Embracing a Human Approach to B2B Product Design
There is a phrase that I hear often enough that it has become somewhat the bane of my professional existence:
“It’s just B2B…”
It usually sounds like the speaker intends to finish the line with some version of: “so it doesn’t have to look good” or “so it doesn’t have to make sense” or “so it doesn’t have to be usable to anyone but a certain subset of people who have every corner of our website memorized.”
Maybe that last one is a bit hyperbolic, but not by much.
I don’t know the origins of the idea that digital products and services intended for professional audiences shouldn’t be as intuitive, engaging or appealing as those intended for non-professional consumers. It seems like something that started when websites became commonplace commodities and everyone rushed to put up something, anything, without considering what or why that “thing” should be.
How Did We Get Here?
If you look back in history, it really wasn’t until recently that a chasm developed between business to business and business to consumer marketing and advertising. Some savvy commercial material manufacturers in the 1920s and 30s (like the American Rolling Mill Company who made refined iron products or Hyatt Roller Bearings, later acquired by General Motors) realized that even though they made products that weren’t sold to typical consumers, advertising to them directly built increased awareness for their products. They designed and ran the same print ads in trade and commercial magazines, appealing equally to manufacturers who used their material and consumers who purchased the end-product.
These ads were straightforward and well-designed, appealing to the aesthetics of the time and incorporating the look and feel of the brand. The language was accessible to both professional and lay readers, not excluding or speaking exclusively to either audience. We were onto something good almost 100 years ago, so what the heck happened?
As with most things, the answer is “the internet.”
The internet made it easier for anyone to talk to anyone about anything, at any time for any (or no) reason at all. This has obviously changed the way virtually all businesses operate, how they connect with audiences and how they ultimately make money. Yet somehow, we lost the thread of marketing and advertising that was directed at actual people and started directing our attention to marketing businesses to other businesses.
Perhaps in the next few years as artificial intelligence really takes off, businesses will be able to connect to non-human entities. But until then, despite how many B2B digital products and services look like they were designed by robots for robots, they’re still actually supposed to be designed for human users.
Why is This a Problem?
The first purely non-academic websites came online in 1992. They were a mix of corporate sites, weird experiments, some early domain squatters who realized the value of virtual real estate and one brave e-commerce site (Book Stacks Unlimited, later acquired by Barnes & Noble). Amazon and eBay both launched in 1995, forever changing the way we buy things and setting the standards for all digital commerce experiences.
As much as we might not like to believe it, 1992 was 30 years ago and we’ve all been online for a while. There are plenty of folks working in the B2B world who have never known life without the internet and whose expectations for digital experiences have been set by growing up alongside Amazon.
The consulting group Fjord (now part of Accenture Song), published a white paper in 2015 on this idea of “liquid expectations,” essentially saying that your experiences interacting with one product or service influence your experiences interacting with any other product and service, even if they’re not remotely in the same category. Once you’ve tried Amazon’s same-day delivery, Spotify’s recommendations algorithm or Google Maps’ turn-by-turn directions, you’re never the same.
We all seem to acknowledge, accept and appreciate this concept because we keep seeking out experiences in our digital and analog lives that are seamless, intuitive, engaging and fun. We demand that the ways we shop, the ways we watch things, the ways we consume news and information or the ways we book travel in our personal lives are great experiences.
So why do we seem to lower our expectations when it comes to a traditionally B2B experience? Do we take our consumer hats off and put our business hats on when we’re trying to find payroll software, commercial office supplies or healthcare benefit packages? The answer is simply, no.
So, What Do We Do About It?
A lot of the work we’ve done and continue to do at Mediacurrent is considered B2B product development, but we don’t have different approaches to defining, designing and developing something that’s intended for professional audiences versus something intended for all types of users.
With that in mind, here are some of the things we do to ensure the products we make are designed for everyone, not robots.
Understand the Audience
To build something useful, you have to know who’s going to use it and how they’ll use it. We start all of our projects by looking at our client’s current or intended audience, talking to them, observing their behavior patterns on current websites and getting a better understanding of the features, functionality and overall product experience that would be most beneficial to them.
Starting with an audience-first perspective, not a business-first perspective, allows us to craft an experience that ends up benefiting the business more because it actually works well for the audience. If we were to flip our priorities, we would end up with a product designed by the business for the business that no users want to use.
Look for Inspiration Outside the Industry
When we audit a brand’s landscape, we don’t look exclusively at the competition. If everyone only looked to their peer organizations, nothing interesting or novel would happen. We instead focus on the problems we’re trying to solve for the audience we’re trying to serve.
If a manufacturing client wants to share mixed media content on their site through articles, videos or podcasts, we look at digital products that do that well. We might look at the streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu or Disney+, we might look at news websites like The New York Times or Buzzfeed News. Looking outside of the direct industry allows us to take inspiration from experiences that our audience has become accustomed to with their liquid expectations.
Design for People, Not Technology
Most of our clients come to us with a list of products their website needs to integrate with to support their business. Whether it’s a CRM, an inventory management system, a marketing automation tool — we can pretty much integrate with anything (even some archaic things, but that’s for another article). All of these tools are built to receive data and share data in specific ways and often those ways are not very intuitive or human.
We frequently see B2B sites that are designed and built around how these third-party systems work, not the way people expect to use them. Having a direct integration from your website to your CRM is useful, but if site visitors can’t figure out how to fill out a customer information form or submit it without getting an error message, it’s pretty useless to the business. We spend time learning how these systems want to receive information and figuring out more natural, unobtrusive and thoughtful ways of collecting it.
Think Like Dieter Rams and Make Less, But Better
Designing and building a digital product means you’ll have to make some hard decisions about what to include and what not to include. A lot of B2B sites launch with everything and a catalog of every kitchen sink manufactured between 1982 and today. A lot of B2C sites launch with one killer feature that changes the way users engage with that company. We help our clients figure out the right kind of in-between.
At the end of the day, B2B websites don’t have to suck. The next time I hear someone say “it’s just B2B…” I might finish their sentence with “so it has to be awesome.”
Elliott Mower is the Creative Strategy Director at Mediacurrent. He’s still a little bitter about not winning the D.A.R.E essay contest in the fifth grade.