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Designing for B2B and Enterprise SaaS

Challenges faced in design process & pointers to overcome them.

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When I first started working on VWO, I came across many instances which have led me to wonder: Are enterprise applications(B2B) really that different from consumer apps(B2C)? How does the difference matter to the designer and the design process?

Here’s sharing some pointers that I have experienced over the past few years, for designers who are looking to join enterprise teams or are working on one.

What is an Enterprise Application?

Here’s how wikipedia defines it — An enterprise application is a computer software used to satisfy the needs of an organization rather than those of individual users.

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Some enterprise products you might have used or come across.

In today’s corporate environment, most enterprise applications are complex, scalable, distributed, component-based, and mission-critical. Enterprise applications are all about the display, manipulation, storage of large amounts of data which is often complex, and the support/automation of business processes with that data.

With enterprise tools, you are building products that help organizations and their employees do their work better.

Note: Although there is a slight difference between B2B & Enterprise by definition; yet the difference is, more or less, irrelevant in today’s software ecosystem, and I would treat them as same for the purpose of this article.

How is designing for enterprise different from designing for B2C?

Design for enterprise isn’t all that different. All principles of good design apply here as well. Yet, there are some differences when designing for a B2B product vs a B2C one.

Think of it as building a production car vs. building a commercial aircraft. While both are marvellous feats of engineering design which get the people from A to B, there are obvious differences in their use-cases, manufacturing time, testing & safety norms, user expectations, purchase & ownership; all of which impact the design and the process.

Similarly for B2B apps, the difference is in the unique challenges it brings and hence, the approach.

The Challenges:

Disclaimer: A few of these challenges are faced in designing any kind of software, but they are definitely much more pronounced when designing for the enterprise.

1. Functional complexity 😓

The scale of complexity is generally higher than B2C apps, due to innumerable factors like multiple data states, visualization options, management operations, multiple-user collaboration and integrations with other software. Every design decision made to satisfy one requirement further affects many other requirements, sometimes in ways which are difficult to predict. A seemingly simple feature addition has to go through all kinds of checks and edge-case considerations.

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A screen from ‘Jira’ by Atlassian: An example of complex functional requirements.

💪 How to handle this:

What is the solution to complexity? — Simplicity, of course. Do not confuse this with the simplicity of interface or the minimal-UI fad that’s been going around. It’s about the simplicity that is brought about by proper planning & processes. No matter how tight the product cycles are, it is essential to invest time into design-thinking and bringing order to the set of requirements & specifications you’ve gathered, before starting to design. In fact, it is very much a part of design.

Jumping straight into Sketch, Figma or Photoshop is a natural tendency when you feel confident about a solution, but most of the times it’s too early. Take some time to sort out the overall context & implications of what you are about to design. Work your way through research & planning stages, figure out all possibilities & handle all edge-cases. And once you are ready, take stabs at the interface.

“If I had 60 minutes to cut down a tree, I would spend 40 minutes sharpening the axe and 20 minutes cutting it down.” — Abraham Lincoln.

Proper planning and building processes will always pay out in the longer run & lead to a coherent, bug-free product experience.

2. Designing for the Employee Mindset 💼

An enterprise user’s mindset and behavior pattern is quite different from a casual B2C user’s. An enterprise user, other than wanting to get his work done efficiently, often has other agendas like career growth, learning, and success within the organization. Designing for working professionals requires a good understanding of their job context, workflow, environment, aspirations, problems and also looking into their current solutions.

✌ How to ace this:

With an enterprise product, it’s very important to understand what the user needs, not just out of the product but also out of her job & career. Talking directly to end users, researching about their domain & trying out their current methodologies go a long way in developing empathy for the user.

Also, users are, often, so accustomed to their existing workflow and routine, that they find it hard to imagine what they really want. They might tell you about features and options but cannot show you the path to product innovation.

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Your users might think that all they want is more.

A guiding principle for enterprise teams is to know where customers are struggling today, and draw a path to what a product has to do in the future to solve those issues. There’s a lot that designers can do once they really understand what the user’s long-term goals are.

“People buy products to become a better version of themselves.” — JTBD

Instead of focusing on what users say they want, focus on what they actually do, and innovate from that point. Build lean prototypes based on your ideas and test them out with users.

3. Addressing the High Cost of Switching 😟

Often, enterprise users might be too comfortable & complacent with their existing workflow to see the need to switch to another product. And even if they want to switch, it requires the consent and approval of a number of people. Not to mention, migration of existing data can be a pain for both the company and its employees. Unlike consumer apps, the cost of switching for enterprise apps is considerably higher.

😳 How to handle this:

The 2 biggest ways to convince an enterprise to switch to your product are-

  1. Be considerably more feature-&-functionality rich than the competition.
  2. Redefine the existing workflow to make it considerably faster/better/efficient/engaging for users.

