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…
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