Why Discovery Matters: Updating Legacy Systems Within Enterprise UX

As a business grows and the needs of employees and customers change, it is important to understand that the organization’s internal system is not a one-time project that can be checked off the to-do list after launch. As growth happens and time passes, the system needs to be tended to regularly in order to integrate new technology and features as needed, conduct updates and maintain quality or it can quickly suffer from decay.

When the legacy system’s need for support and updates gets ignored, executives are often left to opt for the quickest fix in their time of need by adding or subtracting features from the system ad hoc.

This is a mistake.

These quick fixes are typically based on three faulty assumptions:

  • The existing system functions adequately enough to support end users. This then leads organizations to erroneously believe that they can bypass the discovery phase, especially if they are not building a new system.
  • Changes made to the system will not interfere with the overall existing user experience.
  • Opting to forego the discovery phase will be more cost-effective in the near term than budgeting proactively for research before changes to the system need to be made.

In many ways, updating a legacy system is like putting an addition on a house. As a general contractor, the first step would be to consult with the homeowners to determine what budget, style and functionality they’re expecting. Once they have a good understanding of the project goals, the general contractor would then look at the home’s existing structure and foundation, the city’s zoning rules and building codes, and perhaps consult with an electrician, plumber and/or mason to get a better idea of what is needed in order to make the addition a success.

Omitting these steps – having a good understanding of the homeowner’s goals and insight into how the main structure can handle the addition – would likely lead to unsatisfactory results and quite possibly, a dysfunctional structure that requires construction work to be re-done.

Obviously, this would increase the amount of time and money needed to complete the project satisfactorily and on top of that, would continue to disrupt the lives of the homeowners unnecessarily.

So why would business leaders continue to put band-aids on outdated systems, adding or subtracting features ad hoc without conducting a comprehensive analysis of the infrastructure as a whole?

Uncovering Valuable Perspectives in the Discovery Phase

While it largely depends on the project scope and the individual needs of the client, the discovery phase generally begins with stakeholder interviews that the UX designers and/or user researchers conduct.

The goal of these interviews is to gain as much information and insight into the different perspectives of each stakeholder or team (often times there are several involved) and their individual goals and pain points when it comes to the system.

Oftentimes, the overarching business goals don’t necessarily include the smaller team or individual goals that make up the larger organization. At a high level, by interviewing the different stakeholders we can learn how each group uses the system and then bring our findings together and align their goals with the larger business goals at hand.

If your company is like many other small and mid-sized businesses, your employees represent both your organization’s biggest line item expense, and your most valuable asset. This means your company’s productivity and ultimately, its profitability depend on making sure all of your workers perform to their full potential. Studies have even shown a dramatic increase in both worker and business performance when an organization effectively sets and closely ties individual employee goals to the company’s overall strategy.

Working in an agency and having an outsider’s perspective, I’ve seen time and again that company leaders are often buried so deep in their own business that they have difficulty seeing the forest for the trees. Because of this, we are able to ask the difficult questions and dig deeper than even they themselves can do.

Interviewing the Stakeholders

Here at UpTop, when we are developing and conducting the discovery phase, these are the potential groups we most often look to interview:

Business Leaders: Business leaders are the first, most obvious choice when thinking about stakeholder interviews. This group helps the researchers learn about the long-term objectives of the organization and what strategies are currently in place to help meet those objectives.

Not only will this stakeholder group uncover what is currently under way, but the interviews can also show the researchers where gaps between goals, strategies and measurement may lie by shining a light on how other groups are using (or not using) the system. This in turn can help the business more clearly define – and align – their long-term goals.

Employee: By reaching out to the employees that interact with the system on a daily basis, you can learn how an older, legacy system is or isn’t aiding in the efficient completion of tasks. Looking at the functionality of the system’s UX, researchers can suggest ways to optimize the system that would not only boost productivity, but morale as well.

A general example of a small UX upgrade uncovered during the discovery phase that can increase efficiency, is by improving the system’s navigation e.g., if general reports are a common task that employees are tasked with creating, displaying them more prominently on the main navigation rather than hidden beneath layers can easily decrease time on task.

Client/Customer: Many portals or intranets have a client-facing component that provides a more direct channel of communication with the business, bolstering engagement. In addition to client testimonies, reviewing feedback collected in chat logs or via customer service representatives can provide insight into whether the features being adjusted will lead to a higher quality of customer care.

Competitor: Here, we use the term competitor loosely. For internal-facing systems specifically, it can be hard to find a competitor whose system you have access to or one that has shared a case study on their system. When reviewing other companies’ systems, it’s good practice to look outside of your industry in order to glean insights that you, or even your competitors, may not have thought about.

One example of looking outside of our client’s industry came when we were tasked with improving the user controls for email notifications on said client’s internal system. Instead of looking at a direct competitor, we looked at LinkedIn, Facebook and Apple to see how they handled these settings.

Cross-industry analysis can often lead to fresher solutions and positive examples that will help you solve the problem at hand. Instead of viewing it as strictly competitive analysis (because then you’re assuming your competitors know what they’re doing), view it through the lens of ‘feature analysis’ and finding effective examples to support your research.

Developer: Taking the software developer’s perspective into account will also provide valuable insight. Working closely with your dev team throughout the discovery process will ensure that the changes sought by an organization’s executives are actually attainable and how these changes will affect and work with the existing pieces of the portal.

The developer’s perspective will ensure seamless and timely changes to the system without eroding the user experience.  They can also help you estimate the level of effort required for each step, create a timeline and prioritize a to-do list (oftentimes based on quick wins versus long term changes).


While these are the most common stakeholders in any organization, they are not the only ones you should consider. Whoever has a touch point with the product or system should be considered a stakeholder and should be interviewed during the discovery phase (and sometimes this means uncovering a new stakeholder not previously considered).

Your organization can cut costs by making temporary fixes to your legacy system for only so long. Eventually, it’ll catch up to you. By doing thorough research upfront, you are setting your organization up for long-term success.