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Hiring a Product Design Firm Ain’t Cheap. But it’s Your Most Cost Effective Option.

A lot of companies eschew an outside product design firm to save money and avoid presumed risk, learn why you’ll probably spend more in the long run.

Eric Diehl

September 21 st 2021 | 5 minute read

Nothing about product design and development is cheap — and it shouldn’t be. If you want to create a revolutionary product that gives your company a competitive advantage, remember this age-old truth: You get what you pay for.

Sure, there’s bound to be some sticker shock when you reach out to a design firm for the first time. We get it. It’s a big number. But the truth is, that number can easily double or even triple if you try to design your product alone.

We’ve seen it happen time and again. Companies design the wrong product or make erroneous assumptions early in the process. This leads to redesigning the product once, twice, maybe even three times. The result? Hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars down the drain and countless hours of valuable time wasted. Even worse, there’s an incalculable opportunity cost that rarely gets factored in.

It’s time to shift your mindset. Forget cheap. Focus on quality, value, and ROI.

Engaging an experienced and talented product design firm is your most cost-effective — and ultimately your most profitable — choice. Here’s why.

1. Design Firms Increase Product ROI by Swinging for the Fences

Product development is a lot like a weekend in Vegas, baby. No risk, no reward. But fear holds most in-house designers and engineers back from innovation. No one wants to fail spectacularly and cause a delayed or canceled product release. Your designers certainly don’t want to cost the company huge losses and possibly get fired as a result. Heck, half the time they don’t even feel free to speak up and say if something’s a bad idea — especially when the person with the idea is a forceful executive holding all the cards. So your in-house designers go along with whatever leadership tells them to do. Or they might simply reach for solutions that have worked in the past. They take the safe, predictable route.

But ironically, this hedge-your-bets approach is actually where your greatest risk lies.

Hiring a product design firm feels risky because of the up-front sticker price. But it’s your safest bet if you want to see significant ROI. Outside designers and engineers are unencumbered by the machinations of internal office politics. Nor are they subject to BS corporate hierarchies that demand unquestioning fealty.

Instead, outside designers are free to come up with a design that sets your product apart from the competition. That’s because outside designers are intrinsically motivated to realize your product vision — not just meet the basic specs laid out in the PRD. Their agency’s reputation hinges on going in bold new directions and swinging for the fences. Settling for a base hit is not an option.

Revolutionary Product Design Requires Revolutionary Thinking

Understand this. There’s nothing wrong with keeping iterative projects in-house. Most product companies are very good at iterative design because they understand their users’ needs, use validated technology to achieve design outputs, and have relevant expertise in relation to the company’s signature products. For example, if you make pens and you want to change one tiny element of the stylus to improve profitability, there’s no reason to hire an outside firm to do that.

But if you’re going down a whole new road? What if you want to create something revolutionary? A designer who is free to innovate boldly is best equipped to get you there.

Sometimes you’re too close to the problem to consider the right solution. Your design firm won’t be. Here’s a scenario. At a kickoff meeting a few years ago, our high-powered client said, “We don’t know where to start on this because we don’t have an expert in this field.” They stared at the blank whiteboard and didn’t know where to begin. Our team dove right in. Because we’re experts in the process of design, not a specific product, we know what to do when the solution is completely unknown.

An outside team can challenge assumptions, critique everyone’s ideas (including their boss’s or client’s), and spitball endless ways to meet complex design requirements. Designers are naturally driven by curiosity. And that leads them to test, iterate, make mistakes, and start over when they have to. They aren’t satisfied until they reach a superior concept.

2. Your In-House Talent Doesn’t Have the Variable Bandwidth Your Product Requires

My dad used to say that 80% of the world’s problems have already been solved — you’ve just got to find the solution and apply it to your scenario. I don’t know if he was right about that. But what I do know for sure is that there’s tremendous power in bringing together a team of designers and engineers from a wide range of industries and backgrounds to work on a project together.

In other words? Design firms have a deep bench. The industry buzzword for this is “variable bandwidth.” And it’s something you can’t easily replicate in-house.

Variable bandwidth benefits both small and large companies:

  • Small shops usually function on limited budgets. It’s a long-term commitment to recruit, hire, onboard, train, and develop any employee. But to hire a cross-disciplinary team with the wide range of experience it takes to design a revolutionary product? It’s untenable. If you’re a small shop, you simply can’t afford it.Hiring a design firm allows you to rent that expertise to achieve a short-term product development goal. And after the project is wrapped up? You’re not stuck laying off those new employees or finding something else for them to do.
  • Large product companies generally have long-term designers and engineers with a deep knowledge of their brand and product portfolio. These are the folks coming up with the big ideas. They’re tapped into industry trends and look for market gaps their company can fill. Don’t bog these high-value employees down on a project that will consume all of their time for multiple quarters. Engage a design firm to do the heavy lifting so your subject matter experts can function at the strategic level.

3. A Design Firm Solves Problems Early in the Development Process

The beginning of the design process is filled with small, seemingly insignificant decisions. But one wrong move early in the process can propagate over time and leave you with a costly mistake. Worst case, that one error in judgment at the beginning results in a product that doesn’t work, can’t be manufactured en masse, or doesn’t meet your users’ needs.

In-house designers and engineers don’t work on revolutionary product development every day. They might not even work on one every year. So they don’t know what they don’t know. But an outside firm does it all the time —and this repetition is the key to proficiency. You need well-practiced and well-equipped designers who can solve tricky problems early on and course-correct as they go.

Don’t Take Chances With Your New Product. Hire a Design Firm

The most expensive mistake you can make in product design is designing the wrong product. So why would you take that risk? Hiring a design firm who can identify problems early is key to achieving a successful result. It won’t be cheap. But it will be worth it.