Questions You Should Ask An Electronic Product Designer

Choosing the right product design partner can be key to your success when building a new electronic product. Here we highlight 10 things that you should consider when selecting a designer to help you develop your product. Some of these questions are subjective, so remember that what is right for one project or client may not be the best fit for another.

Are they an independent design firm or part of a manufacturing company?
Many manufacturing companies also offer design services, but will they always act in your best interests? They may have in-house staff who are excellent designers, or they may outsource your design to an unnamed third party. Either way, you need to be sure that the designer has the creative freedom to choose the best solution for your design, even if it means the company can not manufacture the product themselves. Some manufactures will be honest enough to consider all the options, while others will stick to just what they can manufacture themselves.

What is their relevant experience?
Electronic products take many forms and vary hugely in complexity, from bike lights to surgical robots. A new product design may require a variety of specialist skills such as analog, RF and high-speed digital design, HDI PCB layout, FPGA and real time embedded firmware. In addition, some products must comply with strict regulations, such as automotive, aerospace or medical devices.
Not all design houses will have the right experience to deliver you a successful product design, so it is important to ask your design house how their experience fits with your needs, and how they will manage any shortcomings.

How will the design house communicate?
Communication is one of the most important factors when choosing who you are going to work with. You need to feel comfortable with the designer you choose, particularly if you do not have a technical background. Your design partner should communicate with you frequently and clearly, explaining technical matters in simple language. They should also be good listeners. Great communication is critical to ending up with the product you envision.
You should ask how often and in what manner they communicate with their clients. Do they provide weekly or monthly progress reports? Can you meet in person? Location may be a consideration because meeting in person can help create trust and a clear channel of communication.
Remember that communication goes two ways. This means you also need to be clear about what you want and be able to articulate your product idea and needs in a clear and concise manner. Good designers will work with you to get the information they need but being prepared will make the process smoother.

How will your product idea be protected?
Working with a design firm means sharing your product ideas, in detail, with a third party. Protecting those ideas could be crucial to the success of your new business. Established design houses should have a process in place for protecting their clients IP, including signing a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) early in the process.
The most important thing is to talk to your design firm and find out how that will protect your IP.

Who owns the IP that is generated?
At the end of the design process will you own the intellectual property that is generated or does the design firm retain it? Owning the IP means that the designs are yours to do with as you please. You may also be able to patent parts of the design to help protect your investment. However, if the design house retains the IP then your options are far more limited.
It is important to find out exactly what rights you and the designer have to the designs once they are complete. We would always recommend that you, the client, own the IP and retain copies of all the design files at the end of the project.

What is the estimated cost and is that good value?
Designing a new electronic product is always a costly undertaking, but you will find a huge range of rates depending on the location and the size of the firm.
Freelance engineers typically charge between £50 to £100 an hour, depending on skillset and experience, with design firms charging somewhat more. It may be tempting to choose the cheapest designer you can find, but this is not always a good idea. A more experienced engineer may save you money in the long run by completing your design more quickly and with fewer errors. Problems identified after the design is complete may cost far more than any savings you make by using an inexperienced designer.
You should also think about what resources the designer has available. Staff, test equipment, and design software all come at a cost, but a better equipped design house may offer better value and a produce better quality design.

How will we be billed?
In most cases your project will be billed on a time and materials basis, so the cost will depend on both rate and how long it takes to complete the project. Your designer should provide you with a detailed break down of the expected costs. In some cases, if the project is simple or very well defined, you may be able to negotiate a fixed price for the work.

Who gets the R&D tax credit?
Designing an electronic product can be expensive, but the UK government offers some tax relief to companies undertaking certain R&D projects. R&D tax credits can make a big difference in the amount of corporation tax you pay, so it is important that you talk to a tax professional and with the design firm you choose about the tax credits. Tax law changes frequently, so it is important to keep up to date. You can check here for current R&D tax laws in the UK.

How long will it take?
Product development often takes longer than people realize and one of the questions we hear all the time is “How can we do it faster?”.
The time it will take to design your product will primarily depend on two factors; the complexity of your idea and the resources that are available.
Your product will likely contain different design elements that can be designed in parallel, for example the electronics, software and housing. On larger projects, it may be possible to divide each of these elements down into smaller work packages which then allows more engineers to work in parallel and speed things up. However, it is important to note that throwing resources at the problem often comes at a cost in terms of increased management and communications effort, and decreased efficiency. Ten engineers will not be twice as fast as five!