The second one is where design can really shine. Productivity, workflow and processes matter a great deal to organizations. Take a good look at their current solutions, and find out where they are struggling. Think in terms of faster workflows, increasing efficiency, cutting costs. Innovating on these fronts often leads to solutions that convince enterprises to make the jump.

“The best, maybe the only, real, direct measure of innovation is change in human behaviour.” — Stewart Butterfield, Co-founder, Slack.

Always look for opportunities to refurbish the conventional approach to a more efficient & relevant one.

4. Building new features & capabilities always take priority 😤

For an enterprise product, building new features, almost always, takes priority over enhancing existing user experience. It is very common to have dedicated design sprints when a product is starting out, but once the product has been launched, feature requests start pouring in. Paying-customers constantly keep asking for new capabilities and additions. Product teams chart out busy roadmaps ahead of them. At this point, it can be particularly challenging for designers to convince stakeholders to invest time and resources midway on improving UX and Design.

😳 How to tackle this:

Try and visualize the situation from a stakeholder’s perspective. They often feel — any sprint, week or month that is not spent building features or adding capabilities, is equivalent to some amount of potential revenue lost. Here, it is important to make people understand the power of improvements and how they often have more impact on revenue than adding more features. Highlight success stories. Talk directly to the top-management and get their buy-in. Designing for improvement will always need a careful analysis of pain points and experimentation with ideas, which requires time and innovation.

Also, while improvements on an existing product are crucial for a growing company, once in a while as an exercise, try brainstorming solutions from the ground up, as if your product or any competitors didn’t exist. More often than not, you will be pleasantly surprised by what comes up.

“The electric light did not come from the continuous improvement of candles.” — Oren Harari

Once you get the company’s conviction, start with small wins that can be achieved within a time-boxed sprint, and always try to measure the impact. Build the company’s trust in design gradually and move on to bigger improvements and experiments.

Ask for product and engineering team’s commitment towards ensuring good UX, and help them understand that its not just the design team’s job.

5. Maintaining UX Consistency 😊

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Source: Enterprise UX Industry Report 2017–2018

A recent survey conducted with over 3,000 enterprise designers revealed that the topmost challenge faced by enterprise design teams is improving UX consistency. Unlike consumer products, B2B products generally have longer product-cycles running asynchronously, many times with distributed teams.

Every designer faces similar challenges as other teams and is quite likely to introduce inconsistencies to the product like changes in components, design patterns, or even details like colors. These problems tend to multiply manifold as the team size increases or the product starts to scale up.

💪 How to tackle this:

Many companies have turned to building Design-Systems for consistency and scalability in the long term. A design system is a collection of reusable components, guided by clear standards, that can be assembled together to build any number of applications. It usually consists of :

  • Guidelines (design principles, code conventions, and editorial guidelines)
  • Visual assets (Color palettes, typographic scales, icons, etc.)
  • UI patterns (forms, button styles, page patterns)
  • Pointers towards usage and maintenance

When enterprise teams were asked if they have a design system, around 55% said that they either have it or were in the process of building one. This is a positive sign. A point to note though is that a design system is never 100% done. It is built for the long run, meant to evolve with time.

“The design of each element should be thought out in order to be easy to make, and easy to repair.” — Leo Fender

Design systems are a huge step towards ensuring consistent UX.

Here’s some enterprise design systems to draw inspiration from: Lightning design system by Salesforce, and Harmony Design System by Intuit.

6. Not every designer has the inclination (or the stomach) for it. 😢

Quite a few designers, after working on enterprise softwares, find it boringly monotonous. People coming from agency or B2C backgrounds often find enterprise work lacking excitement or variety. Opportunities to design stunning visual micro-interactions & animations (that we drool over on dribbble) do not come often. In such cases, work can become a drag and leave the designer feeling unmotivated & unfulfilled.

😳 How to prevent this:

Enterprise UX is all about helping users get their job done, and helping them become better at their work. Building a mesmerizing UI that captivates the user, (while it doesn’t hurt) will always be lower on the priority list. A standardized, predictable user-interface, one that is immediately intuitive works best for the target users.

The goal is to get the users to utter “wow!” — not for your gorgeous UI, but for how efficiently the product helped them get a job done.

Selecting designers with aligned intentions and motivation is of key importance while building an enterprise design team. The motivation should largely be drawn from solving complex challenges, and seeing how your design helps users get their work done.

Therefore, it is essential to evaluate outlooks and set correct expectations for every designer joining the team .

Summary | 3 Annotations
users are, often, so accustomed to their existing workflow and routine, that they find it hard to imagine what they really want
2020/12/24 07:10
Instead of focusing on what users say they want, focus on what they actually do, and innovate from that point. Build lean prototypes based on your ideas and test them out with users.
2020/12/24 07:12
Take a good look at their current solutions, and find out where they are struggling. Think in terms of faster workflows, increasing efficiency, cutting costs.
2020/12/24 07:13