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Shopping for a Product Development Firm? Savvy Questions to Help You Choose Your Perfect Match

Finding the best product design firm to help make your vision a reality can be a daunting task. Discover what you need to ask to find your perfect match.

Casey Branson
Casey Branson

June 30 th 2021 | 7 minute read

Hiring an outside product development partner can feel a lot like the old TV show The Dating Game. The bachelorette poses a series of questions to three eligible bachelors — all of whom are hidden from view. Based on their answers and a healthy dose of intuition, she decides who will have the privilege of taking her out so they can discover whether they’re a good match.

Of course, you have a lot more on the line than the possibility of suffering through a lousy date. You know the right design firm can help you reach new levels of innovation and success. But still, putting your product, business trajectory, and money into someone else’s hands is downright scary. A misstep could be incredibly costly and time-consuming, so you can’t afford to make your choice lightly.

To make a smart selection, you’ll need to look past any smokescreens that might keep you from seeing a design firm’s true ability. Slick branding, high-brow buzzwords, and portfolios featuring a spate of impressive brand logos can dilute your ability to discern which firms are walking the walk instead of just talking the talk.

Knowing what to look for and, more importantly, what to ask a prospective design firm is the first step in ensuring your product’s success. Pose these questions to help you evaluate which design firm is the right match for your needs.

1. Can this Product Development Firm Meet my Business Objectives?

Before you can hire the right partner to develop your product, you need to have a solid understanding of the business goals you want to achieve. Plenty of firms will gladly take your money and bill you at an hourly rate to develop a cool design — but what’s the point if the product never reaches the market or doesn’t meet your overarching strategic goals?

Any firm worth their salt will want to understand:

  • What is the big problem your product will solve?
  • How will this product address unmet customer needs or existing market demand?
  • Will your new product fill a portfolio gap and round out your suite of offerings?
  • Are you hoping to break into a new market? Or increase the market share you already have?
  • Do you want to elevate your brand through a superior experience and accompanying product line?

You also need to have a firm grasp of the kind of partnership you need. Engineering? Design? Software? Soup to nuts product development?

Simply put, if you don’t have a thorough understanding of what you need and want out of an engagement, you can’t make an educated hiring decision.

2. Does This Firm Have the Design Experience to Deliver the Goods?

You need a firm with the expertise and know-how to deliver the results you’re after — but finding the right combination of experience and creativity can be trickier than it sounds.

Take a hard look at each of these areas to evaluate the depth and breadth of your prospective firms’ experience.

Is Their Experience Relevant for Your Design Needs?

This is a bit of a trick question. You may be tempted to search for a firm with extensive experience designing products very similar to the one you’re creating. And if your company develops highly regulated medical products or a device that needs to function in a corrosive or hazardous environment, that makes sense.

However, at M3 Design, we have seen a surprising reality play out time and time again. Product design firms with narrow realms of experience become entrenched in their expertise, unable to imagine new solutions. As a result, they’re rarely able to truly innovate.

That’s why it can be more effective to hire a jack of all trades rather than a master of one– because they are oftentimes better than a master of none. Consider the benefits of hiring a firm that is equipped to approach your product from a completely fresh perspective but also has enough experience to see it through.

Is Their Product Development Experience Real?

Your first impression of a product design firm will most likely come from its website — but anyone can create a website. That’s why you need a keen BS detector throughout this process. If you sense something’s not quite right or if a firm offers to work for a contingency, you probably want to run in the other direction. Desperation isn’t a cute look on anyone.

But beyond that, there are several key areas that can help you discern fact from fiction.

  • Review Their Design Portfolio with a Critical Eye: One of the first things you should do when evaluating a creative services company of any type is peruse their portfolio. What are you looking for? Real products. Current products. Successful outcomes. And a sprinkling of recognizable brands. You should be able to see evidence that the company produced something real and tangible.If the most beautiful products in their portfolio are in fact classified as “internal projects” or renderings of an idea that were never produced, it’s a red flag.
  • Look for In-depth Case Studies: Buyer beware. It’s common in the design industry to display the logos and product images of prominent companies such as Microsoft or Stryker — even if the firm only completed a product rendering poster as a third-party vendor. (And yes, that’s a real example. We’ve seen our work on other firm’s sites in this manner.) As such, it’s absolutely critical to do a deep dive into the case studies you find on prospective firms’ websites.A good case study will provide a clear picture of the business objectives the client brought to the table and insight into how the firm designed a product to meet those goals. Sometimes companies make it look like they owned more of the process than they actually did — so look for as much specificity around what the firm’s role was as possible. And if their online case study isn’t doing the trick, ask them to walk you through the project when you call them up. Just have your BS detector handy.
  • Ask for Recent Client References: Just as you would check references to hire a new team member, you should ask for references when hiring a new product development firm. Ask specific questions about product success and ROI, how they handled problems that arose in the development process, and how well the firm worked with members of the client’s internal design team.

