Making Sense of the Consultancy Industry

by Dano Qualls

This post was written by Dano Qualls, a Fresh Tilled Soil apprentice.

To be successful in any market, a company needs to sell a product or service that people love to use. Great experiences are hard to design, so design consulting has risen up to help. The two major types of design consulting are innovation strategy and product/service design. What these companies do is essential, but how they fit into the big picture isn’t clear without some explanation. The chart below helps break it down, but imperfectly — there is often overlap between categories.

Types of Product Consulting and Contracting


 Business Strategy / Management Consulting

Management consultants help companies answer big-picture strategy questions. They provide unbiased analysis and recommendations to the CEO and executive team after months of researching the company and the market. Their unbiased, data-based insights help executives make hard decisions about changing the direction or structure of a company. Hiring a consulting firm is like renting a team of MBAs for a fixed period of time.

Management consultants help answer questions like:

  • How big is the opportunity to expand into a new geographic market?
  • How do we respond to a new competitor in our market?
  • Should we acquire this company?
  • Should we divest this business division?

Innovation Strategy Consulting / Business Design

For the most part, management consultants help companies choose between options they are already aware of, whereas innovation consultants help identify opportunities they may not have known existed. While management consultants help a business become more profitable at what they are already doing, innovation strategists use design thinking to find disruptive new business models. The process starts with a business problem, and then moves through detailed user research, brainstorming, and testing to determine and refine the best solution. This discipline is also known as “business design.”


Innovation strategy consultants help answer questions like:

Product Design / Experience Design

Whether a company has done the strategy work on their own or hired a consultant to help with strategy, the next step is to design a product or service that delivers a great experience for the target market. If an innovation firm develops a strategy, then the client may also hire them to design the product, but two different firms could create the strategy and design the product. Designing the product (physical or digital) or experience (interacting with people or a location) begins with the design thinking process of user research, prototyping rough versions, and refining the best design. The finished design should be ready to be developed or manufactured (or alternately implemented).

Many innovation consulting companies like IDEO, Frog, and Continuum are also well-known for their physical product design. Companies that focus on digital product design include Fresh Tilled Soil, Adaptive Path (before they were acquired), and Teehan+Lax (before they closed down).

Designers solve these kind of problems:

Product Development / Manufacturing

The finished design will be coded into software or sent to a manufacturer for production. While no physical product designer would also manufacture the product, some digital design firms also develop or code the digital product.

Contract manufacturers make physical products of every type. Software developers build:

  • Computer software
  • Mobile phone applications
  • Web applications and static websites

Deployment, Operations, and Service

At this stage, the company is selling and supporting the product or service on a daily basis. Consultants such as IBM help companies operate their IT more efficiently. Consultants such Accenture and Deloitte help companies maximize efficiency of procurement, supply chains, or manufacturing.

And… Repeat

What happens next? Within a few years, market conditions change, customers change, and the business needs to rethink its strategy all over again.

About Dano Qualls

Dano is a UX designer in the Apprentice program.