How to buy concept design—10 tips for cost-effectiveness

Given that design quality correlates highly with results, companies pay surprisingly little attention to selecting great designers and buying service design projects.

Buying a concept design project is not a simple task. Agencies have vastly varying approaches and experience backgrounds, which makes it hard to evaluate whether a certain agency is fit for your job or not. But there are ways to make the selection process smoother and more successful.

This article gives you 10 tips that help you be a better buyer. Follow the advice and I can guarantee that your next concept design project will bring you more results—most likely at a lower cost.

Great Grey Owl (Strix nebulosa) Tornio Finland March 2009, Markus Varesvuo

Tips 1-5: How to prepare for the concept design project

1) Do your user research. It’s not rocket science and you don’t need a digital agency to do it. If you want help in interviewing your own stakeholders, clients and users, hire a user research agency. The research usually takes a few months so start as early as possible. Make sure you document the process so you can hand the whole package (questions asked, themes discussed, answers received) to the concept designer later on. Ideally, summarize the research results and present its highlights to your management.

2) Set the business goals for the project. Interview your management team and key stakeholders, then build a vision for the project. But don’t wait for the concept design project to set your business goals. You should constantly be clear on your business goals based on user research and management interviews. If you need help in setting the goals, use a consultant or consult your professional network about their experiences.

3) Develop the top 3 user personas for your website. After all, you should know your business and your customers. You can ask the concept design agency to improve the personas, but you should have all data collected and a rough idea of the personas before the concept design work starts.

4) Get a budget for the project. If you understand your business, your current situation and your goals you should be able to estimate roughly whether you need a simple facelift or need to build everything from scratch. Your chosen concept designers should always know in advance how much money you’re prepared to invest. Nobody wants to design elements that eventually get scrapped purely because of money constraints. There is a big difference in the process whether you have 50,000 euros or 200,000 euros for the implementation.

5) Decide the outcome of the project. Do you want a powerpoint presentation or visual design files (PSD) or an HTML prototype? What is the most important document that needs to come out of the project? As a rule of thumb, the more thorough your preparation, the further you can go with the results documentation. If you have diligently done your user research and know what you want, always aim for the high-fidelity prototype.

Set a budget minimum of around 20,000 euro (+ applicable VAT) for a concept design project. If you also want user research, detailed content design and a prototype, calculate up to 50,000 euro. Generally, you shouldn’t pay over 50k euro even for a large and complex website. It is more efficient to split a large project into two phases or two separate projects.

Tips 6-10: How to select the best agency

6) Decide whether you want a digital marketing agency or a user experience agency. There are few agencies who can combine these two skill areas. Even bigger agencies will have difficulty staffing the project if the client demands strong experience from both areas. Most digital agencies are better in user experience design than in digital marketing consulting. The safer bet is to primarily demand strong user experience design skills.

7) Decide whether you want a pure design agency or an agency that can also implement the website. Design agencies are usually better at facilitating workshops and truly thinking about the users. The more you need great design thinking, the more likely you should build your shortlist from pure design agencies. If your project is pretty straightforward, you might prefer an agency with implementation capabilities. Full-service agencies are often better at designing websites that are also easy to maintain and develop further. Especially if your budget is limited you might prefer an agency with implementation capabilities. Even if you don’t continue with the same partner the concept is probably cheaper to implement if designed by a full-service agency.

8) Always demand a fixed price and a good project plan. You should evaluate the methods and workshop plans of the agencies in particular. A fixed price forces the agencies to really think things through and not just showcase their great “design approach” (which they never get to do since it would shoot the price through the ceiling to begin with). It is also good practice to tell the agencies how much you expect the concept design project to cost (at least roughly, such as between 30k and 40k euro).

9) Ask to see the personal CVs and details of each team member’s project expertise. Individual project experience is much more important than agency experience in concept design projects. Every candidate that has at least two really experienced and skilled designers should be seen as a serious candidate. Also you might ask other proof of individual competence and passion for building great web experiences. The best concept designers have blogs, Slideshare accounts and other merits that showcase their passion.

