When I started working at Landbot in 2018 as a Product Designer & Product Manager, I came from a digital consumer-facing products background, such as e-commerce and mobile apps. So, one of my first questions was: Are enterprise apps really that different from consumer apps? How does this affect my work as a product designer?
With this article, I’d like to share some challenges that I have experienced over the past few years to help product designers looking to join enterprise teams.
B2C and B2B Digital Products Definition
Before going into detail, it’s important to define the terms B2B and B2C as they are frequently used throughout this article.
In brief, a B2B product is oriented to solving a businesses’ needs, while a B2C product aims to solve individual consumers’ needs. Popular examples of B2B products are Slack and Mailchimp, and B2C products Spotify or Airbnb.
However, when designing a product, be it a B2B, B2C digital product, or a physical product, the process does not vary: Design Thinking principles apply to any design project.
However, as you go through each phase of the process, you’ll find intrinsic differences in the B2B and B2C business models.
Designing a B2B Product
So what differences can a product designer expect to find when working on B2B or B2C products?
There are several differences between an enterprise and a consumer product. But when it comes to B2B, the following areas become more challenging.
Following the Design Thinking principles, the first step of every Design project should be to “Empathize,” which means to have a deep understanding of your users and their needs.
“Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” Bill Gates
When we talk about B2B users, we talk about "professionals." The behavior pattern of a professional user is very different from that of a B2C user. Not only do we have to try to collect demographic data, but we also have to understand and know their professional context very well — how and with whom they work, what their aspirations are, what other tools they currently use, and more.
One of the most interesting aspects to understand about a corporate user is their workflow and all the tools involved because, this way, you can understand their "extended" user journey and discover business opportunities.
“Design is really an act of communication, which means having a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating.” Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things
Nowadays, professional tools cater to almost every possible need you might have. B2B users get hooked on these products, create routines around them, and there is often a high level of friction when they consider changing to a new or unknown tool. For this reason, as designers, we must be strategic and learn to understand the ecosystem of tools that B2B users engage with.
Another challenge related to professional users is when it comes to conducting user research. At Landbot, I’m trying to run user interviews on a weekly basis, and I can confirm that it is more complicated to get the availability of B2B users, either because we have to "compete" with their professional agendas or because they represent a smaller segment of users compared to the B2C model.
So, how do we handle this?
We have resources in a B2B company that we can tap into to carry out our research:
- Partnering with the Sales team;
- And partnering with the Customer Support and Success teams.
In the B2B model, sales and customer service teams play a decisive role, especially if we are talking about a heavy-tech product. They are in constant contact with the users throughout their journey. By building a relationship with sales and customer teams, you’ll have the opportunity to scale your research. Some specific initiatives you can run with them are:
- Participate in calls with customers — or potential customers — that the Sales or Customer support teams have.
- Invite the Sales team to adopt a habit of making feature request submissions. Build a workflow with them for daily reporting on the feature request of potential customers, especially those features that are decisive in the purchase decision.
- Set up a regular sync with the Customer Support and Success teams to walk through your customers’ main concerns.
In short, in a B2B environment, when conducting user research, we can take advantage of a department that is not usually present in a B2C model — the Sales team. Together with them (and the Customer Support and Success teams), we can define a strategy to obtain rich information that will allow us to design the best product in the most efficient way.
Scale of Complexity
The scale of complexity is generally larger in B2B than B2C apps due to innumerable factors such as integrations with third-party apps, multiple permissions architecture, data operations, collaboration options, and so on.
“What makes something simple or complex? It's not the number of dials or controls or how many features it has: It is whether the person using the device has a good conceptual model of how it operates.” Donald A. Norman (The Design of Everyday things)
When we talk about the simplicity-design binomial, everyone tends to think of the Minimal design trend, which can be found both in the design of physical products (think of Apple products) and in graphic interfaces. However, the role of Product Design in approaching complex products goes far beyond aesthetic minimalism.
Honestly, I don't think the answer to complexity is always simplicity. Complexity is part of our lives. Think about nature, or the human body, for example. It is incredibly complex.
Let's think of complex B2B applications like Landbot that are used to produce complex flows and operations. It is an unthinkable claimant to reduce the number of features to "simplify" the product, for example. Users need the features to get the work done.
Our objective as product designers is to promote the understanding of a complexity that is practically unavoidable for many B2B technological products.
B2B tools are complex in nature. As product designers, our goal is not to simplify but rather to guide users through these complex products in the most simple and easy-to-understand way.
How Do We Deal with Complexity?
User Experience design is recognized as a key differentiator to enabling the success of a complex product. There is no magic formula that can be applied to any product in the same way, but there are many principles that have been consolidated within UX design, and that help us deal with complexity.
People build mental models continuously to interact with products or their environment. Within the digital environment, mental models are abstract representations based on what the user knows from past interactions with websites, mobile phones, and other interactive products*.* For this reason, when you design a specific product, it is very important to note that users spend a lot of time interacting with other products. So yours is expected to function in a similar way.
