Measuring the value of discovery

Scientists taking a metre reading
What gets measured gets managed

So much of what we do seems impossible to measure. That’s particularly true in UX, design, and strategy where work often seems subjective and insubstantial.

Nothing to measure

Take ‘discovery’ – the work of researching a problem to find out what users need, the opportunities that creates, and constraints we have to work with to find a solution. 

In my experience, everyone who sees the outputs of discovery work agrees that it is important, worthwhile, and valuable.

But when that work is complete, nothing has changed. The user experience is no better, the organisation hasn’t saved money, or made money, and the service is the same as ever. 

If nothing’s changed then there’s nothing to measure.

So did we do anything of value? If the value is real, why can’t we measure it? Are we just kidding ourselves?

What you can’t measure

When I talk to people about the challenge of measuring discovery, they often suggest trying to put a value on the changes that will take place some time in the future.

However, there’s no guarantee that those changes will happen. And there are so many ways that those changes could be done badly that they could amount to nothing.

You can’t measure a ‘maybe’.

Charging the battery

The problem is that we’re trying to measure value. But discovery doesn’t create value; it creates opportunity. Value and opportunity are similar, but not the same – like different kinds of energy.

Think of discovery work as charging up the battery on an electric car.

When we charge the battery, the car doesn’t move. Nothing seems to have changed.

But by charging the battery, we have added potential energy and created the opportunity to go on a journey.

We can measure how full the battery is, just as we can measure how fast the car is moving. With a full battery, it’s up to the owner to decide where she goes next.

Opportunity is like the potential energy of a battery. Value is like the kinetic energy of a moving car.

With the opportunity described, it’s up to the managers of the organisation what happens next.

Measuring discovery means measuring the size of the opportunity.

Measuring opportunity

Discoveries tend to reveal many opportunities. One by one we can measure their potential.

Say we discover that an online checkout is badly designed. We can go back to the analytics and look at the value of items that were abandoned at checkout over a period of time. That’s the maximum potential opportunity of fixing the problem.

Of course, we’ll never realise the maximum potential opportunity – just as an electric car never achieves its maximum potential range thanks to all those little stops and starts and twists in the road.

So we might also want to make some observations about the likely value – for instance by looking at industry averages for checkout conversion. That’s the likely potential opportunity of fixing the problem.

While it might be ‘obvious’ that fixing an online checkout will make more money, it’s often surprising how big the potential is.

When it isn’t easy

Sometimes, though, it requires a little more effort to measure opportunity – particularly for public sector organisations that tend to be interested in the cost of delivering the service, or the quality of outcomes.

Imagine we discover that customers are unhappy with the amount of time they have to wait for customer support. We can propose ways to reduce waiting time and so increase customer satisfaction, but organisations can struggle to put a value on customer’s time or satisfaction – which is why other things often take priority.

If the organisation has good data on the relationship between customer satisfaction and, say, customer retention, then we can dig deeper and size up the opportunity.

If not, all we can do is make sure that someone starts to gather this data so that we’ll be able to measure the opportunity in the future. That takes a little determination, but it’s the kind of detail that leads to excellence.

Three flavours of opportunity

We can rarely measure every single opportunity. Instead, by the end of most discovery work, we’re able to sort opportunities into three categories:

  • Opportunities where we can measure potential financial value.
  • Opportunities where we can measure a potential change, but not put a financial value on it.
  • Opportunities where there are no measures in place, and more work is needed to measure value.

Simply listing out opportunities under those headings turns our discovery into a programme for change, complete with a business case.

Measuring opportunity in this way can create a sense of urgency, unlock budgets, and kick start the work that turns opportunity into value — for our organisations, and their users.

Discovery might feel valuable in the moment – there’s a satisfying sense of control that comes with deeply understanding a problem.

But if it doesn’t lead to change, then our work is wasted. By measuring the opportunity, we can elevate our outcome from a ‘nice presentation’ to a ‘call to action’ that makes a difference in the world.

Giles founded cxpartners with Richard Caddick in 2004. He's author of 'Simple and usable' and an invited speaker at design conferences around the world.