The 10 Most Important Design Firm Questions


Skill deficiency, time constraints, lack of specialization, and technological challenges are some of the main reasons companies choose to outsource product development. It happens not only to startups but also mature companies of all industries. The world has no shortage of product design and development firms as well as contract manufacturing to handle mass production. 

The question is how to pick the right firm without breaking the bank. If hiring the most experienced, reputable, expensive firm is not the smartest solution, make sure to ask the following questions to potential partners before deciding to collaborate.

What Is the Firm’s Core Competency?

Always identify a firm’s core competency. Product design and its subsequent development are specialized trades. When choosing a firm for the jobs, make sure you check their previous records to see whether they’ve done similar projects before with great success. In case your product idea is innovative enough, the possibility of finding a firm that has previously worked on the same thing is little to none, so the search focus should be on the product category or industry in general.

For example, what happens if you develop the product as a brand new, creative, and irregularly-shaped fish tank? You may not be able to find any development firms boasting precisely similar items in their portfolio. They probably have done some fish tanks before, but not in any resemblance to your idea. What you need is a firm specializing in pet or animal products instead.

The Range of Services

You must consider the range of services as well. A development firm that also doubles as a contract manufacturer may sound great on the surface until you realize that the firm’s department of production is likely to interfere with the creative process. No one denies the importance of “design for manufacturing” because it makes little sense to have a finished design next to impossible to mass-produce (not at efficient cost at least) using the available technology.

Problems arise as the interference grows more intense. That gives the firm a stronger incentive to profit from production jobs by opting for the least challenging manufacturing process. They can choose to hand over the fabrication work to another more competent factory, but it won’t be as profitable at the expense of your creative idea.

Product design and mass production are related, but a development firm rarely is equally good at both. Some are mainly design firms that also offer manufacturing services, while others primarily contract manufacturers, which include creative designs. Pick a partner whose specialization is what you need the most.

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How Long Does It Take and How Much?

The next question digs deeper into the delivery process and project management in general. You should expect specific answers with many details about the scope of the project, challenges and proposed solutions, deliverables and timeframe, project analysis and report, and budget requirements.

Of course, you want to know how long the project will take and how much it will cost. Those are typical questions indeed, but there is nothing typical about the answers. Get ready to listen to varied and wide-ranging responses. Be wary of the answers because almost all firms tend to sugar-coat whatever shortcoming they have.

When you search for any services, it is a good idea to compare quotes from multiple providers; product development firms are no exception. Some may say they can deliver a ready-for-manufacturing product in no time. It can be either a promise of excellence or an outright red flag.

That is where detail matters. You have to know how a firm can finish any particular deliverable within the specified time. The product development process from ideation to market research can take several months, and it would be many more months before a prototype is ready. Depending on how well/poor the prototype performs, designers and engineers may have to go back to the drawing board.

A year’s timeline, including time for patent research and manufacturing, is quick enough, so it is wise to manage the expectation. A fish tank probably isn’t all that complex, even if it comes with plenty of aquatic plants and a proper CO2 system. However, every idea must be scrutinized and tested before implementation.

How Does the Firm Handle Conflict and Differences of Opinions?

Both the firm and the client would like to think that the product design and development process will be smooth and trouble-free. When everyone expects the best, at least one in the team has to prepare for the worst. Mistakes and accidents can happen, just like how kindred souls can argue with each other sometimes. When conflict occurs, the project timeline slides, and the client suffers.

Product development involves a lot of things: the choice of raw materials, who and where the suppliers are documentation, what design prototype methods are necessary, how to test, manufacturability, etc. There can be differences of opinions in every single step, which eventually affect the design approach. The blame is not always on the firm. A client who takes too much time to provide feedback also hurts the process. Without approval or otherwise, the development firm has very little to do with keeping the process running. 

Any firm you call may not be able to address specifics about how the team handles conflicts because frictions may emanate from several sources. They are triggered by many possible reasons, meaning every problem is unique and typically requires non-standard resolution. For a client, the important thing is that the team can articulate a specific design choice or development approach when there are other options. The firm must walk the client through the decision-making process in each phase of development.

Be Proactive on This

As a potential partner, you cannot afford to just sit and listen. A critical part of your privileges as a client is to demand an explanation about everything that has even the slightest chance of affecting the project’s success. You can ask hypothetical questions about potential project hurdles, what kind of challenges they had during previous endeavors, and how they overcame them.

The way the design team presents themselves during this conversation also gives a hint about their communication skill. Evaluate the answers and practice good judgment by considering all the positives and negatives from your perspective. Remember that you are essentially a buyer looking for a service. You don’t have to decide to hire at that moment, so take your time reviewing all the responses.

What Are the Development Methodologies?

You have an idea for a product, and now it is time to find a development firm to help put the product to market. That is the fundamental principle of this business. Regardless of the type of product and what category it falls under, the firm you hire has a lot of work ahead of them. In addition to transforming the ideas into tangible products, other primary responsibilities include finding the ideal customer profiles (target market) and performing real-world tests. To serve those roles, the development firm must understand market needs, pinpoint unfulfilled demands, and conduct dependable research for profitability. These all affect the strategic direction of product design and development.

The general development methodologies are fairly common knowledge. Any firm from anywhere in the world should expect to list 6 to 7 phases, including ideation, documentation, market research, prototype, test, production, and market. The specifics of the methodology for each phase are, however, often closely-guarded trade secrets. Although a firm is probably reluctant to get into the exact details of every step, they are most likely willing to explain a thing or two about it.