Furthermore, one of usability's big dilemmas is the common gap between designers' and users' mental models. Because designers know too much, they form wonderful mental models of their own creations, leading them to believe that each feature is easy to understand. Users' mental models of the UI are likely to be somewhat more deficient, making it more likely for people to make mistakes and find the design much more difficult to use.
When it comes to designing a tool that offers a large number of features, a hierarchy of content must be defined in advance. We base this on criteria of relevance and importance and focus on:
- Color and contrast;
- Grouping (proximity and common regions).
The visual hierarchy of a 2D display (webpage, graphic, print, etc.) refers to the organization of the design elements on the page so that the eye is guided to consume each design element in the order of intended importance.
When users interact with a complex tool for the first time, they have to make continuous decisions, such as, What action should I take? Which feature should I use?
This is a popular question we have explored during our User Research at Landbot. For example, within the Landbot builder, we have a lot of different “blocks” that users can use to build a chatbot. There are more than 50 options to choose from, which helps users along the build instead of coming up with all pieces from scratch.
According to Miller's principle, our memory allows us to work with 7 (+ or - 2) pieces of information at a time. It is therefore very important to create “groups” of information to reduce the cognitive load and make the decision easier.
We currently have a categorization based on feature type, and with research, we still find that users do not easily find what they are looking for. So, this is certainly one of the challenges we have at Landbot. We will surely overcome it successfully!
Information architecture and navigation
There is a very common pain point when designing a complex application such as the Findability and Discoverability issues. These concepts refer to locating content on a website or app.
- Findability: Users can easily find content or functionality that they assume is present in a website.
- Discoverability: Users encounter new content or functionality that they were not aware of previously.
We have all experienced frustration at some point when using an app or website searching for certain content that we expected to find. For example, when a user is looking for their account setting to edit some of the information but can’t find them.
At Landbot, a few years ago, after some user research, we discovered that many users were unable to find functionalities they expected to find. This was especially the case with third-party app integrations, which until then were only provided within the chatbot builder, along with all the other features offered to build a chatbot.
At the same time, it was very strategic for Landbot that our customers should use the integrations, so we defined and designed a new section — specifically for integrations — from scratch. The goal was to reduce the problem of Findability and Discoverability on the one hand, and on the other, to create a new "space" for the management of these integrations.
This interaction design technique helps users focus on the right action they have to perform by presenting the information and actions across several screens to reduce the possibility of errors and frustration.
The concept of "progressive disclosure" is more than 30 years old and, although it is not mentioned by name, it is a principle that has long been used in digital applications of all kinds.A popular example where this principle is applied is in signup or onboarding flows that require different steps: they are presented sequentially to allow the user to perform the required actions most efficiently, by asking one thing after another.
This technique can be very useful, if applied correctly, in solving the recurrent dilemma of how to define the best user experience on the same platform, taking into account both novice and expert users.
Disclosing more complex, secondary features only if a user asks for them provides a two-tiered environment where most users can proceed with their tasks effectively. This allows casual users to proceed without frustration while keeping advanced users satisfied with higher-end functionality.
Indeed this may sound obvious to some, but it is not so obvious, as it is often not easy to identify which features are essential to carry out a given action, taking into account both user profiles.
The Startup Lifestyle
We have seen what challenges a product designer can face when dealing with a B2B model, but what if we apply all this in a startup context?
To me, working at a startup means embracing uncertainty and being willing to adapt to whatever comes my way.
This is my seventh consecutive year working for tech startups, and I can therefore say that I definitely like this environment. I cannot say, however, that I’m a fan of uncertainty, but I have long since learned to live with it, as it is a fallacy to think that working in a multinational company, for example, can bring more security. Uncertainty is as much a part of our lives as complexity.
Working at a startup also means participating in the definition of a project, being able to have a direct impact on the company's results, and feeling a sense of ownership. For me, it’s really exciting and stimulating to work in a startup environment because you have the opportunity to learn a lot and gain a broader view of the entire customer journey and the business model.
The main challenges that, in my opinion, most affect a designer when working at a startup are Design Dept and UX&UI consistency.
In the same way that technical debt is a commonly acknowledged expression in the tech-product space to explain the shortcomings of taking a lean approach — MVPs and quick fixes — design debt is the very visible cost of this approach.
The Lean Approach taken by Product Teams at startups in their initial phase inevitably entails having to prioritize speed and impact versus high quality in the product’s details. This often leads to the generation of an inconsistent UX.
Suppose we add the lack of a Design System or the need to start defining it at the same time as new functionalities are delivered. In that case, we can understand how the designer's work requires sufficient experience, flexibility, and a holistic view of the design process.
After working at Landbot for a while, I quickly realized that designing consumer-facing products had kept me in my comfort zone. Switching over to designing B2B products pushed me to expand my knowledge and understand the complex and tech-heavy enterprise domain of the Landbot app.
In other words, it’s been an exciting challenge.
While I’m aware that this is a very personal view of the matter, I hope that young product designers who are considering entering the world of B2B products will not feel discouraged. On the contrary, I would invite any designer who is in the initial phase of their career to broaden their experience to enrich their background, and at the same time to really understand if the B2B or B2C path is the way to go for them.