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  • May 31, 2012

Vendor Selection Advice From The Front Lines...

Recently, I offered my suggestions regarding the RFP construction and management process, but I left my dear Decorative Illustration readers with a cliffhanger… Now that your RFP is complete and you’re evaluating responses and pitches, how do you select the right proposal?

This is alchemy. There is no guaranteed or bonafide method that works for everyone. Sorry. Evaluating design, UX, and/or development teams is an exercise in predicting future success based on previous results. Sometimes the trick is finding what you really need in a sea of information that RFP respondents think you need. What is important to you? Intuitive user experience? Awesome. Intelligent graphic design? Sweet! Bullet proof code that offers accessibility across browsers? Now we’re talkin’.

Now, what is really important to you? What about coming in under budget? Or launching on time? Or being handed a site you can manage internally moving forward? Let’s focus on everything that matters, not just the stuff you want to talk about when interviewed by .net Magazine post-launch. I’ll walk through a few criteria and site some examples.

FULL DISCLOSURE: These are Happy Cog examples. It’s the space I know best, it’s a glimpse behind the curtain for the curious, and as the Business Development Director, it’s kinda my job to sell us a little bit. If this turns you off, read no further and check out these awesome cat gifs instead.


You and (hopefully a manageable subset of) your team are going to work with this agency/team/firm under tight deadlines and rising stakes. The way you work together during the relatively stress-free sales process is a great predictor of what working together during the more stressful periods of the project will be like. We evaluate prospective clients through this lens all the time. Specifically, the strength of the project manager they dedicate to the effort and the quality and tone of communication.

How seriously do the firms under consideration value collaboration?
How have they addressed that as a capability or practice?
Do they say “yes” to everything, or are they actually going to help lead this project?
How will they help you sell the project through your organization?

If you’re lucky, you’ll get a great vibe from your interactions through the sales process. Maybe they’ll even offer you a glimpse into the team and how they work.

Previous or current clients can provide insight into their experiences through references. Better yet, you can do some digging to see what clients say without being prompted:


So, now you know the folks under evaluation are going to be great to work with. The next question is, what are they going to deliver? I know you want to look into a crystal ball and see the project outcome now. It’s the same human need that leads to the invention of 3-D ultrasound machines and searching your house for Christmas presents. But, you’re not going to request spec work. We’ve covered this previously. What you can ascertain, is the method behind the madness.

Design is problem solving. Say that to yourself 10 times under your breath (now apologize to the people near you who you just freaked out). What any vendor should be able to communicate, is how they solve problems. What methods or approach do they employ? Faith in this process is what gets designers though rounds of revision to arrive at a final result. It’s faith in the process that will similarly get you through the stressful stretches within your project.

Once the process has been described, does it feel like it would work for you and your team? Are they describing their approach in an understandable way, or are they pulling a David Copperfield, trying to razzle dazzle you with industry jargon and arcane terminology? Now that they’ve described their process, are they going to provide what you need? I often explain:

“At Happy Cog, informed by user research and focused on business requirements, we create user experience and design systems coded to the highest industry standards, and then we teach you and your team how to manage your website’s new publishing platform.”

That’s the elevator pitch, but what does it really mean? What are the advantages and what are the risks? What it means, is that in many cases we design the critical core experiences and interactions of the site, and create documentation that acts as the decision making models you need to add and extend our work. We don’t typically build every page out for your new site. The good news? You own your site. You can add to and evolve the experience infinitely, without having to call an agency to make updates. The bad news? You need to have some internal capability to flesh out and extend your site.


So now that you know what to expect, contextualize it through previous results. Look at the evidence at hand, but also consider what the vendor highlights about what was important in their own work. Do they demonstrate they care about the same things as you? Are they more focused on making a splash than ROI? Did they create something mind-blowing, but also blow their deadlines? Are there broken links in the vendor’s case studies? Typos? How many change requests did they have to author midstream and why? These are all questions you have a right to ask, and ones a smart agency endeavors to answer.

Here’s some of our work to give you a sense of what we do and what we think is important to understand within these projects.

If you’d rather look at our results through the lens of our industry, or our peers’ perspectives, we’re happy to stand by what others have to say about us too.

Hopefully you now have vendors evaluated or graded based on:
  • How nicely they play with others
  • How they make the donuts
  • Their track record

You have to make a call. Hopefully there is a runaway favorite. If it’s a photo finish, rank your priorities, identify the option that best meets your most important needs. Make a decision based not only on what launch day will look like. Make a decision based on what project day 10 will look like, day 100, day 200… It’s the stuff in between kickoff and launch that really matters. This is a critical and unique opportunity. Pick the partner that makes the most sense for you, and make sure you enjoy the ride.

We’d love to work with you, but this isn’t just about us. In the hopes of making your partnership with any team more successful, we’re sharing these resources and insights:

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