5 Tips for Creating a UX Research RFP

Sean Dolan Article

Creating an effective Request for Proposal (RFP) for a UX Research project is challenging. This is true whether you have an internal research team in place and you’re looking to augment their efforts, or you’re starting from scratch. In either case, it’s important to understand what needs to be in the RFP (and what doesn’t), so you can find the right research  partner with as little effort and miscommunication as possible. This will get your project started on the right foot.

To help, we’ve pulled together some useful pieces of advice to assist your RFP creation process.

Tip 1 – Do You Even Need an RFP?

For some companies, the RFP process is a requirement. But in others, it may simply be a formality that isn’t really the best way to identify potential research vendors. RFPs are great for common and well-defined services because they allow for an apples-to-apples comparison of cost. With UX research, however, the exact definition and configuration of the best services to meet your needs is not always obvious, especially if this is your first time putting research into practice.

So, how do you effectively evaluate potential vendors without an RFP?

  • Reach out to a short list of 3 to 5 agencies drawn from professional referrals and domain expertise.
  • Have a short conversation with each vendor about what you think you need.
  • Ask the agency to briefly outline a particular approach that addresses those needs, with an emphasis on explaining why their approach works best.
  • Have the agency provide a ballpark cost estimate based on their suggested approach.

This method allows you to leverage the insights and experience that each agency brings to the table and can help you to craft a better project strategy. It’s also an inexpensive way of educating yourself about different options, while allowing each agency to pitch innovative solutions that are tailored to your particular problems.

But what about that precious apples-to-apples cost comparison? It’s been our experience that it’s mostly illusory. In a large percentage of cases, project scope (and thus costs) shift significantly between the RFP and initial project discovery phases because you only figure out what you really need once you sit down with your vendor and decide on the best strategy. Much of the RFP that was so painstakingly assembled gets tabled for a new approach. Instead, apply all the time, energy and cost required to craft a highly detailed RFP, into a series of informal conversations with vendors, and compare both the approaches and the costs.

Tip 2 – Keep it Simple

Remember, the purpose of an RFP is to effectively define and communicate project scope for the purpose of cost comparison. It is not an encyclopedia of all information tangentially related to the project. Too often RFPs go overboard on the amount of information that is included, which can make it challenging for the agency to digest and respond. While it may seem like a good idea to include as much as possible, too much information just gets in the way of the agency’s ability to discern and prioritize what is most important.

Also, some companies fall into the trap of using a highly complex RFP as a test of an agency’s ability to respond to RFPs, because this somehow signals a certain level of organizational ability and trustworthiness. The unfortunate result, however, may simply be that you weed out all potential vendors who possess the type of nimbleness and agility that can make them a true partner with your team.

In the end, the goal should be to provide just enough information so that the agency can respond appropriately without discouraging a response at all.

Tip 3 – Focus on the WHY Rather than the HOW

One of the most challenging aspects of creating an RFP is the impulse to define all project tasks, deliverables and strategies within the RFP itself. This can be especially challenging for a company that is new to UX research. If you are not a UX research expert, how can you be expected to define a research project? It’s a chicken and egg situation that RFPs perpetuate. Further, such a detailed outline can unnecessarily stifle innovative solutions proposed by your vendors, since they may think that the approach is already set in stone.

We recommend that your RFP encourage innovative approaches rather limit them. To do this, focus less on prescribing specific tasks and deliverables, and focus more on discussing your goals and needs.

  • What questions are you trying to answer?
  • Are you looking to verify an existing hypothesis or uncover new issues you should be exploring?
  • Do you need measurable quantitative data? If so, why?
  • Do you need qualitative exploration and insights?
  • What is the backstory of this project and how does it impact the approach?
  • What do you already know about the areas you are exploring?
  • What are the specific business challenges you are addressing?
  • How do these challenges relate to your overall business strategy?
  • What obstacles are you hoping to overcome?
  • What does success look like at the end of the project?

Remember, your agency is just beginning to learn about your company. Being explicit about your needs and the problems you are trying to solve (rather than detailing the method of solving them) will help the vendor craft a solution that works best for you. This is easier for you, and for the agency.

Tip 4 – Set Clear Expectations and Parameters

A lack of clarity regarding how the project will be conducted can lead to both confusion and frustration for both the company and the agency.  To avoid this, we recommend that your RFP address the following areas:

  • What will the end result of the project be used for?
    Product development? Internal communication? Interface enhancements? The answer to this question often impacts the level of detail and format of the research deliverables.
  • Who will the audience of the deliverables be?
    Senior management stakeholders, product managers and engineers want questions answered in a format that works best for them. Rarely are these the same for all audiences. Senior management stakeholders may want just a high-level but slickly produced presentation of findings, whereas other team members may want and need much more detailed breakdowns of findings. Being clear on who will be consuming the deliverables will impact how they are created.
  • What will the day-to-day project management responsibilities be?
    This applies to both your company and the agency. If your company wants the agency to provide a project manager who is in daily contact, this expectation should be communicated (and budgeted). Conversely, let the agency know how you plan to manage the project internally and who will be responsible for communicating project progress to the rest of the company and making key project decisions in a timely manner.
  • What internal resources will be working on the project?
    If there are internal team members who will be working on the project, even in just an advisory role, include this information. This will help the agency to anticipate what the working relationship will be and how much internal expertise they can rely upon.
  • What constraints will the project need to work around?
    Scheduling, resource availability and technical issues all play a part in developing an appropriate project strategy. Being clear about these issues from the outset can allow the agency to pitch a realistic solution that will not need to be revised once the project gets underway.

Tip 5 – Outline What is NOT in Scope

When working with a new client, agencies get excited about all the interesting questions related to the company, its business, and its products. So, there may be a natural tendency to expand the scope of the inquiry to address these areas. Further, the agency wants to demonstrate some level of understanding of your company, and because they don’t want to leave anything out, may include these elements in their response to the RFP.

Explicitly stating what is NOT within scope can avoid this potential misstep. This can be as simple as a bulleted list of items that sets expectations and keeps the agency from crafting a response that overshoots your needs.

We recommend inserting a brief outline of items to be excluded, such as:

  • Areas that have already been previously researched;
  • Product features or interface components;
  • Business processes and logistics;
  • Business goals and assumptions; and
  • Branding or product positioning.

Conclusion

While avoiding RFPs entirely is not always possible, you can streamline your process by focusing on those elements that describe the nature of the problem you want to solve, and letting your potential vendors scope, strategize and price a solution. Avoid the impulse to exhaustively prescribe a specific approach in the hopes of developing an apples-to-apples cost comparison. Instead, view the RFP process as an opportunity to evaluate each vendor’s competence by the creativity and attentiveness of their proposed solutions. Faster, cheaper and ultimately more effective, this approach leverages the domain expertise of your team with the research expertise of your potential vendors.

About the Author

Sean Dolan

Senior User Experience Architect & Researcher