Photo by Maxim Ilyahov on Unsplash

There are several types of software users in a B2B environment, at every level of seniority — from C-level executives to data entry operators — who each have very different roles in their organizations. There is no disputing that. But I have worked for business consumers long enough to notice how easy it is to conflate any of these users as different from normal, run-of-the-mill, smartphone users.

In this article, I submit that there is only one fundamental kind of user, whom the B2C sector has correctly identified. And how minor decisions you take, with this in mind, can dramatically improve the experience of your B2B software.

Together, we will explore:

The Disconnect Within our Industry

Imagine you are at an upscale restaurant and a sharp looking waiter hands you a menu. You open the rather heavy book only to find everything written in tiny font and crammed together, with no apparent order. Worst still, every space that could have been free is filled recipes you would never read.

You ask the waiter why, and he responds, “That’s how it’s done.”

Welcome to the world of B2B product development!

I remember working on a project in which a single form contained 80 data points and wondered how users tolerate this, when they wouldn’t accept an app with a third that length. The fact is, they simply do not have a choice in the matter.

This is not a cultural issue, rather one of historical baggage:

Misconceptions About Users

We often fail to consider that the same users statistically have smartphones, are active on at least one social media and shop on e-commerce platforms. In essence, they are exposed to the best of consumer user experience.

Users have hobbies too. Photo by Aravind Kumar on Unsplash.

Yet when they log onto their company ERP, they are greeted with something straight our of the early 2000s.

The gap lies in the fact they do not have a stake of ownership in product, which limits their level of requirement in its development to their needs, but not their desires.

If we research users just as a caricature of their role, we tend to forget that they have personal aspirations as well. It is not uncommon to note down hobbies and passions of users in the personas for consumer apps, but I haven’t come across anything remote in B2B personas. The only common entities I find (and have used myself) are roles, goals and needs. The problem with not noting a few personal details of users is we may miss the human aspect in design.

More on than later.

How B2C Leapt Ahead in Design

Because of brutal competition. The consumer market realized, quite quickly, that to stand out your product needs to be compelling to its user. In most cases, a business system is compelling to a corporation and not its users.

There are several reasons for such disparity:

This results in a less than ideal user experience for many B2B products. But there are more deeper reasons why B2C can manage to create better designs:

1. Focus

Most consumer products are able to be engaging because they do one thing, and do it right. In contrast, many business systems are quite bulky, after all they have to perform tasks for several departments within a single product.

2. Simplicity

Consumer products focus on simplicity. They understand that user attention span can be instrumental to the product’s success. On the other hand, business systems tend not to consider this factor, often because they do not have an option but to cater to that one user who needs the complexity to do their job, that is, they design for the lowest common denominator.

3. They Shadow the User

Many consumer products adopt a “day in the life of a user” approach while designing their workflows. This means they identify what the user needs at multiple points of a typical day and try to integrate themselves into those instances. This increases a user’s dependence on the app, and in turn ensures continued usage. In contrast, business systems have a “use me when you need me” approach to workflows, that is, the system rarely entices the user to use it.

The Way Forward

Whereas B2C can (and occasionally does) abandon its past for a radical shift in design, B2B cannot do so because legacy is essential in the business world.

Many users have made their career around older versions of a system, and a fundamental redesign would make them unskilled overnight. Furthermore, from a company’s perspective, it would instantly loose its existing workforce or a potential pool of employees from the market, by purchasing (or simply upgrading to) a radically new version of a business system.

This fact makes the job of a B2B designer very difficult. And the incremental changes that the industry is seeing thus far is proof of that.

So I recommend a slight shift in perspective. There is no need for radical change, rather subtle improvements to leap forward and come ever so closer to consumer products. Here are a few ideas:

This is merely a starting point. As we inch closer to the middle of this decade, we will see a large shift from desktops to mobile-based business management. At that point, the B2C ethos of designing engaging systems would be evermore relevant to the business community.