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Evaluating Product Design Firms: What You Need to Know – Electronic Design

May 10, 2024

When the pressures for timely execution of productization plans are in trouble due to staffing issues, there are many considerations to solve this problem. Certainly, one option is to seek out direct staff additions. However, despite the well-publicized layoffs at some large tech companies, the job market remains very tight for engineers. It can take months to find the professional with the capabilities you need.
Another option is to engage a temp agency to assist with contract staff additions. The problem with such an approach is that these agencies are also having trouble finding talent.
Even when you find talent at a temp agency, it can be a continuous management challenge to ensure the contract personnel are performing properly because the goals of contract personnel may not align with the company’s goals. The company wants to execute a project quickly and properly while the contract personnel may be looking to string out the contract as long as possible. What’s a manager to do?
Given these challenges, a product-development (PD) services company can be a good solution. A services firm will ideally already have the team players you need and because such companies typically bid projects with a budget and schedule, their goals for proper execution in a timely manner align with the company goals. Sounds like a slam dunk. However, the question remains—how to find the right firm?
When looking for a potential PD services partner, here are the top five considerations:
Many products today include a combination of hardware, communications, and software, so you need those capabilities in your potential partner. It may be that your team is shorthanded in electrical engineering capabilities.
But, what about the embedded software needed on the hardware platform? Does the product development team need expertise in wireless communications? If the electronic products generate a thermal problem, do you anticipate needing mechanical engineering help to perform the analysis and implement thermal-management techniques?
The problems in developing system solutions clearly require multidisciplinary competence. You may not think you need a full range of capabilities. However, in the course of development, it’s helpful to have a PD firm with on-board capabilities across the board in diverse engineering functions.
Look into whether the product-development firm has a deep bench in all design and engineering functions.  When you bring on a PD partner, it’s important to understand how many people the partner has in place in each engineering function, with the expertise you need.
If a PD partner has a very thin bench, what’s the assurance they will have bandwidth in the specific capabilities needed? What happens if that one person armed with key expertise is already loaded on another project? What if the workload gets to a peak demand requiring more than one individual? Is the PD partner able to supplement key people with others having similar expertise?
Dig in and find out if the PD firms you’re considering have a balanced team of experts or whether they lean heavily toward one engineering function with only minimal bandwidth in the other functions. For example, design-oriented firms typically have shallow bench strength in engineering.
To respond to the inevitable technical challenge or crisis, it’s important that the PD team have experienced professionals. Inevitably, the toughest challenges need to be managed by those team members with the most experience.
Certainly, there’s a place for new grads or entry level staff on a PD services team as they can often contribute novel, out-of-the-box ideas. However, having too many entry-level staff on a project, without the leadership of those possessing deep experience and expertise, will likely lead to costly mistakes that can be time-consuming to fix.
A PD firm needs to have solid processes around product development. This helps ensure that requirements are captured, designs are created addressing the requirements, and that those results can be tested and validated. When working with a small, early-stage client, the processes of the PD partner are potentially the ones that will take priority and provide the structure to yield expected results.
For more mature companies with their own processes, a question to ask is how well the PD partner can adapt to the company’s PD process and data-management systems. In some cases, especially involving medical products, the PD partner’s processes are irrelevant, and they must follow the lead of the medical technology product company. 
To prove efficacy and safety to regulatory agencies like the FDA, the medical technology product company’s processes must be followed. The FDA will not audit the processes of the PD partner—it’s the company of record that will be audited and is expected to have the processes and documentation to back up the product claims.
Companies need to be careful about choosing a PD partner based on the partner’s processes. They may be so rigorous and burdensome in a way that’s not appropriate for the product being created. Likewise, processes can be non-existent, leading to product development running out of control. Flexibility is the key.
It’s amazing how infrequently companies do a reference check on a potential PD partner. As with anything, buyer beware. A company should ask for and follow up with reference checks on past work done by a PD partner.
If the company has seen example products from the PD partner that are relevant to their needs, ask for references at those companies. Before reaching out to referenced individuals, check on LinkedIn to see if the person being referenced is at a level to offer comprehensive insight into how the PD partner has performed. A quick guidepost is to check into a PD partner’s repeat clients and see if they have long-term, repeat engagements, which is a great indicator of customer satisfaction.
A PD partner can be a tremendous asset to a company, enabling a company to quickly scale to meet product development needs. This is especially true in the tight tech staffing labor market (which still exists despite recent high-profile layoffs). A company might be well-served to begin developing a relationship with a potential PD partner even in advance of the immediate need.
Evaluating a product-development partner takes time and effort to ensure the company is selecting the right partner for their near and longer-term needs.


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