Hiring and Outsourcing Guide: Product Design Agencies
As Steve Jobs once said, “If you define the problem correctly, you almost have the solution.” Therein, for many businesses, lies the problem; they have identified their own needs for new products and higher profits, but have they understood customers’ needs clearly enough to determine whether their product solves an identifiable problem, or is merely a solution in search of a problem?
Since there isn’t always a bright line delineating the two, it’s often helpful to enlist the services of a product design agency. With their help, you can be well on your way to providing solutions that stick, and products your customers are eager about buying and recommending to others.
What is a Product Design Agency?
Product design software exists, but—like web design—following a template for product development isn’t always your best, or safest, bet. That’s because high-quality product design does not begin with a product; rather, it begins with an understanding of customer pain points, gaps in your current product line, and gaps in the market; in so doing, product development companies are better able to design a product that matches customer needs and your business goals, while also differentiating your offering from the others available.
What are the Different Types of Product Design Services?
How is this approach put into practice? It starts with market research that affords an understanding of prospective users and the current market landscape. You should then target the product to address specific customer pain points. This is followed by the actual product design, typically through a brainstorming process that takes place with the input of your in-house team. Following this, you’ll prototype, test, and refine the product, addressing any shortcomings identified through user feedback. Finally, your agency should be able to assist in implementing proper quality assurance (QA) guidelines, product positioning, messaging, and more.
Product development also draws on expertise from other disciplines. User interface (UI design) and user experience (UX design) are especially important for software development, for instance, but can also come to bear on complex physical products. Technical writing by someone who understands the product’s backend, graphic design for attractive packaging, marketing that helps it gain a foothold, and ongoing market analysis to identify further refinements or even companion products and services, all come into play.
Why Do I Need to Invest in Product Design Services for My Business?
For entrepreneurs, startups, and established businesses alike, it’s likely that your business has or had a core product that defines it. Whether this is your first product or your 50th, it’s still useful to enlist outside help.
There are a few reasons for this. Your business has evolved since that initial launch, and so have your customers. You may also have reached a point where an agile approach—bootstrapping a new product launch or simply iterating on a minimally viable product (MVP)—brings with it the danger of overlooking key parts of the process or frustrating valued customers. Product designers also bring an element of objectivity to the process, helping you to discard ideas that may be emotionally attractive but practically infeasible, and keeping the product cost-effective.
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Should I Hire a Product Design Agency or a Freelancer?
The decision-making process doesn’t end with the choice to hire outside help; next, you’ll need to decide whether to hire a freelancer or a product design agency.
Positives and Negatives of Freelancers
Freelancers often come at something of a cost-savings. However, we’ve already seen that this is a process that involves multiple needs and disciplines, which tends to cause one of two problems; either you hire a freelancer who’s a jack of all trades but not quite a master of any of them, or you end up hiring multiple freelancers who can handle different facets of the process, and another who can handle project management just to be on the safe side.
Positives and Negatives of Working With an Agency
On the other hand, hiring an agency usually means having all the resources you need under a single roof. If an agency doesn’t already have a particular niche filled, they can hire outside help, but the problems that come with that—hiring, payment, and most importantly, accountability—are the agency’s responsibility and not yours. While upfront costs may seem higher, having all bases covered often works out less expensive in terms of time and money alike.
Why You Should Hire a Product Design Agency
There are many different components to a successful product design. Each of these can be either a pain point or an opportunity depending on the planning and experience that goes into every step. While it may cost more up-front, hiring a product design agency pays dividends over time in the form of products that raise your visibility, improve your market position, and keep your customers happy.
Hiring a Product Design Agency
By now it’s clear that you’re better served by outsourcing product design to a qualified design firm that puts a dedicated team at your disposal than you would be by a freelancer or an internal team. Now, of course, comes the hard part: identifying and hiring the right fit for your needs.
How Much Does It Cost to Hire a Product Design Agency?
The product development process has a number of variables. Geography plays a part; higher costs of living and doing business mean higher rates for an outsourcing partner in the New York, LA, and San Francisco areas, for instance. The nature and scope of your project play their part—digital products have different prototyping and testing processes than physical products, for example—as does your product launch deadline. Hourly rates can be as low as $45 an hour, with better agencies charging much more (though the hourly rate may be hidden behind a project-based fixed price).
With this being said, it’s important to shop on need rather than price. As we’ve seen, there are other expenses involved, like prototyping, market research before and after the design process, help with digital marketing, and a whole lot more.
How to Find a Reputable Product Design Agency
While it’s simple enough to find product design firms online, weeding out the less-qualified entrants can be something of a challenge. The following questions can streamline your selection process, and help you decide who to interview:
- Have they worked with other companies in your industry?
