised stakeholders internally, this due date, the expectation that exists. However, if it does start to become obvious that it's way too much work, or perhaps the RFP is too dense to possibly get it done in that amount of time, what we try to do is work with the stakeholders, and everybody involved to kind of just re-scope this MVP expectation, and say, ‘this is what you could get’. And usually, it's not much less. It's just a more simplified version of perhaps the experiences that everybody expected, but it's still this really valuable working site. And then we have our theory of work is that you can always make that site and those experiences better. It's called iteration. And we encourage people to continue to plan, continue to document, and expand upon the features. And eventually, you'll get to that ultimate wish list that the original RFP built. And I think that as time passes, that's really valuable. Because if you're able to have expectations set within your organization, first of all, it makes you look really good. And it helps your team overall learn how to build realistic roadmaps so that internally, no one's ever disappointed. You expect your salesman to know how to sell whatever product it is no one's over-promised. And the users won't be disappointed either. Because you're never putting out due dates that are based on a wish, instead of actual detailed documentation.

John: Another question on the client-side: I'm a client and let's say I plan on doing a redesign within six months. I plan to eventually go through discovery, but it's not going to happen right now. What are some of the best practices that a client could do in terms of documentation or ‘getting their act together’ in anticipation for a discovery process?

Melissa: I think the best thing you could do to prepare for a discovery that you know might be coming up but you're not quite there yet is to think about what exists currently, the issues or roadblocks your team currently has, and the hurdles they want to get over. When you're going into a process like this, you're going into it because something needs to change, something needs to grow, or something needs to get built. So if you have something that currently exists, think about what you have and what you want. The more specific you can be with all the pieces of technology and design at work, the more prepared you'll be for discovery. It's so much easier to hand an agency a package of documentation that says, ‘hey, this is our product, and this is what we're looking for, we've been really specific about it’. The agency will eat that up. They want those details, they want to read what is expected of them, they want to do a good job for you.

John:  I think that's kind of hard, being on the client-side in that you are so close to your product, you don't realize the information that somebody else might find valuable. I think it's really important to expose what those things might be in terms of your documentation, and everything involved in your product and your business process, and all that that goes along with it. 

Brittany: Have any other companies or clients ever just dropped out mid- discovery? 

John: And what would you do about that?

Melissa: That's a good question. No, we've never had a client drop out of our discovery process, although I'm sure many have wanted to. But we've been fortunate enough that clients who have started a discovery with us have found it super valuable. And the further into the discovery process they got, the more they wanted to share, the more they wanted to lean in because it's beneficial. We've been lucky that they've always grown. The products and the people we work with are so cool. And our clients are so smart, and they love their products, they believe in their sites. So we've always had clients really lean into it. 

I think that if you're in the midst of a discovery process, and you're overwhelmed, internally, the best thing you can do - and I know this sounds a little meta - but just say that. It's okay to say to the agency, ‘hey, we're finding this really intimidating’. Or, ‘we don't have a lot of this documented’, or, ‘we're finding a lot of pushback about this date’. 

Just communicate with the agency, because again, they want to do a good job for you. And they'll work with you. 

John: Have you ever had a client that was genuinely surprised by what was uncovered during the discovery process?

Melissa: I think there's a few kinds of legs to this answer. I think some people are surprised at the cost savings that could have existed for a long time. So they're excited that they're going to be able to save money. That's a big one. The second is, they're usually surprised. Not to toot our own horn at SUMO, however, part of our discovery is this decision-making analysis and we work to build a really efficient workflow that works for you and your organization. Specifically, on how to hand off deliverables for these features at work. And so usually our clients are super surprised at how efficient they've become. Now that they're all on board, they've all consented to this workflow, they understand where they lie, what they own, what is expected of them, they're usually surprised at how much more quickly they're working. 

And then I think the third chunk of it is sometimes people go into a discovery process with an agency, and they're all but convinced that there is a solution. They kind of have it mapped out in their head, maybe you're re-platforming, and they know they want to go to a specific platform. Through the discovery, as we map all of this out, and we document the needs and the technical infrastructure, we discover another platform is actually the better fit. When you see it on paper, and when you see a comparative analysis like that, I think people are sometimes surprised at the decision that they're making because they could have sworn they were going to go that other way. So yeah, people are surprised all the time. We're surprised all the time. That's why we love the discovery process here. Because when you're surprised together and you're learning about stuff together, it's also this really cool bonding experience with the team and the process and the product. So yeah, we love discovery here.

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