How to procure a UX vendor
The combined hardware and software user experience dominates IoT development as the greatest threat to a connected product’s ultimate success. Consequently, hiring the right UX team can make or break your entire investment. In this article, we give you the tools you need to select the right UX vendor for your connected product.
When you need a user experience design team, everyone in digital will tell you they can help. Trouble is, precious few will fit you and your situation well enough to succeed. To screen and select for long-term success, you need to do some legwork as a prospective buyer:
- Avoid the usual way
- Anchor yourself and your needs
- Take an investigative approach
- Create a viable candidate pool
- Pitch vendors with extreme clarity
- Evaluate and select methodically
Smart vendor selection isn't about finding a unicorn—it’s about taking poor options off the table.
The typical design vendor selection process goes like this:
- A middle manager, already straining under 60 hours of day job, gets tapped to find a new design team for product X.
- That manager starts with a partial candidate list handed down from a senior executive’s previous relationships.
- The manager Googles “ux designers” to round out the candidate list and shoots off some emails.
- Vendors’ ravenous auto-responders and account teams attempt to book the soonest-possible meeting, committing a few ham-handed faux pas along the way.
- Meetings get set, vendors’ reps invite half their company.
- Design vendors strut around each Zoom meeting, unwittingly bamboozling their prospects with fancy slides, in-group lingo, and cool glasses.
- The manager and any participating team members leave each sales pitch feeling simultaneously overwhelmed and underwhelmed.
- The manager has to do something next to move things along.
Anyone would be worn out after enduring several 90-minute-long “1 hour” meetings and partially digesting a gigabyte of 87-slide showcase decks. In their exhaustion, most decision-makers pick either whoever they got along with best or whoever they thought senior management could stomach. After all that, PO and legal processes begin and end, and UXes get designed over the course of a clunky but good-enough relationship, while it lasts.
Even if things worked in the past, both your company and your product have changed since the last time you searched for design help. Even if you’re building something new, looking back on past experience or previous iterations of your design need will automatically set some of your required boundaries.
Let’s say you built a successful mobile experience back in 2021, but need to trim operating cost moving into 2024. Start by describing your past situation, past need, the present situation, current design need, the role your soon-to-be UX provider must fill, and any additional rationale:
Past situation: building a new thing
Past need: sought creative spark, found design geniuses
Present situation: 2021 app UX succeeded, 2024 brings different UX need and role
Current need: operational/iterative design expertise at lower cost than geniuses
Role: fit into existing system, bridge product development and software engineering
Rationale: stronger dev knowledge needed to shorten gaps/cycles
Now that you’re centered, let’s apply an appropriate procurement technique.
The purpose of your evaluation is to discover each vendor’s character. To achieve that, you need to separate who they say they are from who they really are. You’ll do this ahead of the meeting them by:
- Performing pre-meeting qualification
- Collecting info from references
- Ensure their marketing claims match your needs
- Gauging their response to your request for contact
During your meetings, you’ll:
- Withstand their sales pitch
- Let them expend their sales ammunition so you can have a conversation
- Describe your scenario and their exact role
- Ask for stories: consumer, IoT, mobile, whatever applies
Throughout, you’ll pay specific attention to each vendor’s:
- Questions: focus, ops, skills, honesty
- Preferences: projects, methods, inputs, outputs
- Competencies: discipline areas, no-gos
- Savvy: team makeup, irregular work handling
- Seriousness: buying questions, consent
- Rates, lead times, contract types
We lay out more specifics below. First, it’s time to make a list of 8 qualified candidates.
With an endless number of candidate design firms available, we need to shorten the list immediately. We’ve learned to separate candidates from qualified candidates by triangulating on three criteria that are relatively easy to detect by reviewing a firm’s website instead of wasting their time (and yours) on a call:
- Vendor heritage
- Insider/outsider firm
- Market extents
Each has a direct impact on your entire buying and service experience.
User experience design firms come from a variety of backgrounds. Their heritage decidedly impacts their suitability for your mission. Each lineage presents a fit and a friction:
- Marketing agencies. Agencies ventured into user experience design as they became the bridge between clients’ print and digital marketing eras. Fits when your design and its promotion are closely bound. Friction when your user experience gets deeply technical or physical.
- Software development companies. Dev shops created UX practices and soaked up UX designers over the past ~20 years because it lets them work directly for a business instead of using a third party to design the application they build. Fits when you’re making a fairly complex software experience, especially if they’re also the builder. Friction when you need them to conform to your process and when you need to integrate their work product into your going concern.
