“Good design is the most important way to differentiate ourselves from our competitors.”—Former Samsung CEO Yun Jong Yong
At SGW Designworks, our philosophy is much the same — we won’t settle for mediocrity when it comes to the product development work we do for our clients. (We even won an award in 2020 that recognized such “good design.”)
However, most firms make a similar claim: they value good design and believe this distinguishes them from their competitors. So, in a landscape where all firms make this their specialty, how is an organization to select the best partner for their project when outsourcing product development?
Below are several important questions to ask before committing to a firm.
What is your experience — specific to our project?
While a well-designed product might be pleasing to the eye, a successful product requires much more than aesthetics. For example, you’ll want to think about how your design choices will impact manufacturing, packaging, assembly, shipping, merchandising, and overall costs. A firm with experience specific to your product will ask relevant questions — and should be able to make recommendations regarding the proper allocation of resources throughout the development process.
When outsourcing product development, it’s a good idea to partner with a firm that has worked with companies (and in fields) similar to yours. Such a firm can provide valuable insight that can ultimately mean the success or failure of a project. “We use every piece of knowledge we have to help our clients be successful,” says Chad Barnes, SGW’s Director of Business Development. “So we’ll encourage a client to stop a project if we don’t think it’s going to be profitable. We want them to get a return on their investment.”
Rather than over-diversifying our portfolio at SGW, we seek out projects that align with our experience — and we’re transparent when a project doesn’t align with our skill-set. “If something is outside our reach, we’ll send a prospective client somewhere else,” says Barnes. “Honesty carries weight.”
What is the dynamic between your firm and its clients?
At SGW, our sales team asks prospective clients questions like, “What kind of experience do you want when working with a product development firm?” and “What would you like to achieve?” Based on those inputs, we follow up with recommendations. We find these questions lay the groundwork for a collaborative relationship that is ideal for most projects. Such a dynamic takes the pressure off a client to perform as a taskmaster and allows the firm to serve as a guide — say, when misconceptions endanger the success of a project.
At these times, a firm must be willing to provide candid feedback, the client must be willing to listen, and the two parties must be willing to team up to overcome challenges. These interactions lead to positive outcomes that typically only occur in a non-adversarial climate.
In a collaborative relationship, a firm is empowered to guide you in making crucial decisions throughout product development. For instance, user research is an aspect of the process that is rushed or overlooked entirely, and a firm should be able to help you question assumptions that may lead to wasted time and money in the long run. They should ask questions like, “Do you really know what your end-user cares about — and how they will interact with your product?” Depending on these learnings, the direction of a product may need to shift or its features may need to be tweaked, and a firm must be willing to provide this kind of candid feedback when necessary.
What is your firm’s track record? (Or better yet, what do your clients say about you?)
While marketing may speak to the masses, a firm’s track record speaks for itself. In our 13 years in business, we’ve worked on hundreds of projects for companies like BASF, Bayer, Cradlepoint, Emerson Electric, Jarden, Preco Electronics, and Sensata Technologies (a former division of Texas Instruments). It’s fair to say we’ve gained a lot of experience. But what matters even more is client feedback.
To determine whether or not a product development firm is a good fit for your project, Google Reviews can be a good starting point. What do the firm’s happy (or not-so-happy) clients have to say about them? Reviews like the one below are what you’ll want to see:
Further, is the firm willing to provide client references for completed projects that are similar to yours (or in the same industry)? Ask to see relevant case studies. Have they received any industry awards for their work? All of these factors can paint an accurate picture of the company’s track record — and, just as importantly, its strengths and weaknesses.
What are your firm’s integrated capabilities?
Many times, a company will hire a firm for the entire product development process. Other times, when talent doesn’t exist within an organization, it’s often necessary to outsource certain elements of a project. Outsourced specialists work with your internal teams and can provide valuable perspectives on critical aspects of the project that may not have been previously considered. Is the firm capable of working in this capacity? Further, what sort of integrated capabilities do they offer?
For instance, at SGW, we offer several integrated capabilities like industrial design, mechanical engineering, embedded systems development, IoT and smart product development, cloud connectivity, manufacturing expertise, and more. In contrast, many firms don’t offer all of these capabilities — which requires a client to hire and manage multiple firms or freelancers in order to complete a project.
What is your firm’s process of engaging with prospective clients?
Most companies outsourcing product development work are familiar with the traditional model of engagement: you (the client) contact a development firm, the firm obtains preliminary project details then creates a scope of work, and after the client agrees to these terms, development work begins. However, we have found that a hard quote or scope is almost always based on assumptions that prove to be incorrect. Simply put, there’s no way to know what a scope truly entails for a product development project without starting the work first. The work itself leads to findings that redirect all work thereafter. (This is a good thing.) The development direction (and effort required) changes as things are learned along the way.
That said, we do things a little differently at SGW. Rather than putting resources into producing a project scope and quote (which most firms know will end up being inaccurate anyway), we begin working in a small, low-risk engagement with a client that focuses on quickly defining the project together, as well as agreeing on the risks and uncertainties. We apply our proven process and work through it with a client, providing frequent review points to either continue with the effort, stop, or change course.
This approach is a major shift from the industry norm, but it works. We’re able to gain a solid understanding of our clients’ businesses and objectives, and this knowledge increases over time and helps us build better products that more closely align with our clients’ goals. The relationship that ensues is one based on trust and mutual understanding.
A Successful Product — As Good as “Good Design” Gets
Apple CEO Tim Cook has been quoted as saying, “A great product isn’t just a collection of features. It’s how it all works together.” In a similar vein, great product development entails more than just good design. Before investing time, money, and other resources into a project — and before outsourcing product development — it’s wise to consider the factors above. After all, when you’re successful, we as a firm are successful. And that’s as good as “good design” gets.