Five Questions to Ask When Hiring a Product Design Firm

Your reputation, track record, and capacity for repeat successes are everything in the corporate world. You simply can’t afford to hire a product design firm and have things go south midway through a project. The responsibility of choosing a strategic development partner should not be taken lightly, and rarely is.

Most people don’t have much experience hiring a product design firm. Especially in the medical device industry where product life-cycles are long and next generation products are infrequent. This is an even bigger problem for entrepreneurs or startups run by young executives with zero experience working with design firms.

You need to know a lot of things about your next strategic development partner before sending a purchase order. Here are five of the most important questions to ask. Getting answers will help you proceed with confidence in choosing your development partner:

1. Have you ever developed a product like ours?

Generalists are out; experts are in. We suggest aligning yourself with a team that has already solved challenges like those you face. You might even get lucky and find one that has experience with a product just like yours, but that is not necessary. After all, you might be developing a product that is completely unique. In that case, look for a firm that has experience designing for your market, industry or target demographic.

If you’re designing a diagnostic medical instrument, for example, you want a company with a proven track record developing medical products – not an outfit that spends most of its time making beautiful consumer headphones. Navigating and complying with FDA regulatory requirements requires a certain level of experience and sophistication. So finding a firm with that experience is crucial.

2. What will working with you be like?

You don’t buy an expensive automobile from the window sticker description or by reading the manual; you test-drive it first. The problem with design firms is that they don’t have actual tires to kick. Your first inclination might be to ask for a proposal, but hiring a design firm according to a written promise of the future is like trusting a fortuneteller‘s crystal ball.

So ask for case studies rather than a proposal. And several are better than one. What you’re looking for is a pattern, or proof of a process, that results in repeat successes with projects similar to yours.

Listen to hear whether they interject your particular needs throughout the case-study presentation. You should hear a lot of “We would do something similar to this in your case.” If they’ve done a good job, you should be left with very few questions about how they will solve your particular challenges.

In summary, believe what they do, not what they say.

3. Can you demonstrate the difference between strategic and tactical design?

“Thinking” is different than “doing” and great design is always preceded by creation of a great strategy. Asking this question will demonstrate that you are a sophisticated buyer.

You are looking for a partner who will start your project by conducting a thorough diagnosis of your company’s needs in six key areas: your company/brand, your place in the market, the desired user experience, technology, manufacturing and regulatory issues. Agreement on strategy should precede development of a specific design solution. Once this strategy is in place and all needs are defined, tactical work may begin. Be wary and extra-cautious if a firm is willing to start a project by creating concepts and solutions right out of the gate.

Would you trust a doctor that didn’t complete a thorough examination of your health before prescribing surgery?

4. What is your process?

The process of making lemonade to sell at a roadside stand is quite a bit different than Minute Maid’s national roll-out to a chain of grocery stores. That’s how different the development process can be from one firm to the next.

Make sure the firm has a well-defined process and that it matches your type of project. Look for clear articulation of how a project begins, steps along the way, and how it ends.

Developing a medical device is a long, risky, and complex endeavor that requires a process to match. If you make medical products, make sure your future partner isn’t going to squeeze lemons by hand.

5. Do you have the right capabilities for our project?

No development company will employ internally every resource your project requires. Just as your company does not when it is looking to hire an outside design firm. I suggest you look for a partner with core strengths that align with your most pressing needs.

Most medical product companies, for example, have no shortage of internal technologists, scientists, and engineers. They usually excel at technology development, but are less confident in their ability to physically and cognitively connect their customer to the product through the best user experience. In this case, you want to find a firm whose process is fueled by a human-centered design philosophy.

Make sure the firm has access to all of the peripheral resources your project requires. One of its biggest assets to your project will be its trusted network of vendors and consultants. Typically the longer a reputable firm has been in business, the more extensive its network and ability to offer a comprehensive service.

The answers to these five questions will tell you a lot about a design firm and whether or not it is a good fit for your project.

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