Not so long ago I received an email from a former student of mine who has just started up his own design studio asking whether or not outsourcing work to contractors, freelancers or studios makes sense and what to look out for.
Especially for upcoming design studios or companies / agencies who are lacking in a certain area (such as developers or Flash animators) it makes sense looking to outsource work to keep employment costs low and not having to worry about whether or not there will be enough work to keep someone (or a whole team) employed.
Read after the fold what to look out for…
Before you make the jump into outsourcing client work, make sure you think about the following:
Since you are dealing with an external source to work on a project that you managed to acquire maybe through a long process of sales and pitching or a project for a product that you created – it is important that the resources you hire are happy to sign a confidentiality agreement prior to commencing any work, and that everything they work on goes to you first. Between them and the client you are the account handler and the buffer, even if that means a bit more leg-work than with your regular employees.
Quality of work
When outsourcing project work you need to make sure that the quality both you as well as the client would expect is to a very high standard. Having a team on location in your office is always a good thing to see what is being worked on and if the project progresses as it should.
I remember a project where we commissioned a Flash animator to work on a flash-based mini-site for a T-shirt brand based on the core ideas behind the brand and the visuals we prepared for both online and off-line advertising. This animator was hired through the MD and was a friend of the family. Half-way down the project we sat down to see how the mini-site was coming along, and we were appalled by the blandness of the animation, the crude timelines and overall feel. “It’ll look better soon, I’ve got someone else working on the artwork, I am just preparing all the animation steps”. We hired someone else.
If you are looking for a resource then make sure that the person you are hiring:
- Has a good portfolio and / or sample work at the day of the interview in a style similar to the project you are working on, or can adapt to the style you are after
- Is being recommended by someone in your industry or you have had a previous experience working with
- Or has done work on similar projects
- Can do the work that he / she promised. Sometimes the resource you are hiring may not be fully fluid in a subject (such as ActionScript 3.0) and may be asking for help from a friend. That is of course fine, but make sure the resource understands that this may not impede a project or its timelines, and that any resource help requests will not be paid by you
- Is communicative and happy to give you updates on the project and can discuss problems (and solutions) with you and the team when or ideally before they arise.
Communication is a key in our industry. It is very important that you know how a project progresses, so that you can update not only your own team and superiors, but also your clients. Especially with external resources, a constant flow of communication needs to be put (and kept) in place. Especially when it comes down to sudden changes or amends to the project these will need to be communicated properly and as they arise with everyone. This may sound like usual common practice, but there are many horror-stories about projects being delayed due to lack of (or mis-)communication.
Remember to send out updates to the teams working on the project so that everyone knows how the project progresses and / or what to look out for and what needs to be worked on. It is very important that everyone talks to each other, which may be an issue for some in your team, as the outsourced resources are not in the office and as such easily forgotten / overlooked.
This is one thing you need to be aware of – deadlines may slip!
Due to the fact that some agencies or studios you outsource to may either already have work on the go or may only put limited resources into a project it could be that your work is being pushed back or given less attention than they (and especially you) would prefer.
I commissioned a studio to work on an administration backend that would tie in with a 3rd party application. About 2 months before the go-live date we informed the studio that we would need to begin styling and user-testing within the next week or two, just to receive the response “oh, we haven’t done much yet, we haven’t even looked at the integration yet.”
When it comes down to deadlines and projects that you know cannot slip much it is always worth to clearly define certain stages of outsourced development work. In an ideal world, you would want a weekly update, with a formal meeting / demonstration after every quarter of the project (if the project runs for 4 months you would want an update every end of the month). Towards the end of the 3rd quarter of the project the team you outsourced the work to would need to have everything pretty much ready for testing, integration and feedback to ensure nothing has been missed, call to actions are clear and the integration outputs the correct data.
Keeping track of a project can be a bit daunting at first and it will take some time to get used to and to not overwork either anyone in your team or yourself. But keeping track of external as well as internal resources can become a balance act unless you do it very methodically:
- When hiring external resources, ensure that the resources can do the work both from a skill-level but also from a time-level
- Paperwork: make sure that a contract as well as a confidentiality agreement is signed from both parties before commencing any work
- Make sure your team is aware of the external resources and what their role is
- The external resources need to get to know the people in your team they will be spending the most time with and would need to be able to communicate on a friendly and professional level at all times
- Updates: these should be giving and communicated in regular intervals both in writing as well as in form of meetings and demonstrations to ensure that the project is on schedule and to amend any problems that might have arisen at this stage
- Time-keeping and project management: This one goes hand-in-hand with ‘5. Updates’ – your team as well as the external resources need to make sure that certain stages of any project are finished on time and on budget and that testing and signoff is done well in advance of presenting the project to the client. Remember that the client may also have feedback, so plan in time for that as well.
Getting a project online successfully with the help of external resources is not difficult as long as you have clear guidelines throughout the project and keep your team, your resources and your clients informed about what is going on and what will happen. Always remember that an outsourced project may take a bit more time than an internally kept project, and you need to make sure that you have plenty of time allocated for any eventuality. Who knows, maybe one day the external resource you just contracted may in fact end up in your team after all? 😉