If you’re trying to decide whether to hire a product development firm, or determine which one is best for your needs, here are the top 10 questions that you should ask. Some of these questions are a checklist to make sure the firm follows best practices, but others reveal more nuanced aspects of how the firm performs their work. The key is to get a good match between your needs and how they perform their work.
1) Does the firm have experience relevant to your project?
- While it’s rare that a product development firm will have built your exact product before, they should have examples of similar work. You want the confidence that they work in a similar technical space. So a company that designs heavy equipment is not likely the partner for a small electronics product.
- The part of this question that is non-obvious is that if you’re looking for innovation, you may be better off with a firm that has not designed exactly the product you’re working on versus one that has. Having a firm that is competent in adjacent technologies, has produced favorable results, and is creative is more likely to provide innovation since they have a breadth of experience and can incorporate ideas from other industries versus doing it like it’s always been done in the past.
2) Does the firm have a conflict check policy to avoid working for your direct competitors and are they willing to sign a non-disclosure agreement?
- You want your IP protected and ideas to stay confidential. It is standard practice to have a prospective firm sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). They will usually have a standard version of the document that you can sign or some firms will use your NDA if they’re open to a quick legal review of the terms. It is also fairly common for these documents to be mutual, meaning that the product development firm may also have their internal IP that they would like to protect.
- Unlike law firms that are very strict on the matter, policies of not working for direct competitors are not standard practice in the engineering and product development world. Some companies will have internal policies and do conflict checks, but others will work for anyone who has a project that fits. If this is important for your product, make sure to ask what their policy is on working for your direct competitors.
3) Does the firm have a technical focus?
- No matter what they say, no company is equally good at everything. Some companies will readily share their technical niche, but others will say that they do everything since they don’t want to miss out on any projects. While this may be true, you want to understand where their strongest technical area is and that it is a match to your needs. For example, if you have a product with electronics, sensors, and embedded firmware and they’re mostly used to working on how a product looks and feels, you may need to find a firm with a more aligned technical focus.
4) Does the firm focus on product development as a core discipline, or is it one of many services offered?
- Companies that also offer manufacturing services can limit the creative design process to those manufacturing solutions that are available in-house. The clarifying point here is that they do not likely do this intentionally or even realize that they are limiting the creative design process. I’ve seen multiple examples of products that we were asked to simplify that used manufacturing processes that were readily available in-house (like machining) that could be greatly cost reduced and simplified by switching to another manufacturing process (like sheet metal forming). It just didn’t occur to them to switch. It goes back to the old adage that if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
- While it sounds great that your product development firm can take care of everything from front-end ID work to the engineering to manufacturing your product, ask them which service they are strongest in. There are contract manufacturers who also do design and design firms who also do manufacturing. While the activities are highly related, usually only one of the competencies is the dominant suit (most often the same as the technical background of the leadership). For example at Simplexity, we’re strongest in the engineering design of the product. While we do small-batch manufacturing, it is a value-add service for our clients, not our core discipline. Pick the partner whose strongest suit is the discipline you need most.
5) Does the firm encourage writing a product specification?
- A written product specification helps define what features are most important. This is one of those best practice areas that is the least glorious part of the job since it requires methodical documentation. However the time spent in writing down the specifications and assumptions up front, even knowing that some will change throughout the design cycle, pays for itself many times over with added clarity and everyone working toward the same goal. It’s surprising to me how often this step is skipped, even from companies experienced with product development.
6) Does the firm readily identify the people that work there and their backgrounds?
- Some firms maintain only a few internal resources and then staff the project mostly with external contractors. Luckily most of the good firms that I know of are transparent about showcasing their people and talents, usually right up on their website. If their website just talks about the “team” or highlights the founder without any further details, make sure to ask more questions. While the specific engineers who would work on the project may vary based on availability, they should be able to point to a core team of direct employees who are likely to work on your project. While it’s not common to get resumes of the employees, they should share degrees they hold, technical expertise, past projects, and patents granted. While I’m not opposed to external contractors, especially when a very specialized skill set is required, they should supplement the team, not be the team. Better results are achieved from a team that consistently works together and communicates seamlessly.
7) Does the firm have a mature product development process?
- Successful product development companies have spent years honing their process. They have a recipe for designing great products. While the details of the process should certainly resonate with you, it’s more important that they have a product development process defined that they follow. They should be able to guide your product through the process and let you know about possible pitfalls to avoid.
8) Does the firm use industry standard tools?
- Tools like cloud-based issue tracking and revision control keep all the details well organized. This is absolutely critical for product development firms that create mechanical and electrical documentation and write code, either firmware or software. Revision control should not be left as a preference for the individual engineers to decide how to do, but should be a company standard that is implemented in such a way that code and drawings cannot be released unless is it under revision control. This makes it easy to trace which version of code or drawing is used on each version of a prototype, which makes debugging and error recovery much more efficient.
- Cloud-based issue tracking is extremely useful throughout the design process, and especially when you start building hardware. By having a central location for all the issues and ideas that come up during a build, rather than tracking everything with emailed spreadsheets, you never have to worry about which version is most recent. Most tools also have dashboards and reports that easily show the status of issues, who owns them, and when they are due to be resolved, greatly enhancing communication and accountability.
9)Does the firm have project managers that are accountable for the budget and schedule?
- Project managers can alert clients of any issues or risks before they turn into problems. While the technical expertise of the team is critical for a well-designed product, project managers keep everything on track and communicate status so you know where everything is with your project. You want to make sure that the development effort stays on schedule and on budget. Project managers are trained to spot any possible risks and discuss them with you immediately so you can proactively identify solutions together while there is still time in the product development cycle.
10) Does the firm have a strong history of client retention?
- Asking about client retention is an indirect way of finding out if their clients are happy. Certainly some projects have a natural ebb and flow, so 100% client retention is not possible. However you want to hear that at least half of their clients are returning customers who look at the product development firm as a long-term partner. That is usually a good indication that they have delivered valuable results on past projects and are likely to do the same for you. Also feel free to ask the product development firm for past references and to talk to a few of their clients. While they likely cannot share their full client list due to confidentiality reasons, if there are no past clients that they are willing to have you call, that can be a cause for concern.