Guest Column | February 16, 2017

Are You Asking Product Development Firms The Right Questions?


By Dorota Shortell, Simplexity Product Development

If you’re trying to decide whether to hire a product development firm, or determine which one is best for your needs, there are 10 key questions 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 its work. Establishing a good match between your needs and how the firm performs its work is vital to a successful collaboration.

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 confidence that they work in a similar technical space. So, a company that designs heavy equipment is unlikely an appropriate partner for a medical device product.

However, if you’re looking for innovation, you may want to consider a firm that has not designed products similar to what you’re working on. A firm that is competent in adjacent technologies, has produced favorable results, and has exhibited creativity in previous efforts is more likely to provide the innovative and cutting-edge engineering you need. A firm that has a great breadth of experience and can incorporate ideas from other industries, versus following a set-in-stone, industry specific development pathway, can help you break new ground with your product. 

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 intellectual property (IP) protected and your ideas to stay confidential. It is standard practice to have a prospective firm sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). They usually will 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 also is common for these documents to be mutual, meaning the product development firm may also have internal IP that they would like to protect.

Unlike law firms, which are very strict on the matter, policies prohibiting work 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 any client without regard for any conflict of interest. If securing a firm that won’t work both sides of the fence is important to your product, make sure to ask each development firm’s policy 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 identify their strongest technical area, and understand whether it matches your needs. For example, if you have a product that will integrate electronics, sensors, and embedded firmware, and the prospective development firm you are evaluating has an industrial design focus, where they mostly design the look and feel of products, you may need to look elsewhere for a firm with more of technical engineering focus.

4) Does the firm focus on product development as a core discipline, or is it one of many services offered?

Product development firms that also offer manufacturing services can limit the creative design process to those manufacturing solutions that are available in-house. To be clear, the firm likely does not do this intentionally, or even realize that they are limiting the creative design process. I’ve seen multiple examples of products that used manufacturing processes available in-house (like machining), but could have been manufactured more simply and at greatly reduced cost by switching to another process (like sheet metal forming). It just didn’t occur to the firm to switch, giving truth to the old adage, “if your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

While it sounds great that a product development firm can take care of everything from front-end industrial design (ID) work through engineering and manufacturing your product, ask which service the firm is strongest in. There are contract manufacturers that also handle design, and design firms that also handle manufacturing. While the activities are highly related, usually only one of the competencies is the dominant suit (most often matching the technical background of the firm’s leadership). 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 which features are most important for your product. This best-practice area is one of the least appealing parts of the job, since it requires methodical documentation. However, the time spent in writing down the specifications and assumptions up front — knowing that some will change throughout the design cycle — pays for itself many times over through 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 its personnel and their backgrounds?

Some firms maintain only a few internal resources, and then staff projects mostly with external contractors. Luckily, most of the good firms that I know of are transparent about showcasing their people and those individuals’ talents, usually right on the company website. If the 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 work on a given project may vary based on availability, the firm 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 for a firm to share its employees’ resumes, information should be available about the core team’s academic degrees, technical expertise, past projects, and patents granted. While I’m not opposed to external contractors — especially when a very specialized skill set is required — such contractors should supplement the team, not be presented as 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. There are many debates about which process and model are best for a given situation, be it a user-centered model, a phase-gate approach, or another method. Rather than getting caught up in a debate on which one is best, or most appropriate for your organization, confirm that the development firm has a documented process that works for their organization. It’s better that they use a process that they are comfortable with, and has worked for their past clients, than suggesting that a specific process be used. 

However when listening to the development firm's pitch, the process should be something that resonates with you, that convinces you it could be successful for your product development effort. They should be able to guide your product through the process and let you know which possible pitfalls to avoid.

8) Does the firm use industry standard tools?

Tools like cloud-based issue tracking and revision control keep all project details well-organized. This is absolutely critical for product development firms that create mechanical and electrical documentation, as well as write code, either firmware or software. Revision control should not be left to the preferences of individual engineers, but should be a company standard that is implemented in such a way that code and drawings cannot be released unless they are under revision control. This caveat 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 to record all 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 who 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 progress stands on every aspect of your project. You want to make sure that the development effort stays on-schedule and on-budget. Project managers are trained to spot possible risks and discuss them with you immediately, so you can proactively identify solutions together, while there still is time in the product development cycle.

10) Does the firm have a strong history of client retention?

Asking about client retention is an effective way to find out whether a firm’s clients are happy. Certainly some projects have a natural ebb and flow, so 100-percent client retention is not possible. However, you want to hear that at least half of a development firm’s clients are returning customers who consider the firm a long-term partner. That usually is a good indication that the firm has delivered valuable results on past projects, and is likely to do the same for you. Also, feel free to ask the product development firm for references, and to talk to a few of their clients. While they likely cannot share a full client list due to confidentiality reasons, a firm with no past clients available or willing to take your call can be a cause for concern.

About The Author

Dorota Shortell has been CEO and president of Simplexity Product Development since 2010, succeeding the company’s founder. Dorota has over 15 years of new product development experience and holds a U.S. patent. She graduated top of her class from Loyola Marymount University with a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering, and earned her master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University.  She is a National Science Foundation fellow, Tau Beta Pi Fellow, and Institute for the Advancement of Engineering Fellow. In 2013, she was recognized by the Portland Business Journal as one of the region’s top business leaders as a Forty under 40 Award winner. Recently, she was selected as one of the twelve 2017 Executives to Watch by the Portland Business Journal.