How to Hire a Digital Product Design Firm

channels-product-image

If you’re looking for help with the design of a digital product, you want an agency that has a dedicated product design team, not just a team that’s good at designing websites. Following are key areas to pay attention to when evaluating a digital product design agency.

Domain Expertise

It’s important to look for an agency that’s familiar with your industry and the type of product you’re designing. This not only reduces the time required to onboard the agency team, but also brings to your company the benefit of a team that has already solved some of the issues you’re facing before.

If you’re bringing out a new version of an existing product to market — a photo-sharing app, for example — or a product in a well-known industry like travel or hospitality that most people have interacted with, then most designers will have a certain amount of domain expertise no matter what. If you’re bringing a new product to market, however, particularly one that is less B2C, is a new use case, or is somewhat complicated, or more specialized, you want a team that has some knowledge of your space so you’re not spending the first month translating your industry speak or explaining the unique regulatory requirements of your space.

Questions to consider include: How much time will they spend getting up to speed on your business? Do they understand the unique constraints and requirements of your industry? How well do they understanding the competitive landscape? Do they know what features are table-stakes and where your product can innovate or disrupt?

 

History of Success

This may seem obvious, but it’s worth emphasizing how important it is to select an agency that has successfully designed products like yours.

Look closely at the products the team has actually delivered. Do they do repeat work with their clients? This is a great indicator that they are effective collaborators. Do people in your industry/vertical know who the designers are? How do they define a successful product redesign? (Hint: it should be more than just winning a design award or kudos from other designers.) What are some KPIs for a successful project? What role does the client play in defining these?

 

Methodology

An external design team’s methodology should mesh well with your own internal team’s process. Traditional agency methodologies tend to be highly linear (waterfall, in the parlance) and better suited to traditional advertising campaigns or marketing websites. Most modern product development teams work in highly iterative cycles, with lots of testing and iteration.

Methodology questions to consider when selecting a product agency include: Can your design partner work the way your internal team works? Are they comfortable working in close collaboration with your team? Do they like to show work in progress, or work in a closed loop? Do they know how to work well with developers?

You want an agency that will partner with you, and you don’t want your entire product design to be held hostage by an agency. The agency really has to mesh with how the product team works. For us, methodology is iterative, flexible, and it’s a starting point. We focus on producing output that’s consumable to the product team of the particular client we’re working with. We don’t produce stuff they don’t want. If they don’t need a style guide, we won’t give it to them. If they need an interactive prototype, we’ll do it. If they need an in-depth wireframe because their development team is offshore and they need that level of specificity we’ll do that. What we produce has to be consumable and valuable to the client.

 

Team Composition

It’s important to think through not just who is on the project, but what is the composition of the team? Product design requires a complex, overlapping set of skills. Can they extrapolate from a set of user stories to design an information architecture and workflows to support these tasks? Can that same design team also design an interface to bring that flow to life in a way that in intuitive and aesthetically pleasing. Is the work segregated into different silos or done by a collaborative team of poly-skilled designers? Have they ever worked client-side and shipped product? Do they understand the complexities and trade-offs involved in how to prioritize which features need to get designed first?

A lot of agencies will have a layer cake approach to their teams, with multiple layers of creative directors, design directors, and so forth. We find best way to move quickly is to have a smaller team at a higher allocation –at least 50% if not higher–working on your product. This approach is especially helpful with complex products, where context switching can be really difficult.

 

Systems Thinking

The end result of a digital product is manifest on a screen and represented as discrete pages, but it’s all part of a design system. Initial designs may be use the “page” construct to explore initial concepts and flows. But as you dive deeper into the solution, your designers should be able to identify the underlying patterns and modules that compose the system. Don’t just evaluate product design firms based on the final screen output, but look at the thought process and inputs that generated the design.

 

Scalability

Products have a lifecycle and an initial launch may only cover a subset of the features and functionality originally envisioned for the product. We work to deliver design that scales and is as future proof as possible because the goal is to empower your team to take the design and grow and evolve it. One situation we see a lot is companies that have key product features blocked by design; the goal in that situation is to unblock your design team by bringing on a product agency to provide additional support, but also empower an internal design champion. The ideal situation is for the product agency to work closely with an in-house team Shipping software is complex and everyone wants to see their design go to market, but any experienced product designer will tell you that the product designed isn’t always the product that gets shipped. Any agency you hire needs to not only be okay with that, but also understand why it happens, and design something that’s flexible and extensible. Often when we engage with a client we start off by saying here’s the future state of your product. Now, what are you going to release first? And we make sure that when we pare back design, and see what the product looks like when you can only do features A & B that it still works as part of a design system, that the structure holds.

Questions to consider here are: Can your design agency create a design system that supports not just your next release, but also the subsequent set of features in your roadmap? If your initial design starts out as a future-state of your product, how strongly will it hold up when you have to pare back the scope of functionality in order to ship your product?