Reevaluating the Role of RFPs in Digital Product Development

Have you ever had to draft a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a digital product and felt unsure about the process?

Natalia Migdal
Marketing Specialist

Have you ever had to draft a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a digital product and felt unsure about the process? Perhaps you're not a product manager or designer, yet you're expected to define the solution and outline a precise timeline, such as:

Phase 1: RFP released to selected vendors
Phase 2: Proposals due
Phase 3: Shortlisted vendors present their proposals
Phase 4: Vendor selection
Phase 5: Project kick-off
Phase 6: Website launch

Many organizations use RFPs when engaging with third-party vendors to maintain control over budget, timeline, and outcomes. However, modern product development methodologies like Lean Product Process, Design Thinking, and Double Diamond reveal that such control is often an illusion. These methodologies embrace uncertainty, turning it into hypotheses to be tested and validated throughout the development process.

Navigating the Problem and Solution Spaces

A common principle in these methodologies is the importance of understanding and defining the problem before jumping to solutions. This phase, known as the problem space, precedes the solution space where actual solutions are developed.

According to Dan Olsen, many new products fail because teams leap into the solution space without thoroughly exploring the problem space.

The Role of RFPs in the Development Process

The Double Diamond design process exemplifies this approach. It divides the process into two main phases, each represented by a diamond:

Problem Space (First Diamond):

Divergent Thinking: Understanding the problem through discovery and research.
Convergent Thinking: Defining the problem based on insights gained.

Solution Space (Second Diamond):

Divergent Thinking: Ideating potential solutions.
Convergent Thinking: Testing and implementing the chosen solution.

Many RFPs fall directly into the solution space and adhere to a waterfall approach, presenting site maps, wireframes, functionality descriptions, and timelines, which leads to several issues:

  • Organizational staff, often untrained in product design, attempts to define the solution space work.
  • Vendors then have to align their proposals with these predefined parameters, potentially overlooking key problem space insights and focusing on winning the project rather than the best solution.

Optimizing RFP Use in Product Development

To better align RFPs with modern product development practices, consider the following strategies:

  1. RFP for the Process
    Focus on how vendors would approach your business challenge rather than prescribing a solution. Make the RFP about their process and past project examples, rather than specific timelines and budgets.

  2. RFP for the Problem Space
    If your organization requires budget estimates, use the initial RFP to explore the problem space. This allows vendors to provide realistic estimations and avoids committing resources to solving potentially misidentified problems.

  3. RFP for the Solution Space
    Once confident in the problem definition, issue an RFP for the solution. Include all findings from your problem space research to guide vendors effectively.

  4. Combining Problem and Solution Spaces
    Request proposals that encompass both problem definition and part of the solution. This phased approach can lead to prototypes or design directions, followed by a separate RFP for technical implementation.

  5. Tailoring RFPs to Innovation Type
    Consider the type of innovation you're pursuing:

  • Core Innovation: Enhancing an existing product for an existing market, requiring minimal validation.
  • Adjacent Innovation: Creating a new product for an existing market, necessitating moderate validation.
  • Disruptive Innovation: Developing a new product for a new market, demanding extensive validation.

For core innovations, minimal problem space exploration may suffice, whereas adjacent and disruptive innovations require thorough problem space work.


RFPs are a staple in organizational processes, asking vendors to propose solutions. However, both problem framing and solution finding are complex tasks requiring specialized skills and experience. Vendors often take shortcuts in RFP preparation, potentially leading to suboptimal outcomes. While RFPs can help control budgets and timelines, adopting a more flexible approach in line with modern product development practices can lead to better results for your business and customers.