10) Ask the contact details for every reference case you are shown. If you think a particular case is a good fit, call the contact person and ask how the project went and what kind of a role the agency had. Especially ask the contact person what they did themselves before the agency started the work. Too often the best cases are ones where the client has done all the thinking and the agency just turned a strong vision into pretty designs (which is OK if that’s what you’re looking for).

Finally, always meet the proposed team face to face before your final decision. Two finalists should be fairly easy to pick out and the final decision made based on meetings. You want a team that you feel comfortable working with!

PS. Examples of concept design agencies that can have been short-listed in North Patrol’s projects several times: ActiveArk (Finland/UK), Avaus (Finland), Creuna (Finland/Sweden), Exove (Finland), Frantic (Finland), Idean (Finland/US), LBi (Sweden/global), N2 (Finland), Nordkapp (Finland), Palmu Inc (Finland), Solita (Finland), Valve (Finland).

4 thoughts on “How to buy concept design—10 tips for cost-effectiveness

  1. This is a highly useful article for anyone planning a web project. I have to stress the importance of #2 as I’ve seen too many projects starting without real, measurable business goals during the years.

    Another point I’d like to elaborate a bit is #5. It’s way too usual for projects to pursue pretty, high-fidelity decoration without any real plan on the actual content. Don’t fall into the trap of buying decoration instead of design.

  2. Thanks for the article Perttu! You really nailed down some important solutions to avoid the concept design hiccups! I totally agree on 1,2 and 4. I also sort of on 3 (but think it is enough to make a simple presentation of the vital end-users and their needs – for example ).

    I’ve been a web designer since 1999 (yaikes!) and a concept designer for about 6 years now. I’ve been planning applications and web sites implemented by our company (Ambientia) and I’ve also been doing concept design for projects implemented by other companies. So, based on my my experience, I think these points should be added to this list:

    “Tips 1-5: How to prepare for the concept design project”

    5+: Keep your own team flexible and make sure you have the right people involved during the whole concept design process. One should have the team selected beforehand! The team should be agile during the design and try even crazy stuff to keep the ideas flowing (you can always label ideas “maybe some day” or just trash them). Concept design is all about finding, testing and polishing (+ documenting) ideas around the business goals. To make this work you need the right (minded) people from the company. (Great) Concept Designers have the technique to ask the right questions and ways to implement ideas (in various ways) but your own people (and you customers) are the gold mine of your business related ideas.

    “Tips 6-10: How to select the best agency”

    10 +: it’s not easy to make a “ready to implement make no changes” concept design for agile projects. And (IMHO) I don’t think that it is the right way either. World and also goals tend to change. Details always change. One must make sure one asks the concept designer (or the team of designers) to present the outcome of the concept design phase at the actual building phase kick-off and spare some concept designer days for later use during project. And (btw) ask how the design agency takes care of agile approach during concept design. For example: the concept will be shipped in multiple releases.

    My 2 cents – and please add Ambientia to the list :)

    Rock on Perttu ja kiitos kun viet suunnittelun sanomaa eteenpäin!

  3. Thanks for the comments Jarno and Tuuli. Im currently doing a bit more detailed version in Finnish (for and I will add your recommendations also to the story (I will give credit to you guys in the end of the article).

    Jarno: I fully agree that if the client decides to do a prototype, then also the content plan should be ready enough so that key areas in the prototype will have real content. Just doing an UI prototype without real content is usually a waste of money.

    Tuuli: Great additions. I included both to my new version. Somewhat differently than what you propose, but still :) You’ll see.

    In our view Ambientia is quite heavily a technical agency. We know you have concept design skills (eg. you), but thats not really something that you guys promote heavily. If that changes, you might get more RFPs from us also. :)

    Thanks again for the great comments!

  4. I really like your tip about having a fixed price for your design with the agency you choose to work with. Having a fixed price allows you to stay within your budget and allows the agency to stay focused on the specifics of the project. I will be sharing these tips with my sister who is looking into design companies.

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