Designers love to talk about the needs of the user. But what if the end user isn’t the person making the decision to buy your products?
A good number of projects we tackle at Bresslergroup face this challenge, because the client is in the B2B (business to business) business — they’re making complicated, specialized products that are purchased by businesses, institutions, government, and education rather than individuals.
Of course the familiar rules of good design apply, albeit sometimes for different reasons. For instance, you still want to prioritize ease of use and seamless user onboarding — for a B2C (business to consumer) company, this engenders brand loyalty and cuts down on service calls; for a B2B company, it leads to a more efficient workforce. Product development for B2B markets requires these little, and sometimes big, shifts in mindset. Here are some of the most crucial differences:
Do research with a wider group of stakeholders.
The most fundamental difference is the greater diversity of stakeholders. Let’s say you’re designing contractor-grade tools and construction equipment. Chances are, the one doing the purchasing is a small business owner, a procurement manager, or someone else whose job it is to make financial and productivity decisions, not the person who’s driving bolts or digging foundations. So while you still need to spend time with the people who actually use the equipment, you also need to pay special attention to how much the end user influences the purchasing decision and talk with the person who has purchasing power.
Here’s a simplified illustration of the difference in the number of stakeholders involved in research for a B2C power tool project versus a B2B contractor-grade tool project.
The good news is that the aims and techniques for this kind of discovery are familiar. You still need to talk with stakeholders in context, observe them as they go about relevant tasks, and conduct enough background research to put their experience in perspective. But you need to establish the hierarchy of stakeholder purchase influence and adjust your research to each stakeholder perspective.
We recently worked on a range of building products where it was essential to establish purchase decision-making influence among property developers, architects, interior designers, construction engineers, contractors, and eventual maintenance staff. Not surprisingly, the influence changed with type, size, and budget of construction project.
Think in lines (product lines).
One thing you’ll probably discover, as we do, is that B2B customers often look at entire product lines rather than individual products. Purchases at the business level aren’t one-off affairs; they’re long-term relationships. The cost of switching suppliers when you’re buying millions of dollars’ worth of equipment per year is significant, and it makes servicing, updating, and maintaining what you’ve purchased dramatically more complicated.
B2B customers often look at entire product lines rather than individual products. Purchases at the business level aren’t one-off affairs; they’re long-term relationships.
All of this means that a B2B buyer would almost always prefer to stick with a single supplier, even if it means occasionally going with a second-best option for a particular product. They assess brands at the line level, not just the product level. This also places strong design emphasis on servicing consideration. B2B products often have longer lifecycles, and maintenance costs can be a significant factor for both the purchaser and the manufacturer who needs to provide those services.
For the buyer, this means that branding consistency is paramount. An individual end user may seek out something unique that fits his or her specific needs precisely, but a B2B purchaser may be more focused on reliability. The prospect of a long-term supplier contract can be daunting, and the wrong decision can lead to ruinous loss of money and productivity, not to mention the purchaser’s job. The best thing a designer can do to combat this anxiety is offer a product line that feels coherent and logical from beginning to end. A product’s visual brand language (VBL) must reflect the core attributes of the brand behind it, as always, but in B2B it’s twice as important that they also reflect a cool, deliberate constancy.
The BD Diagnostic Systems line that Bresslergroup helped develop is a good example. Comprising a number of advanced diagnostic instruments for medical laboratories, the BD Diagnostic Systems line presents a unified front to the world, with a consistent color/materials/finishes palette, recurring aspect ratios, and physical details like strong edge chamfers and wrap-around radiuses that show up in product after product. This identifiable visual brand language draws on some notable brand characteristics like approachability, confidence, and integration; it also means that anyone doing the purchasing for a major medical lab gets subtle reassurance that BD is a legitimate, reliable partner, worthy of long-term investment.
Treat brand guidelines as a living document.
Long-term consistency also means that design engagements with B2B manufacturers can be years long. Visual brand languages tend to roll out gradually, applied one at a time as different products come up for redesign. Consultants may get brought in to create a line of five or six items, then re-engaged to apply that language to products that are added to the line. As designers, we have to reassure potential clients that this is normal and expected, and something we’re committed to over the long haul.
We first created VBL guidelines for the BD Diagnostic Systems range over five years ago, and we recently updated them to accommodate new types of instruments, some manufacturing consistency opportunities, and changes in graphic branding. We consider these type of design guidelines very much a living document that needs to adjust as our clients grow and diversify their products.
We also have to recognize that we’re not just designing products, but enabling a conversation, between the client and their purchasers. The cynical might argue that conversations between brands and individual purchasers are a bit one-sided (though social marketing is shifting this). But B2B is a two-way conversation, on something much closer to equal footing. It’s the designer’s job to make sure that the language is one that both sides understand.