CAD Software Utilization

For instance, design firms use CAD software to test ideas and draw hyper-realistic 3D images of products, and now they don’t mind explaining to clients what brand of software they choose and the reasons behind it. All the technical details regarding the specific software can be overwhelming for clients. Hence, the firm chooses to describe what features do what and how they benefit the development. Perhaps the CAD program of choice also supports cloud-based team collaboration, reliable simulation, simplicity, and more.

Cloud-computing and secure online file sharing allow clients to stay up-to-date with the design. It becomes easy for the client to see every single change implemented to the plan and provide feedback if need be. As long as the design is still digital, revision or modification is almost instant and cost-free except for the labor due to the added work time.

Once again, details will be scarce when it comes to methodologies, although some basic answers along with a general description of the development process should suffice.

Is Customized Service Provided?

Personalized design is the service that product development firms offer. Every idea, including yours, is unique. The product is built based on the specifications you provide. When the first design does not look good enough, they will make changes following your feedback. From the very beginning, it is all about custom product design.

Be careful with the use of the term “customized service” here. When you want to have something customized, you still have to declare the design parameters and restraints. However, a customized service may also mean that the firm caters to your specific needs. That’s true for not only the design but for many other things related to the project. It would include expedited design timeline, running multiple tests using your-own variables, documentation redundancy (because you may need more copies of paperwork), your preferable CAD software, the number of prototype iterations, and so forth.

When you have precise requirements for the project, only go with the firm that offers customized service.

How is Research and Development?

Questions about the level of innovation, creativity, and investment in R&D are not always the easiest to answer. Product development firms often give two types of answers. First, the size or how advanced the firm’s R&D department is. They can talk at great length about the amount of money going to the department each year, the range of equipment, collaboration with prominent universities in various cities, or involvement in high-profile projects. Second, the firm tells you about the most innovative product thus far in the portfolio. However, the discussion can be a little restricted to general description due to a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with the company that commissioned the design in the first place.

Either way, the answer should satisfy your curiosity. You cannot ask the firms to gauge their creativity and innovation; you technically can, but you will only hear biased answers. Funding for R&D is next to impossible to verify. Cross-checking their references related to well-known products or contributions to social projects is not easy either, but not impossible.

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Are They Willing to Sign Non-Disclosure Agreement?

Well-structured project management allows you to get involved in every product development phase. The firm has to maintain transparency and keep clients engaged throughout the process. Consistent communication is a must, and so is routine reporting.

Good management dictates ways to address confidentiality issues about the product in development. The idea behind the product is the client’s intellectual property (IP) that no one else can claim ownership of and use in any capacity without prior approval. The standard practice to protect and ensure confidentiality is to have both parties sign an NDA. Such an agreement is usually mutual because the client has the right to retain ownership of the idea and prevents the firm from claiming ownership of any part of it. In contrast, the firm also needs to protect internal IPs such as in-house software, methodology, and everything else that goes into the product design and development.

Another important thing to remember for clients is that NDA usually does not limit the possibility of the firm working for competitors. Some firms implement a thorough check on potential conflict of interest among projects, but others will work for any other individual or company willing to pay for the services. If you think conflict of interest may affect the firm’s professionalism or that the lack thereof is essential be sure to ask about the firm’s policy on working for your competitors. 

Can The Firm Give a Custom Quote?

An experienced product design firm should understand that every client has personal preferences regarding documentation format, a communication platform, a collaborative approach, and a timeline, not to mention that every product has its own specifications. Cost calculation should be based not only on the scope of work involved but also the included non-core services for which the firm has to make some adjustments to its own internal standard operating procedures. Some clients want more services than any typical package available from the firm for an agreeable additional cost, while others must omit several benefits due to budget limitations.

Custom quotes are not that uncommon. Most firms are happy to make personalized estimates which include only the kind of services the clients need – nothing less, nothing more. Clients want flexibility in pricing in the hope of getting the best value for the money.

At the same time, you cannot realistically expect to get the maximum quality out of the minimum budget. It might happen sometimes, but those are the exceptions rather than the general rule of the business. Custom quote offers the much-needed versatility to personalize the underlying structure of project management, allowing both clients and firms to collaborate mutually.

Does the Firm Accept Client’s Terms and Conditions?

All companies have their terms and conditions, which govern the entire business conduct. Most clients tend to ignore the fine print under the assumption that all will be just fine from the beginning of the project to the very end. Terms and conditions written by the firm may contain some clauses that do not benefit the client much. For example, when a clause does not clearly describe each phase of product design, it will be within the firm’s only discretion whether to execute a complete development cycle. 

Clients probably don’t need to submit their own T&C when hiring a firm, but a written (not verbal) detailed legally-binding contract is indispensable. Within the contract, the client can say if the agreement overrides any clause in the firm’s T&C, which will be enough. If necessary, hire an attorney to help compose an airtight contract to prevent financial and legal troubles in the future. Ask the firm about their position on signing a work contract written by clients.

Is There an After-Sale Service?

There is always a possibility that a small number of products fail to perform certain features after being released to the market. Despite multiple prototypes and tests by the development firm, production run in factories may yield a small percentage of manufacturing defects, say 1 in every 1,000 units.

Project managers are responsible for notifying clients about any potential issue during the mass-production process. At the very least – if production goes to a third party – the firm can recommend which contract manufacturing services can handle the production load without losing quality. The firm’s technical expertise is crucial for a well-designed product. Still, once the development process reaches a point where the firm is not directly involved, after-sale service is the client’s savior when problems arise with production.

How Cad Crowd can Help

Cad Crowd is a global network platform where the best minds, talents, and skills in the engineering, designing, and manufacturing circles provide freelance product design services to clients, both corporate and individuals. Click here to take a look at the product design services available at Cad Crowd. Inquire about any project size when you are ready and receive a free quote.