Choosing a Product Design Firm

Selecting a Product Development Partner

If you've decided to hire a product design firm, you may be wondering how to choose between them when there are so many options. We’ll ask a series of questions below to help give you some criteria to base your decision on.

Cultural Fit & Trust

You’re taking a big risk with this venture, and its going to span 6-12+ months. You need someone on your team that you get along well with and that you trust to give you honest answers.Things aren’t always sunny during the development process. Some firms will try to mask or hide poor results, while an honest firm will share the problem with you and explain its impacts.

Experience and Skills

A well-educated product designer or engineer is trained on how to learn new things. In an industry where clients are constantly asking to create the newest thing, there is often a learning curve to figure out how to do it because it has never been done before. Look for a portfolio showing a diversity of projects.

Project Management

Managing your product development, budget, and timeline can be a full-time job. Especially if there are multiple companies involved trying to hit major milestones for you. Project managers use processes to minimize risk during development and are tech-savvy enough to communicate clearly with both the design team and you. This can be very time consuming, so unless you plan on filling this role yourself, look for a firm that has refined and can show you collaborative work that they have done in the past.

Intellectual Property

If you’re paying a firm for their services, then you should own the intellectual property. Some firms may offer technologies or features they have already developed for use in your product, which would not be considered your intellectual property. Look for a section in their master services agreement that addresses this or you may find yourself having to pay the company a royalty to use their intellectual property in your product.

Revision Control

There are several key aspects of quality management, but revision control is one of the most vital. The purpose of revision control to ensure that you are always using the most up to date files and have a way of identifying your design history. It would be a very expensive to release version 9 parts out to tooling when a few of the parts were supposed to be version 10.

Lead Times

Does the pace that this firm moves at line up with your deadlines and milestones? A good firm should be able to provide you with a high level schedule that estimates completion as well as a specific schedule for immediate tasks. There will be many things that affect that schedule over the course of your development, but working with a firm that is constantly late is never a good thing. The firm should be active in managing the schedule and budget with you to meet your goals.


As a client, you’ll have many questions and be working on multiple areas of your business, not just the product development. Look for a firm that responds to your needs quickly and makes time for you.

Pricing & Billing

Time & Materials

‘Time and materials’  is a system in which the design firm clocks their time and you are billed by the hour. In this model, you might receive an invoice every 2 or 4 weeks. This works well for clients who don’t necessarily have a specific scope of work in mind and may need to ask for additional services extremely frequently.   A good analogy for this type of billing is seen by attorneys in a law firm.

When you sign up for a time and materials contract, you are assuming the risk that the job will get completed on budget. In reality, it could cost more, and you are still responsible for the payments. You also have to trust that the firm is working at a good pace and not just taking their time to earn more money, which can be difficult for some clients.

Fixed Price

Fixed price is a system in which the design firm issues precise scopes of work for a firm price and lead time. This reduces risk for the client as they know what they will be receiving, exactly how much it will cost, and when they will receive it. Unlike time and materials, it places more risk on the design firm to get the job done at the expected quality as fast as possible to reduce their costs.

Be careful if a company gives you a single quote to do the whole product development. It's impossible to know exactly how much the development will cost, so it's likely they will ask for more money later or the quote may be padded in their favor.

Risk Sharing

Risk sharing is a funding concept in which a client will provide some form of future return, such as an equity, royalty, or multiple of payments due at completion of the funding round to the design firm in return for services or discounted services now. This can be harder to negotiate since the client, product, and business plan will be more heavily scrutinized by the design firm.

If successful, it will cost the client more in the long run than paying for the services up front since the design firm is assuming a portion of the risk by betting on the success of both the company and the product.

Want to Learn More?

If you've got questions on how to find the firm for you, get in touch with us and we'll help you figure out what's right for you.


In our next article, we'll cover basic terminology that you may come across when you begin your product development.