3. Is The Design Firm Made Up of the Kind of People You Want to Work With?

Just like dating, a fruitful business relationship comes down to chemistry. You’ve done some legwork visiting prospective firms’ websites — now it’s time to talk to the product development firm directly to get a sense of their personality and vibe.

When my father lead R&D programs (prior to starting M3) he used to visit the vendors’ facilities he was considering hiring to get a sense of how they treated their own employees. When visiting a manufacturing plant, for example, he’d make sure to stop by the restroom during his visit to see what kind of toilet paper they provided. It sounds silly but think about it. Cheap toilet paper might equate to treating employees like a commodity, which in turn leads to high turnover, which directly impacts client satisfaction.

At M3 Design, we’ve worked hard to create a team that comprises a wide range of personalities and skillsets. Our people aren’t driven by their own egos. Instead, they are passionate about collaborating with clients throughout the design process to ensure a superior end result. And our clients keep coming back — because we are just as invested in successful outcomes as they are.

4. Is This Development Firm Worth the Cost?

Notice I didn’t advise you to ask “How much will this cost?”. That’s because it’s more important to understand how a firm will spend your money, not how much the process will cost. If the firm you hire takes the time to understand your strategy, performs smart market and user research, and ultimately delivers a product that gives you amazing ROI, they are worth the cost — no matter what the price tag is.

Even if you’re still trying to figure out how much you need to allocate, don’t let it deter you from reaching out to a firm. Personally, I’m fine with people calling and saying that to me.

If your potential firm knows what they’re doing, they’ll be able to pull together general pricing without writing a formal proposal. Any firm will thank you for being honest about cost and can tailor your conversations to appropriately reflect your financial situation.

As you’re making a final decision, keep in mind that when it comes to choosing between cheap, fast, and good product development, you can only pick two.

5. Does Size Matter?

Simply put, yes it does. If the firm is really big (headcounts over 50) there is a tendency to lean on a layer of management the smaller firms don’t need. This size firm also needs a large volume of projects to inevitably feed the A, B, C, and D teams they likely have on staff. You would have to be a really big account to earn their attention in this scenario and get the A-team. So if that is you, go for it! But over time beware that as they acquire shiny new accounts, you might be downgraded to their D-team.

Conversely, there is such thing as too small of a firm. With smaller firms, the concern is their ability to deliver on big strategic projects. If you just need someone to fill in on bandwidth, a smaller company might be just fine. Just make sure you aren’t the biggest fish in their pond. If they are interested in having a strategic partnership with you for years to come, they must manage their business so that they aren’t overly dependent on a gorilla client. And keep in mind, that gorilla might be you.

Overall, an established firm that has consistently held somewhere between 25 and 45 people is a good sweet spot to look for. These Goldilocks teams are big enough to take on meaty projects, but they aren’t so big that they’ve forfeited their culture and efficiency by adding a layer of bureaucracy.

6. Are You a Good Match for the Design Firm?

You’ve done a lot of research and background work, and it’s time to enter into an engagement with a firm that can make your product idea a market reality.

You want a company that is as selective about you as you are about them. Just like in The Dating Game, the decision about whether it’s a good match needs to be made by both parties. And remember: just like in personal relationships, business engagements take hard work — even if you successfully bring an exciting new product to market. Your firm will make mistakes. So will you. But at the end of the day, if you’ve entered into a mutually beneficial relationship, you will work through any challenges that arise to achieve the product result you both want.

Want to explore whether M3 Design might be a good match for your needs (and vice versa?) Let’s talk.

About the Author

Casey Branson – Business Development

“A girl should be two things: who and what she wants.”
-Coco Chanel