Identifying the right development partner can be a daunting prospect. There are a lot of potential partners out there offering similar services, all claiming they are the ideal partner for you. Following a table-driven comparison process such as a Pugh Matrix is helpful, but usually only to eliminate unsuitable candidates rather than for making a final selection. The top competitors may have similar scores, and in any case, the scores are subjective and are often an unwitting projection of personal preference rather than repeatable objective metrics.

The success or failure of relationships, whether business or personal, is dependent on a combination of subjective and objective factors that are often hard to judge or prioritize. As a result, the personal preference of the decision-maker often plays a significant role in the selection. Accepting this fact early in the process and understanding that no relationship will be perfect is key to making a decision and feeling comfortable with it.

We have found that considering the following three questions about your design partner can make your decision easier. 

  • Cultural fit – Will you enjoy working with your partner?
  • Competence – Do they have the expertise and tools?
  • Costs – Are their costs in line with industry standards?

Let’s take a deeper look.

Will You Enjoy Working With Your Partner?

Cultural fit is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of choosing a partner. You will be working closely with your partner throughout the engineering product development lifecycle, and most R&D projects have periods where things don’t go exactly according to plan. Being confident that you will be able to work through these difficulties calmly and logically is extremely important.

Ask yourself:

  • Do you feel that your partner will be honest and transparent?
  • Do they have high integrity and stand by their process?
  • Do they exhibit professionalism and inspire confidence?
  • Does their working style and culture match your own?
  • Do they get enthusiastic references from past customers?

It takes more than just talking to the company’s sales and marketing team. Speak with some of the individuals that you might actually be working with, such as the actual product engineers or senior management. You may also tour the facility of your potential partner. Make sure you get a consistent message throughout the organization and that this message inspires confidence.

Do They Have the Right Technical Skills?

Of course, it’s about more than just culture. Does your potential partner have the experience relevant to your product, company, or concept? The right company should have the expertise and infrastructure to help you with all stages of product development: product definition, estimation & planning, detailed design, verification, and validation & transfer. Moreover, they should have the creativity, agility, and broad range of expertise to support your product with innovation when necessary. They should also have the knowledge and experience to know when an off-the-shelf solution is more efficient.

Ask yourself: 

  • Do they have a flexible product development process with well-developed procedures and project management practices? 
  • Do they have a broad knowledge of product development and the specific expertise that your project requires?
  • Have they solved similar design challenges, such as complicated mechanisms, tight tolerances, or user-interface challenges? 
  • Are they familiar with the regulations and issues of compliance? 

Are They Cost-Competitive?

Most credible R&D partners will follow a milestone-driven, Time and Materials (T&M) model with hourly billing for engineering services. Hourly rates by job function are broadly similar across competing companies, and any partner considered should have competitive hourly rates. Cost overruns are usually generated by spending more hours than expected on a project rather than by minor differences in hourly rates. The ability to finish the job as expeditiously as possible is intimately related to the previous question on competence. 

Competent firms will also generally provide similar estimates of effort for a well-defined scope of work. If estimates of work from apparently competent firms differ by a lot (a factor of two, for example), it usually indicates that they are using different sets of assumptions (which, in turn, may point to an inadequate definition of the task).

It’s also good to understand how a potential partner estimates and tracks costs, how early they are likely to be able to spot overruns, and what their change order process looks like.


Use the matrix approach initially to narrow the field to two or three competitors but accept that the final choice will be subjective, guided by the questions we’ve just covered in this article.

Connect with NOVO today to learn more about getting the product development support that your organization needs. We have the creativity, logistical support, and processes that you need to bring your manufacturing to scale.