RFPs: Help Us Help You

The rollout was a big setback for client services in both execution and perception. The site tanked, and the end result, for hundreds of thousands of site visitors, has been error messages, slow response times, the inability to log in or create accounts, and an overall unpleasant user experience. Every designer’s, developer’s, and client’s worst nightmare.

Why did this happen? Part of it stretches all the way back to the process of selecting the firms that participated in the project. Prescriptive RFPs and exhaustive procurement processes have created barriers to entry on government projects that many top design firms are unable, or unwilling, to deal with. And these unfortunate circumstances are not unique to government work. Many organizations believe that an orderly RFP process can help them find the right design partner, when many times, it simply proves that they can successfully execute an RFP process and that design studios can follow directions, the right fit be damned!

If you’re not required to write an RFP, don’t. A concise project summary and some conversations should be enough for prospective agencies to scope your project. But if organizational regulations force you to turn to the dark side, here is a list of some dos and don’ts to consider:

1) Don’t use a template

Start with a clean slate and define the problem from scratch. On the chance that you miss something, a good design partner will ask the right questions to extract any info that is missing.

2) Do keep it brief and define a purpose

Brevity is key. Define your purpose clearly and succinctly. To do this, ask your team questions like:

  • Why are you redesigning the site?
  • What does the current site do well? Where is it lacking?
  • What business requirements must be met?
  • How could user needs be better served?
  • Who are your audiences and what do you want them to do?
  • Who is your team? What will their roles be on the project? Who manages the project? Who makes decisions?
  • Who will maintain the new site after it launches?
  • How will you measure success?
  • What are the project risks?
  • What challenges have you faced in previous work with design partners?
  • After launching the new site, what will change for your organization? What will change for your users?

3) Don’t be prescriptive

Stick to defining the challenges and goals of the project in the RFP and avoid offering, or asking for, solutions at this stage. This allows the respondent to reply with their thinking on the best approach and strategy rather than specific solutions, which should only come after adequate research.

4) Do ask for references

There’s nothing better than talking to the people who’ve been in your shoes. Talking with reference contacts from previous projects is a great way to get unfiltered thoughts on working with a design firm.

And don’t put it off until the end as a formality. As soon as you begin to feel that an agency may be a good fit for you, gather some reference feedback and use it to inform your discussions with the design agency.

5) Don’t ask for spec work

Design is a solution to a problem within a set of constraints. It serves to support the content on a site and help the users complete the desired tasks. A good design process begins with a Discovery phase to define the problem, audiences, etc. Layout or design created without this is simply decoration.

6) Do allow for questions and conversations

Keep the Q&A process open and be available on an as-needed basis. Many times, a key question may not come up until the final stages of an estimate or proposal prep, sometimes right before the response deadline. If you want the best proposals, you’ll want to provide potential partners with the freedom and flexibility to ask questions at any point in the process. RFPs that define a strict cut-off point for questions make me think that the client cares more about the RFP rules being followed (the checklist approach) than finding the right design partner for the project (the best fit approach).

A good team fit is an essential criterion for a successful project, and that is best evaluated through conversations or in-person meetings. You’re going to be working with these folks on a daily basis for months. You should enjoy each other’s company, be able to have fun, and be able to argue. We never take clients we can’t argue with.

7) Don’t invite the whole world

Do some research and ask some people who you trust for referrals. Find sites you like and track down who made them, or pick out some firms that you’ve always wanted to work with. If you decide to invite multiple agencies to reply, keep it to five or less.

8) Do share your budget

Knowing the budget helps us guide you toward solutions in your price range. There are a lot of moving parts that come together to determine the final cost of a project: scope, features, project activities, etc. We’re always open to discussing money and fitting our approach to a budget threshold or range.

9) Don’t define the project timeline

Definitely include target milestone dates or deadlines, but don’t lay out a complete timeline for the project, with deliverable due dates, etc. Let the agency build their process and timeline around your targets.

10) Do define the RFP process timeline

Set clear expectations of when things are due. Allowing a few weeks for the distribution, Q&A, response, meeting, and selection process should suffice, but it’s somewhat dependent on the scale of the project, how many firms you invite to respond, and the formality of the process. You want to make sure that your team has enough time to field and respond to questions (through calls or email) alongside their other job responsibilities. So, if you are inviting five firms or less, four weeks should be enough time for the entirety of the process. If it’s 10, you may want to push it to six weeks.

So, before you issue an RFP for your next design project, consider these guidelines. Think about what’s best for you, your organization, and your users. Ask yourself what approach will help you find the best design partner for the project. Because an RFP can be like a mammothly expensive website that throws error messages, has slow response times, and doesn’t allow users to log in. It’s fancy and follows the rules, but if you can’t get what you need out of it, then it’s a waste of everyone’s time—and money.