- Game, brand, and famous design firms. Many became known for a particular artistic endeavor and now ply their trade as a professional services company. Fits when you’re creating new things or jump-starting an old one. Friction when you’re iterating on something that already works. Big $$$, too.
- Industrial design houses. Physical design firms weaving digital into product experiences. Fits when a design program focuses on physical HMIs with some digital. Friction with complex applications as they usually have dubious software expertise.
- UX boutiques. These firms focus specifically on digital user experience design. They fit when you can break off a chunk of work that lands in their specific wheelhouse. Friction happens when their low technical knowledge creates additional work and even engineering rework.
- Staff augmentation firms. Body shops have someone for everyone! Fits when you have an ongoing effort and a role someone can slide into. Friction: they might have staff, but they won’t have an internal UX practice, placing the management, onboarding, and education burden directly back on you.
- Management consultancies. Not to be outdone, pure management firms stepped into UX by assimilating digital firms into their collective offering. Design may be a wedge offering for some, too. Fits when the program’s large, varied, and UX is a relatively uncomplicated component. Friction when you need unique work product or employee-like design accountability.
In our example, we’re replacing a highly-creative game/brand design firm with someone more operational, but we want strong technical ability to limit engineering risk during iteration. The software development lineage fits because it’ll deliver:
- Better alignment with our current delivery model
- Stronger operational and iterative design expertise
- Shorter gaps/cycles—strongest dev knowledge in design
- Lower prices (~20–50% less per hour vs. big design)
With the following caveats:
- Our project will feel like staff aug
- They may have difficulty using our process instead of theirs
- They’ll always be angling for engineering work
If we start our list by looking for software development companies that provide UX, we’ve excluded 6 other types who wouldn’t match our stated goals.
Now that we’ve got some names, it pays to consider the firm’s nature. Are they the big name in the region or country? Are they quiet, lesser known, but have a strong body of work? Are they just loud and led by a braying LinkedIn celebrity? Somewhere in between? Classify them by whether you think:
- Tech industry insiders would use this firm
- Insiders would avoid this firm
To gauge this best, ask a UX designer friend for a quick flyover of each site. To gauge it yourself, measure the spin-to-proof ratio in their marketing. Are they able to communicate what they actually do, or do they somehow do everything? Is their marketing content all Current Thing jargon? Do their case studies provide evidence?
Second, it pays to look at where those names came from—source directly impacts credibility. First, categorize your names by:
- Firms known to you from previous experience
- Firms referred to you by trusted sources
- Firms found cold
Also, if you know insiders at a given firm or a partner of that firm, make a discreet inquiry about them. Use inside knowledge to disqualify firms in turmoil.
It’s been our experience that the best design relationships are insider firms sourced cold. In other words, the hardest type to find.
Sometimes you want cheap. Other times you want expensive. Most often, you need something in between. If a firm wants $100.00/hr or less for UX design, they’re cheap. If they want $250.00/hr or more, they’re expensive, and they need your help paying for Manhattan or Mission real estate overhead.
In UX, the middle segment contains the highest variety and the most specialists. High end firms sit atop their reputation, while the low end is usually outsourced. Choosing which slot you want to play in should cull a significant number of firms from your list.
Notice that we don’t classify firms by size. People use this as a corollary for professionalism or depth, but it’s been our experience that a firm’s size has a slightly inverse correlation with its performance even for enterprise customers—big firms have big overhead and often prioritize process over progress.
Through the triangulation process, you should be able to create your list of 8. Book your meetings, hopefully suffering as little Calendly as possible.
The absolute last thing you want is to do all this work and receive a bunch of apples-to-oranges bids. It’s imperative that you set expectations skilfully. We’d even argue that whoever on your team sets expectations most clearly and conscientiously should drive each vendor conversation.
We’ve condensed the details into list format below—please leverage and modify these as needed.
Start with this qualification meeting’s agenda:
- State your goal: determine if Firm X would like to help you
- Describe your situation
- Describe selection process
- Ask questions (them and you)
- Outline how you’ll support this project
- See if vendor's in or not
Deliberate structure will ensure that you don’t waste anyone’s time.
Whether you’ve got a new project or you need help on an existing one, you’ll cover similar material:
- Existing or intended physical product overview (if applicable)
- Existing or intended software application overview
- Critical context (large fleet, constant problems, etc.)
- Motivating issues (low star rating, compatibility, etc.)
