One of the most powerful combinations in business is a partnership between a product manufacturer and an outside product design firm. It’s an opportunity for two complementary organizations to work through a complex process--with a huge number of variables--and produce something much greater than either could produce on its own. But the most effective partners start by examining themselves. How do we work? What do we expect? This is the context for three key questions in selecting an outside product design firm.
When to involve an outside firm?
The answer lies in your organization’s openness to collaborative exploration. Be honest with yourself and prospective partners: if your culture, process, or budget doesn’t allow for collaboration in the concept phase, it may be best to wait until the product’s function and market opportunity are well-defined. However, the best partnerships start early, when there is no product, just a concept.
As noted by Paul Hatch, president of the Chicago office of TEAMS Design, “At that stage, there seem to be many big, scary problems that you have to fix before you talk to outside designers. But the designers can often come up with ideas that change the concept entirely early on. And they can reduce the scariness.”
This is because professional designers are comfortable working in such ambiguous environments. “Design thinking operates comfortably with a blank sheet of paper. The designer’s natural inclination is to problem solve at the root.”
This is good news, especially since internal teams often lack their own source of true unbiased design thinking. Outside partners can bring a fresh perspective and holistic thinking to the project while it’s still nascent.
The best design partnerships start when the client can clearly articulate the answer to a single question: “What is the problem we’re trying to solve?”
Who should do what?
The scope of such partnerships can vary widely. Consider first what your organization wants to learn from it. Dan Mazzucco, president and CEO of ZSX Medical, starts by looking at capabilities. “If it’s something you expect to do more and you want to build that capability in your organization, have your team do that work as much as possible. If it’s something hard to learn or a skill you don’t value, let the outside firm handle it,” said Mazzucco.
He points to two examples. “We won’t be using Solidworks much in the future, so we outsource drafting tasks to the design firm. But we do need to be able to develop and deploy test fixtures, so we try to keep that work in-house.”
He also suggests that the client should define the project scope in a way that is conducive to a long term partnership with the outside firm. “You have to think of yourself as a partner with the outside firm, so you need to look out for their interests, too. Ask yourself: after this project is over, what then? If there’s nothing more, the design firm will naturally try to maximize the scope of the single project. And that’s an antagonistic relationship.”
For a partnership to get off on the right foot, both parties must understand the nature of their work together and the client’s expectations. And it’s acceptable to simply start the conversation with, “Let’s talk about who should do what.” A good design firm can facilitate that discussion with a potential client even before the client has defined its preferences.
What are we looking for?
If you’re starting from scratch in selecting a design partner, the number of firms can be overwhelming. But the universe can often be narrowed by location. While the outside firm does not always need to be near the client, it does need to have access to--and understanding of--the key market for the device, whether through culture, language, or simple proximity.
Beyond location, you can further narrow the field by looking for capabilities. Your organization’s preference for in-house versus outside work helps shape this discussion. In addition, consider other capabilities an outside firm should bring to the project. Do they have strong manufacturing experience and connections to contract manufacturers? Do they have a deep background in medical device regulation?
One of the critical spots is documentation. If your project will produce a Class II or III medical device, and you don’t intend to maintain the design history file internally, it’s best to look for a design firm with medical device experience. Without that experience, a design firm won’t be accustomed to the documentation workload.
But if you maintain the design history file in-house, or if you’re working on a Class I device, Hatch offers a nuanced view of medical device experience among designers. “There’s a discussion happening in our field around whether industrial designers need accreditation and/or experience in order to work on medical devices.”
He says that the obvious benefits of such experience include a greater likelihood that the project will pass the industry’s tight regulations and be well-suited for its complicated legal issues. But, the potential downside focuses on the core of the outside designer’s value to the project: fresh perspective.
“There’s a lot of home care happening, where you need remote monitoring or self-diagnosis,” said Hatch. “In those situations, would a designer more used to dealing with consumer products be better? They know how to focus on that friendly, user-led experience rather than on an experience led by a nurse or working professional. Zero (medical device) experience may actually offer better perspective and ideas. But it’s a discussion that hasn’t been resolved.
“At end of the day, I don’t think there’s a fast rule to it.”
That’s the reality for all partnerships. Selecting a partner is all about fit, a subjective thing that can’t be defined by a formula. Mazzucco added that he pays close attention to how the design firm works with ZSX well before they ever sign a contract. Do they communicate clearly, and follow up promptly, and think through situations properly?
“No one is ever more eager to please than when they want your business,” said Mazzucco. “So, if they’re not delivering when they are trying to win your business, there’s no chance they’ll deliver after they have it.”
Still, he acknowledges that sometimes it simply comes down to instinct. And he particularly pays attention when a potential partnership doesn’t feel right. “On occasion, my gut has been wrong when it says something is a great idea. But, my gut is almost never wrong when it says something is a bad idea.”
This is an excellent rule to follow when beginning any working partnership. It can mean looking forward to a future of accomplishment and success for both parties instead of a future of continual frustration.