- What do their customers have to say about them, not only via references but also through reviews and online chatter?
- Are they a trusted partner to any particular company, or have they been vetted by companies like UpCity that help businesses source quality talent?
- Have they published articles or think pieces in places like LinkedIn that can give you insight into their thought process and workflow?
- Do they have case studies that can illustrate problems solved and results generated for their clients?
Eight Questions to Ask a Product Design Agency
Before reaching out to a design agency, we think it’s useful to be sure you’re asking yourself the right questions. Knowing the problem you’re solving, the user for whom you’re solving it, that user’s goals, and – equally to the point – the kind of user behavior you want or need a product to drive are all vital to drawing up a brief that minimizes friction and frustration for all involved. Besides time, cost, and deliverables, there are some important questions that can help you separate merely good agencies from great ones.
What is your expertise in our vertical? Ask for specific clients and product examples.
What is your understanding of our business and target market? In a sense, this is no different than any other job interview; expect your prospective agency to have done its homework, and to be able to identify a specific understanding of your, and your customers’, challenges.
Do you have the skillset for our project? If you already have an idea of your needs but are unsure of the specifics, a good agency should be able to answer this simply and clearly.
How do you define good design? We’ve already seen how product design is a multidisciplinary process; a designer’s answer to this question shows how thoroughly they’ve thought through the various factors involved.
What’s the methodology behind a successful project? This is a softball question, to be sure, but one for which the agency should have a ready answer that aligns with your needs and values.
How do you handle client communication and any conflicts that arise? It won’t all be smooth sailing, and an experienced agency has procedures in place to resolve conflicts, as well as handle changes (and their associated costs).
What obstacles do you foresee in this process? From supply chain issues to an unclear brief, an effective product designer should be able to identify—and address—potential setbacks and hidden product design costs throughout the process.
Finally, not a question, but a signpost of sorts: be wary of any agency that doesn’t have at least as many questions as you do, if not more. After all, you want to ensure that they’ll design a product tailored to your business case and customers’ needs, rather than their own assumptions.
Expert Tips for Hiring a Quality Product Design Agency
Up to this point, we’ve looked at things from a business owner’s point of view. It’s equally useful to consider this challenge from the other side of the desk, which is why we solicited hiring advice from top talent in the product design field.
It’s not a tool, it’s a network. Great people work with great people. Driven, experienced but always learning, human.”
—Jenna Haney, Founding Partner, AGNT
“These days, most everything is sourced via a Google Search. Searching Google for ‘Product Design’ delivers an untidy list of schools, 3D printers, Yelp reviews, and other useless information. Look for someone who’s been in business a while. You generally want a little extra experience. Also, look for someone who has a wide skillset. All product design is not the same and the studio needs to be flexible.”
—Rob Holmes, Designer / Owner, NVision4D
“There are a lot of great product designers out there, but the packaging, feel of the product, look of the product, and even how the product is produced should reflect your brand’s values and follow through with a visual style that is consistent with your brand image.”
—Brandon Fuller, Owner/Designer, Tripass Design
Cost was another common thread that ran through our conversations. Brandon reminded us, “Don’t go with the cheapest option and make sure they have some sort of track record of following through. You don’t want to get stuck with an agency that doesn’t value your business, or worse, one that will damage your own reputation.”
Rob elaborated, “Don’t go with the lowest price. This is good advice for most things in life. You get what you pay for. There is a saying in the advertising world. ‘You can have it cheap, fast, or good.’ The catch is, only two of those words can be used together. For instance, if it is cheap and fast, it won’t be good. If it is fast and good, it won’t be cheap. And if it is good and cheap, it won’t be fast.”
Jenna concurred, “If the timeline and cost they offer seem too good to be true, that’s a red flag.”
Here, it’s important to return to the questions you asked earlier—both of yourself, and of your agency—to gauge how effective they have been. There are also a few product design metrics against which you can evaluate the final product, including:
- Customer feedback, which is especially useful for improved or redesigned products
- Customer lifetime value, especially important for B2Bs
- Acquisition rate and ROI
- Client retention rate
- And many others, which will vary depending on the nature of your business (B2C vs. B2B, for instance) and of the product (physical product vs. iOS app or SaaS)
In closing, we fall back on the wisdom of Terry Pratchett: “Everything makes sense a bit at a time. But when you try to think of it all at once, it comes out wrong.” Product design is a process, not an event, and it’s important to treat it as such; allow it to unfold organically, with clear goals against which you can define measurable outcomes. Don’t be afraid to reach out to one of UpCity’s top product design agencies for help getting it right.