Unsure Whether to Keep Digital Product Development In-House?

Why Outsourcing Digital Product Design Will Benefit Your Organization

Photo: JP Holecka
Published by J.P. Holecka on 11.05.2019

Enhance your user experience; track in-depth data and analytics; engage with your customers: there’s so much your company can do with digital products — such as websites, web apps, and mobile apps — when they’re designed and executed properly.

And yet, too many well-intentioned businesses build digital products that fail — or never get launched at all — wasting time and resources along the way. That’s because building digital products is a strategic, intentional, and resource-intensive process. For many enterprise companies, it’s hard to allocate the in-house time and talent and support the agile and iterative culture, required to build the calibre of application needed. It’s even harder to do it fast enough that a competitor doesn’t get there first — or worse, do it better.

It’s also challenging for internal teams to obtain the critical distance they need to see their business and customers from a new perspective, and pivot to a different way of doing things.

That’s why so many businesses look to digital product design studios to solve their app development challenges. Handing over the reins on a mission-critical project can feel risky, but there are many benefits to consider, too.

Why Work With a Digital Product Studio?

Companies may assume that keeping digital product development in-house means they get to maintain creative control and have more oversight on the project; they’d prefer to work closely with people they already know — and who know their business — on systems they trust.

However, there are a lot of misconceptions inherent in this. For starters, assembling an in-house digital product team is a challenge, whether sourcing from among your busy team members or recruiting and hiring new talent with the right skill sets and culture fit. Both can be costly in terms of time and resources. Furthermore, working with third parties does not mean that you cede oversight or creative control — and the agency you work with may be more familiar with your development software and processes than your own team.

So, let’s say you’ve decided to open your doors to some off-site experts for help. Whom should you choose to work with? App development companies (Dev Shops) can produce made-to-order applications if you’re confident you know precisely what you want. But there’s a lot of added value that a digital product studio can bring to the table, due to its varied portfolio and broad experience.

  • A studio includes a comprehensive, tailored strategy and design process, and conducts different methods of user research, as well as hypothetical modelling and testing, to inform development.
  • These processes create a product that is head-and-shoulders above the rest, because it is built with human-centric design principles in mind.

Investing in this calibre of effort and detail delivers superior results in the long run. For customers, it leads to enhanced brand experiences and increased engagement, conversations, and conversions. Behind the scenes, it immediately saves the company time and stress, then continues to pay dividends down the line.

A well-known challenge in the product world is scalability. Too often, we find ourselves straining to grow a product that was not built with the future in mind, either tacking on features at the expense of the user’s experience or spending months re-working and fortifying infrastructure. That pain is mitigated by bringing in a focused, strategy-first product studio to lay the right foundation from the start.

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IP and security are top priorities for companies thinking of outsourcing and are a common source of concern. But in North America and Europe, where security and confidentiality standards are exceptionally high, this shouldn’t be a barrier — companies retain their IP regardless of whether their digital products are built in-house or by a trusted partner.

How Do You Choose Which Studio to Work With?

When selecting a product studio to work with, here is some advice that’s as simple as it is true: look at its previous projects.

Does it have a proven track record, and are past clients willing to refer it? Referrals should not be dismissed; because digital products are now so integral to the value chain of today’s companies and their various touchpoints, you need to vet potential partners beyond the simple case study. There are platforms that can assist with selecting vetted third-parties, such as Clutch.co.

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When evaluating a studio, consider not only its portfolio, but the collective experience of its team. Are its team leads accomplished professionals with backgrounds in product strategy, design, and development? Even a comparatively expensive studio suddenly seems premium price when you’re investing in the expertise of seasoned product designers, strategists, and developers. Complex challenges can be solved quicker, speed to market is increased, and risks are reduced.

Pro tip: If you’re a Canadian company, you may qualify for the Scientific Research and Experimental Development Tax Incentive Program (SR&ED) when working with a digital product studio. This can reduce the cost of hiring a studio and bring it in line with in-house costs.

What Differentiates One Studio Over Others?

Speaking from personal experience, having a team of diverse, professional experts with both practical and theoretical knowledge has been critical to our success building apps that our clients — and our own team — can take pride in.

Be sure to look for a studio that applies best practices in design thinking and lean development to projects. Also, remember that your experience of working with their team matters, too: you’ll be spending a lot of time together. Reputable studios seek to establish a strong track record and longstanding relationships with clients. Here are some of the ways this can be accomplished:

  • A collaborative approach is key. A product studio needs to be available and accountable to its clients. No insularity, and certainly no surprises.
  • A very transparent relationship should be in place to better manage project scope, timelines, and budgets.
  • Speed-to-market should be a priority for any product studio looking to create a competitive advantage for their clients.
  • Products are, of course, meant to maximize ROI. But the right studio will know to always design for the end consumer, since delighting users is what truly brings the best long-term results.

In my view, by the time a client completes the first third of their project, their product studio should feel like an extension of their own team. If you’re working with a studio that has resisted adapting to your culture and values, or their team insists on working on their own for long stretches of time, that should raise a red flag.

If I’m in the same city as a client, my team often elects to co-locate so that we can work together whenever necessary, and adapt to their operations and workflows. If we’re not located in the same city, we check in daily, share Slack channels, and find chances to speak face-to-face whenever possible.

Along the way, we make sure we pass on our knowledge to our clients’ in-house team so that they’re positioned to manage their product after our engagement has ended.

Partner With a Studio That Prepares You for Success

Whether the handover of the product takes weeks or months, your studio can help ease the transition by providing a product manual so your team members can familiarize themselves with the app design and development. They could also help create a strategy to operationalize it in-house, and even assist in identifying and hiring the right internal team members to take the project over.

There may be cases where it’s more practical to contract the studio to manage the product across its lifetime. This approach is applicable in multiple scenarios, and it’s one that companies should consider more often. For example:

  • If the client doesn’t have an existing product team.
  • If there is a product team, but they’re preoccupied with other duties.
  • If the company has a head count cap that stops them from bringing more full-time staff in-house.
  • If hiring more full-time employees would pose a financial liability.
  • If the product is not core to their business offering.

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