Originally published on “Matters” by Designit
Design for business-to-business is not pretty.
People love to talk about business-to-customer (B2C) products and services. New gadgets from Google, radical changes in Facebook, and social effects of Airbnb. Thousands of articles about B2C solutions are written and read every day. On the other hand, business-to-business (B2B) solutions lack public attention. Most B2B products and services are aimed towards limited industries and include products like hydraulic lifting cars for warehouse workers, barcode readers for shop staffs, and tax management software for accountants. These solutions are not relevant to most people, and most people don’t have time to care about something irrelevant. Rarely do people pay attention to factory solutions unless they’re working in a factory. Designers are the same. We unconsciously put B2B solutions aside, when they could be doing us a lot of good. When writing and reading about design methodologies and tips, we have business to customer products and services in our minds -B2C is standard and B2B is minor.
However, in terms of business impact, B2B beats B2C by a large margin. B2B has a much bigger market size than B2C: Forrester estimates that in the United States, B2B e-commerce will be twice the size of B2C e-commerce by 2020. At the very least, it is worth it for designers to begin talking about B2B design. At Designit, I have worked on B2B design projects. We’ve designed solutions for factory workers, medical laboratory scientists, and sales employees. Regardless of the chosen model, all projects bring challenging situations to designers.
A user is not a buyer.
This is the simple, yet unavoidable nature of B2B design.
A corporation buys and consumes B2B products and services. Inside the corporation, two types of people exist: managers and employees. Under the umbrella of the same company, they have different points of views and responsibilities (for example, managers will create a solution and employees will implement it). The difference in points of views creates a tricky situation for designers. Managers are decision makers, and employees are not. Designers are left with the question of who to design for.
There are several approaches that designers can take to tackle this conundrum.
A conventional approach focuses on what buyers want. Many suppliers still take this approach because it is easier to sell. After all, managers decide to buy a solution or not. So, it is very convincing to create something for what these decision makers want. In this approach, needs and wishes of managers are prioritized, and little attention is paid to employees. As a result, many B2B solutions are satisfactory for managers but useless or unusable for employees. These solutions might be sold once but would fail in the long term.
Many B2B solutions are satisfactory for managers but useless or unusable for employees.
On the other hand, designers can choose to take a different approach with a more human-centered mindset. We always aim to create a product or service which solves the right problem for users. In B2C, this approach directly leads to sales success because users are buyers. In reverse, B2B is not that simple. Something valuable for users is not always valuable for buyers. In many cases, a solution is valuable for employees, but irrelevant and valueless for managers. If managers decided not to buy the solution, it would never reach employees, and our designs would be wasted. The combination of buyer-centered and user-centered approaches are required to design solutions that fulfill the needs of both managers and employees. But, this multi-target situation is very difficult to overcome, and likely to bring confusion to the design process.
Something valuable for users is not always valuable for buyers.
Looking for a perfect common problem
When designing a B2B solution, many designers try to find one perfect problem that both managers and employees share. If we found that ideal problem, it would lead to a perfect solution that satisfies all stakeholders at once. However, finding this perfect problem is nearly impossible because it rarely exists. After all, managers and employees are distinctive species and have different problems. Pursuing the illusion of finding one perfect problem causes designers to waste efforts, burn out, and face dead ends. This approach to finding a common problem for both managers and employees does not work.
After all, managers and employees are distinctive species and have different problems.
A step-by-step approach is the way for designers to overcome the multi-target situation and create a valuable solution for managers and employees.
First, we produce a user-centered solution concept. Focusing attention on employees, we conduct research, find challenges, brainstorm ideas, and converge on a concept. Understanding the management side is critical, but in this early phase, employees should be prioritized. In any case, we create a solution for people. So, this choice is straightforward.
Secondly, we explore benefits that this employee-centered solution could provide to managers. We hypothesize potential benefits to the management side from the original concept. This exercise should be much easier than finding a common problem. Managers and employees do not share the same problem but pursue the same goal. So, a solution concept for employees should be inspirational enough to come up with possible benefits to managers. Of course, these potential benefits require validation. We conduct manager tests to communicate these benefits, receive feedback, and refine the values to management.
Lastly, we finalize the solution concept by integrating the employee-centered concept and the manager-centered benefits. We maximize the management benefits while keeping the core value to employees. The well-balanced concept will solve employee problems and provide benefits to management simultaneously.
This step-by-step approach enables designers to create solutions that overcome the complexity of B2B design projects. We start with an employee-centered concept, define the potential benefits to managers, and complete the solution by integrating ideas that will benefit both parties. This is the process that helped me to survive complicated B2B design projects last year.
B2B design is not appealing in the public eye. But, as market size suggests, B2B design brings countless opportunities that can have huge impacts on our society.