Designing for B2B

Why It’s Difficult to Simplify Designs in the B2B Space

Source: http://dilbert.com/strip/2016-06-12

Minimalism is still robust as it first began. Minimalistic products are cool. Minimalistic products are easy to use. Minimalism sells. The trend, along with the influence of product genius Steve Jobs, has dramatically increased the demand for user experience (UX) designers. Companies are willing to pay handsomely for UX designers and still find themselves at a shortage of designers.

UX design in a nutshell, for the non-tech folks, works to ensure that the product provides meaningful experiences to the user. At the minimum, UX designers make the product usable. At the maximum, UX designers devise competitive business strategies from a user perspective.

Minimalism needs simplification. Simplification is indeed an important practice in UX design. With simpler user interface, users are more likely to understand what the product has to offer and make fewer mistakes.

However, not all products are fit for complete simplification and therefore minimalism.

In this series of writing, I will explore the B2B landscape and explain the design challenges to simplify in this space. In the following piece, I will share and impart a few design techniques I have used and experienced to simplify.

Less is more, but at the cost of ambiguity.

B2B Products

Feature Variety

B2B or business-to-business products thrive in complexity. Business-facing products are made to facilitate a company’s operation. This means that the product has to offer a wide variety of features to meet different companies’ needs and operations.

User types are also extremely different from one another. For example, one B2B product might require to support sales representatives, system administrators, accounting managers, and web developers. This implies multiple user journeys, each with its own set of supporting features. In the best scenario, the features overlap; in the worst scenario, they are all discrete.

Unlike most of B2C products where there is one major user journey, the B2B product’s entire sitemap journey would be too complicated to sketch out by hand. I like to think of B2C products are a simple on-the-go toolbox and B2B products a toolshed in your backyard. Different users would use different part of the product, and somehow, they are all interconnected.

Importance of Integration

Integration with customer environment is another factor that complicates design. It is one of the most important factors of B2B products. If the customer company cannot integrate your product into their operations, they can’t use it! Enterprises pour a lot of money into integration (such as hiring tech consultants like Accenture and Deloitte) to make sure integration is done smoothly.

Integration is costly and sensitive to mistakes. One misconfiguration can lead to a huge disaster to a customer downstream system. Because of that, the interface must be extremely clear to ensure that the user understands exactly what he or she is doing, no matter how complex the task is.

Of course, this means that the interface is often cluttered with options and explanations. This is especially true for system administrator user roles.

Customer Requests

Another distinction of B2B is that often times B2B must meet a certain customer’s requirements, even if sometimes the requirement is not exactly on the roadmap. For example, if a particular customer provides 50% of the product’s revenue and is a key influencer in the industry, it is difficult to refuse that customer’s asks.

In contrast, B2C products prioritizes features based on research and feedback. If only one user asks to change the product to better fit their own idiosyncratic habit, B2C products can effectively ignore. In the B2B space, product development doesn’t always have that freedom, depending on the customer power.

What this implies is that some times B2B products must design and implement features that are applicable to specific customers. What B2B products then have to do to avoid overloading the interface and control access is hide irrelevant features so that not all customers can see everything.

This is another simplification challenge as it is usually difficult to figure out the location for those customer-specific features and the nomenclature and labelling because this might be shared among multiple customers. Most likely and unexpectedly, those features can also impact the behaviour of existing pages, which is something we always want to minimize.

Customization

As alluded above in “Importance of Integration” and “Customer Requests”, customization is no stranger to B2B products. This means that the design must accommodate all kinds of values, values of different lengths, ordering, and inclusion/exclusion of certain features.

In the case where the customer turns on all features and have incredible long values, the interface is far from simple.

B2B and Design

At first, I thought B2B is just like banks; they are slower to change and tend to ignore trends and UX. After working at a data B2B product for a year, I realized that it’s not that B2B products ignore UX and design—we are always busy pushing out new features every month to stay competitive. B2B products’ take on UX is different. It lies in workflow. It is transparent. Sure, the sexy, minimalistic interface is missing, but the real UX lies in how easy it is to find the right tool in the humongous toolshed, how easy is it to use the tool, and how efficient is the tool itself.

In many complex features, design is actually essential to B2B products, contrary to popular belief. Without proper UX input, the user would not understand the feature, or worse, make a faulty decision based on unclear interfaces. Coupled with engineering limitations and implication of adding a important new feature to the other thousand features, majority of designers’ time is spent on the bare minimum of ensuring the user is using the product correctly than on a line icon or the ease transition of a text box animation.

Nevertheless, B2B designers continuously strive to simplify the interface in hopes to one day delight the worker users.

Simplification Techniques

How do we do it?

Given the aforementioned factors B2B designers must consider, what’s the approach to simplify?

There are a few topics to explore there. I will share my experiences and observations in the next article. Please stay tuned.


Thanks Alixie Yang and Dharssan for reading this over.