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Challenges of user research in B2B product design — part 2

Follow up on the Challenges of user research in B2B product design on the importance of building trust in B2B product build

In the last few years working with B2B SAAS companies, I have faced a long list of challenges that surround product build. One, in particular, keeps coming back over and over again: practicing agile product development in established /more corporate companies.

When building B2B products with clients as partners, you’ll most likely face two different target groups: the executive management (stakeholders) and the employees who will actually use your product. In my first article, I talked about the importance of involving users while building B2B products. In this article, I will talk about how to get to these users in the first place.

What I have come to understand is that reaching the end-users is sometimes a difficult task when creating a product for well-established companies with many layers of hierarchy. It’s also one of the most important things you have to do. Remember, you’re not designing a product for the stakeholders. You are creating the product for the end-users. Therefore, you need to find a way to access them directly.

In a B2B context, the end-users are rarely the ones opting in to use your product. More often than not, your product has been chosen and provided to the company by executive management, without the say of the employees. Nevertheless, if the end-users don’t understand how to use your product, or have any problems with it, you are the one who will lose the contract, or even worse, the product itself dies because it doesn’t solve the problem it was designed for.

Once, we were working with a client that provides services for one of the automotive industry giants. At one point, while performing ethnographic research, we talked with some employees responsible for processing warranty requests for this brand. While talking, they told us about a tool that was provided to them by the employer that they were expected to use in the future. When we asked about this tool, one of the agents told us: “nobody here likes this tool…they built it without asking us anything, and because of that it is full of gaps and slows us down.” Because the value of this new product was not clearly communicated to these employees, and because they felt that their opinion was not taken into consideration, they could not see the need for changing their habits. This presented a serious challenge to the success of the product they were about to acquire. In this way, the product was born damned to fail. — In less than a year after its release date, my team was hired to work on a possible replacement.

Unfortunately, stakeholders can often prevent you from reaching the end-users. They may feel like the ones who should make decisions about the product, how it should work, and how their employees should use it. Two things can help you in those situations :

  1. Build trust
  2. Show value

Getting the decision makers invested is crucial because they will allow you to talk directly to the people who will be using the product. In addition to that, in most of the cases, these people are the field experts that for years have been dealing with tasks that require specialized tools. Therefore, they are valuable design partners that come along in the building process. But how to get them moving when they are busy with their own operation and daily tasks?

It all starts by connecting. If you have a client or a partner in a B2B project, they will most likely have to support you while still performing their routine tasks, so they need to trust you and your team to get the ball rolling. It starts from shortening the distance between partners on the client side and your team.

In previous experiences, we built a team canvas to help all people involved to have a better understanding of how to work together. Here, each team member would fill in some questions about their favorite (and also non-ideal) ways of collaborating, as well as some other personal aspects like in the example below. It is a good starting point to connect and understand how you can collaborate best as a team, it breaks the ice and solidifies the bonding of the group.

Team Canvas Template used in previous projects

Creating a sense of union is one of the best ways to foster trust in personal relations, and is also a great way to include product and client, fostering a team spirit. For the projects I have worked on, it provided tremendous help in bonding with the team, aligning expectations and taking our partners off their heavy routines, getting them to move more dynamically and agile, supporting the build process. It is the kickoff for creating a good team culture, which often directly connects to great teams and products.

Trust is also a consequence of showing value and that you are a reliable partner. It may come naturally if you are working in the same room or in constant contact with the team. But, what can you do when your partners are not involved in your daily work?

Here is another memory I have from some time back: we had an important stakeholder (let’s call him Mr. B.) who was head of the product hierarchy at our corporate partner. Mr. B showed — let’s say — a bit of resistance to our methodology. In all our meetings where he was present, he was the one who always gave us the tough questions, always making sure to point out that they had already tried what we proposed and failed, and always used to question if “that is really necessary?”.

The project went on for about 12 weeks, and over the weeks you could see his change of attitude towards our approach. In this time, we always put extra effort into clearly pointing out the rationale behind every design decision. Before every meeting with Mr. B, we made sure to add a detailed summary presenting “where it comes from.” — for example, ethnographic research insights or examples from the market/competitors. When discussing opportunity areas or pain-points, we brought quotes or exemplars from the interviews we did. It took us more time preparing for some of the meetings, but it was well worth it, because our decisions came across as solid, and our partners started using the research materials we produced as a base for other discussions.

With Mr.B on our side, we saw our internal support increasing naturally, ensuring the financial support we needed to build the product, and getting us internal sparring partners to backing up our methodology. It also opened a lot of doors so we could progress further in our strategy to come closer to our users. Winning such a stakeholder is crucial for your ability being able to move more freely when working with big corporations, especially when they are the ones who have access to your users.

To recap a bit what was said in this article, getting internal support from partners in B2B product development is crucial, and in such situations remember to involve users and high-level stakeholders. These are some of the strategies that can help you to move forward when in a similar situation:

  • Build Trust: talking openly about work preferences help to understand how to collaborate and how to integrate clients into the right mindset.
  • Show Value: displaying value to crucial stakeholders planning the content, format and how to base arguments on real facts. Have a detailed plan to be followed up, and checking in more often may speed up the trust within clients. Preparation is key.

Simon Mainwaring defines it well in one of his articles:

Effectively, change is almost impossible without industry-wide collaboration, cooperation, and consensus.

Thanks for reading! I’m happy to hear about your tips and tricks on engaging with partners during the built of B2B products.

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Experience Designer, co-founder of 2 Startups, writing about design and business