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What is a Product Firm?

Ryan Frederick | March 17th, 2020

Is it a digital design agency? Yes. Is it a development firm? Yes. It is a digital agency? Maybe. Is it an IT consulting or staffing firm? No. So, what is a digital product firm and why does understanding the difference matter?

A digital product firm, sometimes also referred to as a product studio, is a firm that has the experience and expertise to take a digital product from concept to go live. At AWH, we refer to this as end-to-end. Different from the more limited design firm or development firm, a product firm like us has a multi-disciplinary team across the many disciplines required to create a digital product and not just capable of doing one aspect of it. This matters. Why? Because the best products get created through constant iteration between the creators and the users. There are myriad of micro-decisions that get made along the way that in the aggregate make a huge difference in the product being the best it can be as quickly and efficiently as possible. Inside of this fast-paced, highly iterative process there is also a tremendous amount of context. When a product is being handed from one firm to another context is lost. The best, most successful products are built by self-contained teams iterating quickly with everyone involved having full context.

The best product teams are composed of the most elite of their trade. Like a team of Navy Seals, our team is a highly trained and skilled team of specialists that can execute their craft in rhythm in the shortest time possible for the desired outcome. Whereas a design firm has designers and a development firm has developers working independently of each other, a product firm picks the best designers and the best developers and pairs them with the best product managers, architects, and data engineers to bring a team of digital craftspeople together that is unmatched in capability.

Most digital agencies value design over development because the design is sexy and it sells. Design is also more tangible to clients. They can see a design, they can interact with it, and they can have an opinion on it. Unless a client knows how to write and read code, the development part is a black box. This creates a divide frequently inside of digital agencies with design believing and acting as if they are superior to development and development, therefore, feeling subservient to design. The divide prevents the best work from being done and the best products from being created. A product firm treats all aspects of the product creation process as equal and each team member as an equal voice and perspective. Team leadership can be flexible at different points in time depending on what is happening with the product at that time. An architect might take the lead for a session and a decision, a designer the next, a product manager the next, and so on. Product teams work in the best interest of the product and the desired product value for users. Product teams and firms leave the politics and control irrelevance to the agencies.

Another significant and valuable difference between product firms and other types of firms is having consistent participation from all crafts through the entirety of the process. Too often with design only firms and development only firms, the baton gets passed from one to the other with no or not enough participation throughout the entire product process. A designer can’t just design user experiences, user interfaces and then walk away, but this happens often. Similarly, when someone else is responsible for the design, development firms care less about whether they develop to the specifications of the design. And because of the handoffs and the lack of a craft being present throughout the entirety of a product creation process, a lessor product gets created. The best, most successful products get created in a highly collaborative environment that can’t exist with handoffs and domains.

Product firms essentially allow a client to have an end-to-end product team that is an extension of the client. It’s as if the product firm’s team members are members of the client’s team. The lines don’t just get blurry, they go away. Product firms become as invested in the success of the product as the client does. We see and live this “all-in” mentality at AWH. Designing screens is good, writing code is good, architecting the proper data schema is good, but what is great, and what makes a product great, is all of these areas working in harmony, like a symphony. The beautiful music a symphony makes that is made up of a variety of musicians is the beauty of a product firm.