My response to the question of speculative pitches | February 11, 2010

A few nights ago I attended a UX-Bri session where one of the speakers floated the idea of doing free usability testing in order to win projects. I asked about the moral implications of this and was surprised by the response. While the audience largely disagreed with the idea of speculative design work, it seemed that speculative UX work was somehow more acceptable. The speaker later cc’d me into an email question from one of the audience members querying my negative reaction to speculative pitching so here was my response…

“Dear XXXX,

There has been a debate over the subject of speculative work running within the design community for some time now, so I thought it was worth raising the issue.

One side of the argument states that helping a client solve their problems for free, before being awarded a contact is bad practice. This camp feels that speculative work of any kind devalues the work that we do by the very fact that we’re giving it away at no cost. This helps solidify the notion that thinking about a problem is free and that designers should only get paid for production work. However many designers feel that it is in-fact their problems solving abilities that give them their competitive edge and that the production work is just a by-product of this. The fear is that if designers continue to do work for free, this may become expected practice, as it is in other creative industries. This puts the power squarely in the hands of the client, forcing all designer to capitulate and therefor suffer large amounts of outlay in order to secure relatively modest contracts.

The other side of the argument states that designers should do whatever they need in order to win a project and that speculative work is a legitimate means of business development. Many of them will count this as part of their new business development spend and will have already accounted for this in their rates. These designers cite that speculative work is already expected in other fields like advertising so is becoming the norm. They will also argue that speculative work is no different from other sales activities like meetings, proposal writing etc.

Personally I feel that this argument is rather reductive. Just because speculative work exists in other industries doesn’t mean that it has a place on the web. With large advertising agencies the contracts can be worth millions of pounds. With these kind of figures at stake it seems worth spending a couple of weeks on a pitch. However very little web work comes close to these figures, so the amount of speculative work needed is disproportionately high.

While it is true that speculative work can help you win projects in the short term, once it becomes the norm it places a large burden on the industry in general. Due to the cost of speculative work and its early place in the buying cycle, it is rare that you will have enough information to do a sufficiently processional job. As such, not only do you wean clients into the idea that the work you do has little value, but that the resulting quality is low.

As with other industries, there is an inherent ‘cost to sale.’ As such lots of free work does go on. My argument is that this work should involve explaining to your customers how you will go about solving their problems and how you have used similar techniques to solve the problems of other clients. I do not believe that helping to solve clients problems in advance of winning the project is a long term sustainable business practice. Furthermore, by devaluing the work that we do, I feel that speculative problem-solving can damage the industry as a whole.”

Posted at February 11, 2010 9:22 AM


Phil Jackson said on February 11, 2010 11:10 AM

Tricky. I think we’ve all done some sort of ‘free’ work - even without thinking about it. Chatting to someone in the pub about how you work or about projects is giving stuff away. I think it depends on what people are looking to get out of you; are they really only looking for consultation or to sound out ideas? Are they looking to compare you with other possible consultancies. Or is there an absolute solid project they are looking to be created?

For consultation I would keep it to a quick phone chat or a meeting and I’d usually do this for free - but making sure I was letting the client know my working practices and about my area of expertise and maybe demystifying things for them and not commenting on designs others had done or getting into a detailed critique of their current design

Free pitches to see who’s the best - I have done them but wouldn’t again. And anyway any client worth their salt should be able to see from a good portfolio what they are likely to get without going into detail on a current prospective brief.

These are pretty tough times though and I can see why some would give away quite a lot in the hope of some financial return.

Harry Brignull said on February 11, 2010 11:45 AM

To get specific, Ben Sauer’s talk at UX Bri was about using very quick-and-dirty (zero budget) usability testing to demonstrate to a prospect how bad their offering is, and how they need to invest in research.

Ben’s story involved him doing some usability testing for fun (to use Silverback in a realistic situation), then, quite serendipitously, showing the footage to the site owner, and winning work from them as a result.

This is a bit different from doing speculative usability testing as your MO for winning work. I know his talk title made a grand claim along those lines, but I think that was mainly intended to pique interest and stimulate discussion.

For me, the bigger issue in design research consultancy is the old fashioned and time consuming process of RFPs and proposal writing. You typically have to give a detailed breakdown of your proposed research methods, interview outlines, pitfalls to avoid, and so on. Naughtly clients have been known to take the best plan and then give it to the consultancy with the cheapest day rate. Spec work by another name.

Bob said on February 11, 2010 12:34 PM

Worth having a quick look at the protest in place at Belgian sites. Note the way the url changes on each click.

Tom Hume said on February 13, 2010 9:18 AM

I’d say that it depends on what the job is, and what your conversion rate with pitching is… i.e. the cost-of-sale line that you refer to.

If your average job is 10k and you win 1 pitch in 10 then doing 100 of work for each pitch is probably OK - doing 1k probably isn’t.

If the jobs you’re going for are 250k then it’s worth a bit more prep IMHO. I’d be doing a lot more to win a piece of work like this: some up-front research to understand the client and their needs better, maybe some designs to show the kind of things we’re thinking about, travelling abroad to present at our own cost, more time on preparing a proposal… all taking into account the likelihood of getting the job, who we’re up against, how much we want it, and making sure we’re not overspending inappropriately.

I don’t buy the argument that pitch work will devalue the industry or teaches the client that what you do is of little value - the ad industry have done it for years (and complained about it loudly), without this happening to them.

Do you feel any differently about being asked to do this work for existing clients, to pitch for new projects for them? Or has that never happened to you? It’s probably where I’d start drawing the line, myself…

George Birbilis said on February 13, 2010 5:37 PM

Could combine this free work with some social networking offer, say offer this randomly to followers

Harrison said on February 17, 2010 1:03 PM

I do feel that giving away one’s work in this manner is counter productive. If it is monopoly it would have been fine,the ‘sale’ would happen through you only but just think of the entire market.There are people who are fresh starters,experienced and the established. There are also ‘costs’ involved in all creations (needless to mention the ‘genuine’ input from the designers)
What about this factor !
There are people ready to give anything for free just to make a few dollars because of the currency differences in their countries. This also harms the market.
There should not be such practices which ‘add’ to the recessionary forces which further pull down the market revival.

web tasar?m said on February 26, 2010 2:25 PM

No good deed goes unpunished…

Dinu said on February 28, 2010 6:15 AM

It would be interesting to see what will happen when spec work and “freemiums” collide. I believe there’s a time and a place for free pitches, but it wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) become an industry-wide practice.

Joseph McCullough said on February 28, 2010 7:02 PM

As a freelance designer starting out, My projects are very small, running less than $1000 USD. Since I only have one client at the moment, my spec work is relatively high risk, but I think ultimately necessary. The small size of the project causes the relatively high risks. As I am just starting out, (and currently very slow at production) I work for $20 an hour, and I might put 10-15 hours into spec work for a potential client for a site I might try to sell for $750. So if they say no, I’ve lost $300 of my time, almost half of the potential earnings. I really don’t see a way around it for someone who doesn’t have a decent portfolio to show yet. I hope to break from this time-risk investment game when I have some good work to show for.