Why We Need To Rethink UX Design When Working In B2B
by Shin Bao, Senior UX Designer at MING Labs
Within design, business to consumer digital products (B2C) naturally get the majority of attention. Publicly available, designed to appeal to mass audiences — they are the popular kids in the playground. Business to Business (B2B) products — like Salesforce or Jira — are their unsexy cousins, unlikely to make the cover image of many Dribbble portfolios.
But as UX designers we need to craft experiences across the spectrum — building engaging products regardless of the challenge presented by the use case.
With B2B products often designed for small numbers of expert users within low-profile industries — they can be overlooked by designers. However, successfully addressing them requires us to adopt a new set of skills and frameworks. In this article I will summarize some of the key areas of focus when designing for B2B digital products.
Users & Scenarios
First, let’s have a closer look at B2B vs B2C and the products that come with it.
B2C products are oriented towards a larger user group while paying more attention to the personal, subjective experience. That is why in user research, we focus on understanding the persona — outlining the user’s personality and preferences such as age, occupation, education level, hobbies, aesthetic preferences, and so on.
Users of B2B products on the other hand focus on a single vertical’s professional field. This kind of user doesn’t only expect a certain level of product experience but also pays attention to the functional part. Can this product efficiently and professionally solve pain points in our daily work? Furthermore, the decision maker is frequently a distinct persona from the user. Decision makers care about whether the product can improve the efficiency of a team’s operation and in turn the company’s financial performance.
B2C end users have a clear purpose of exploring product features and will do so proactively. When they feel the need to go online shopping, they download a shopping app. When they want to interact socially, they download a social app.
With B2B users normally not taking ownership for choosing their own products, they are generally more passive and unwilling to explore. At the same time, due to the complex differences in functions and professional fields, many users become cautious when facing unfamiliar scenarios within the workplace.
This is why it is so important to consider different behavior-driven models of users when we define a B2B product.
While we want to provide users with an efficient operating experience, we also need to think about how to bring them a sense of familiarity and security. So if you, as a designer, are a bit tired of the pleasure brought by rounded corners, shadows and elegant motion effects, the design of B2B products is a stimulating challenge to take on.
Data & Logic
Now that we’ve explored B2B products on the experience and the perceptual level, let’s dig into business logic and data design.
To make it easier to understand, I would like to use the analogy of writing an article. First, before we put words on paper, we need to think about what it is that we want to express. Which topics do we want to talk about? What narrative methods might be available? And which parts do we want to highlight?
In product design, preconceived ideas like these can’t simply be summed up by the word “structure”. It’s rather a set of scenes in your mind once you have fully understood the users’ scene. In this scene, you can clearly see the operation of the business line, and what each role is doing. You can also perceive the difficulty of completing each task. You can zoom in on the scene, enter a specific character, and perceive their mental journey — be it joy, anger or sorrow. You can also drag the timeline to see what this scene might look like in the future. This kind of thinking game is quite similar to the “Mind Palace” in Sherlock Holmes.
Of course, product designers are also ordinary people — so we too will use tools to help us sort out business logic (journey maps, information architecture, etc.).
But what is notable within B2B is the immense size of information structures. B2B digital products frequently require the designer to accommodate the many interactions between internal business units and stakeholders. You need to both understand the breadth of the business and its logic while also going in depth into a specific use case and its application to your product.
As long as they are working within a clear framework of business design decisions, most designers of B2C products can focus on presenting visual tension and exploring the full user experience. But before B2B product designers can start working on the visual layer they must complete extensive foundational work. Like the proverbial iceberg — in B2B digital products, what you see only represents a fraction of the total effort required.
Designers in general need to have a good knowledge of business processes. They need a clear understanding of the real-world business lines and business models impacted by digital transformation. This heavy knowledge requirement can result in designers often being divided into specific areas (e.g. medical instrument management systems) but although there are indeed business knowledge barriers across professional fields, these can be superficial distinctions. Being able to rapidly analyze, to digest a lot of complex information and quickly restore scenes in unfamiliar areas are important capabilities for any good product designer.
In many cases, designers also need to assist or guide customers in their decision making on the function and logic of digital products. What makes B2B digital transformation even more complex is that often due to cost, third party challenges or legal concerns, parts of the user journey cannot be digitized and the previous business logic cannot be copied one for one onto a new digital platform.
Designers working in B2B need to balance these different competing interests. Thinking both from a product and data perspective. Considering future scalability and interactions with role authority matrices.
To find the optimal solution from an overall perspective, we sometimes need to make sacrifices and not blindly transfer everything from one system to its digital twin.
Visual & Interaction Design
For the visual and interactive design of B2B products, additional attention should be focused on the system management of design elements, components and files during the design production. Here it is critical to have good design and management habits. Establishing a systematic and extensible Design System will be critical to the often extensive digital production work that is to follow.
In terms of visual and interactive design, while this is the frontline to the users’ experience, in B2B contexts this is secondary to the underlying business and data logic. This is the foundation of the product and needs to be prioritized accordingly.
Design in itself is a matter with no fixed answer — that’s why we can’t discuss the question of “how” at the design level here. We hope that this article helped you to get a better idea of the process, methods and problems of B2B product design. For me as a designer, B2B products offer an intellectual challenge — allowing me to focus away from the visual and instead immerse myself in a new domain of expertise and logic.
MING Labs is a leading digital business builder located in Berlin, Munich, New York City, Shanghai, Suzhou, and Singapore. We guide clients in designing their businesses for the future, ensuring they are leaders in the field of innovation.
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