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Should You Outsource Your Product's Design?

July 28, 2021

No. As a general rule, I’d say you shouldn’t. However, there’s a little more to it than that, and people in the startup world seem to be a little too simplistic in their answers to this question.

First we need to consider what goes into your product’s design. First there’s usually an idea. Then that idea is honed through testing, research and all kinds of other means. Once the idea is reasonably formed, design begins. This is where you can either make a massive mistake and ‘outsource’ your product’s design, or you can engage someone to work on it with you. The two are very different.

Outsourcing design (in my mind) means to brief somebody on what you’re after, then they go off and design it. The ‘go off’ part is where the problems arise. Agencies have a tendency to work in isolation from their clients far too much. They never become part of the team.

Outsourcing design means to brief somebody on what you’re after, then they go off and design it.

The problem here is that few outside agencies will make the effort to get to know your business, your product and your customers to the same level that you do. They don’t have a vested interest, they haven’t travelled the same journey as you have to arrive where you are and success to them is simply being paid at the end of the gig.

This is perhaps a slightly cynical view, however this isn’t all agencies. There are some fantastic product design agencies in the world which do make the effort to understand everything I mentioned above, and have incredible amounts of experience which you won’t be able to get through hiring a couple of in-house designers.

When choosing an agency you should be looking for ones with the following traits…

They have long relationships with their clients

Product design really doesn’t happen in a short period. It’s an iterative process that continues for the life of your business. In fact, the design work that happens pre-launch is just the tip of the iceberg. The real work starts when your first customer signs up.

They agree to do daily check-ins with you

A quick test for whether a product design agency is a good one is if they’re willing to actually catch up with you every day. If they say yes, chances are they value co-design and will include you on the journey.

Do the owners have any experience work in-house on a product?

If the owners of a product agency have never launched a product of their own or worked client-side at a startup, I personally don’t think they can possibly have the experience they need to help someone else launch a product.

Any exceptions?

The only exception I can think of to the rules above is design sprint agencies, which are becoming more and more common. Despite not really doing it ourselves I often find myself recommending sprint workshops as a method for devising an MVP in a hurry (normally 1-3 weeks). This likely won’t be the product you take to market, but it’s a fantastic tool for testing assumptions and making mistakes early, rather than late. There are some really great agencies working in this space, too.

Here’s the point where I now have to plug my agency, Never Before Seen, which meets all the criteria above for agencies who care about their clients’ success.

  1. On average we work with clients for well over a year
  2. We’re part of the team. We join company stand-ups and work directly (and collaboratively) with founders, developers and any other internal stakeholders
  3. I personally have founded multiple startups in the past. You can learn about them here

If you’re interested in seeing how we could work together, please get in touch.

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