- What you’ve tried so far/what got you here
- Current state of the program and why you need help, for example:
- Gotten through the initial determination of the feature set and primary user workflows.
- Must get into the next level after finalization: turning it into a real app design.
- What, specifically, you want the vendor to do
- Integration with your team
- How and where design requests will appear
- Task estimation and execution approach needs
- Design testing
You can also add information about stakeholders, budgets, timelines, etc. if you know them and want to provide them.
Explain your selection process in a matter-of-fact way:
- Interviewing 8 candidates today to build a profile of each
- Present 8 profiles to an internal committee and downselecting to 4
- Those 4 candidates will be invited to bid and conduct an official requirements gathering meeting with the committee, and the committee will provide feedback on those bids
- Winner asked to write a contract, backup informed of #2 finish
While there’s more to it, you’ll likely deflect questions about incumbents and other stakeholders here.
Interrogate your vendors with the following questions during your first meeting:
- Describe an ideal project
- What does a prototypical sprint (or other delivery process) look like?
- What are your preferred inputs from the business?
- How do you like to deliver work/preferred outputs?
- How do you like to interact with non-engineering teams?
- What’s your general design philosophy?
- What are your core design competencies?
- What’s not a focus?
- How do you distinguish design for IoT from other types of UX design?
- Other company competencies?
- What are your preferred methods? (Agile/scrum/waterfall/whatever?)
- Tell us some stories that showcase your design experience (you want to hear 3), for example:
- Something else?
- Typical team makeup?
- Sizing/estimation method—capacity/task/retainer/staff aug?
- Current lead time?
- Work location?
- How do you handle breaks in work?
- What questions do you have for us?
- Are you in? Is ours a project you could help with?
As a bonus, any secondary listeners on your team should pay attention to a few indirect questions:
- Could a group like this fit into our operations?
- Will they bring something that we need or find valuable?
- Do I want to hear more?
This interview will take time and will certainly make the interviewee sweat, but they’ll realize fast that you’re serious and see your preparedness as a signal that you’d make a superior client.
Be sure to describe the vendor’s potential:
- Primary contact
- Stakeholder array
- Input from support disciplines: product management, engineering, requirements, QA, CI, etc.
Of all the pieces so far, this one underscores the strength of your opportunity in the vendor’s eyes.
Do not skip this question. The potential for money doesn’t replace consent. You want your potential vendor to declare whether or not they’d like to proceed with your procurement process at the end of this meeting. If you want this vendor’s best people, you’ll have to earn their trust like they have to earn yours.
A lot will come into focus after your interviews. The winner may even feel obvious, but we guarantee that will change after you begin the selection process.
While it’s tempting to jump straight into individual comparisons or fixate on specifics, start by evaluating the strength of the candidate pool to determine whether you hit the target or not.
- How are candidates similar?
- Design heritage
- Industry focus
- Interface focus
- Toolset and work output
- Areas of inexperience
- Project management method
- Price tier
- How do candidates differ?
- IoT/connected and ecosystem design experience
- Application vs. brochureware experience
- UX design practice maturity and focus areas
- Tech vs. design bias
- Software development heritage nuances
- Account management style
- Work location
- Price tier
Do your answers align with your stated goals and needs? Was this the right pool? If everything looks good, proceed with the selection process.
In your vendor briefing, you skimmed over the process. Here’s a deeper look what you’ll need to drive behind the scenes to get from 8 to 4 to 2 to 1:
- Before we forget, you’ll need a committee. Create this with 2–4 additional stakeholders. Ideally, one of them is a UX expert. Even an external one will help considerably.
- The answers to the questions you asked in each meeting should be built into vendor profiles your committee can review.
- Present each profile for downselection. The key question for your committee: do you actually want to hear from this company? 8→4
- Issue formal bid submission requests to your chosen 4. Each should be delivered on official letterhead. Please cc all the right stakeholders to enhance its seriousness.
- Your vendors will want to schedule requirements gathering meetings in order to create a useful bid. These will be long and detailed—make sure your team understands!
- Your committee will review proposals and offer written feedback, which you may have to synthesize and deliver. Feedback will reveal how this firm reacts to critique.
- Your vendor’s revised proposals should narrow down the final 2 candidates. 4→2
- Boss battle—the winner can make their finalized pitch and iron out details. 2→1
Once you have a winner, you’ll know what to do next!
At Next Mile we’ve initiated, shaped, led, and rescued many connected product and IoT UX programs. Contact us if you’d like help finding and evaluating the perfect UX team for your IoT program.