The Blind Spots of B2B Product Vendors (And How to Fix Them)

This piece was first published on Mind the Product.

One of the interesting things about developing software in the Business-to-Business (B2B) space is that you often don’t know what users need, even when you think you do. Such blind spots may not be entirely your fault.

Early in my career, I developed a software distribution tool for a CRM solution that ran on the salesperson’s laptop. (This was long before web-based applications became the norm.) To update the software on the laptop, I had assumed the availability of administrator privileges inherited from the logged-in user. But soon after the first version was released, I received worrying news: due to company policy, some customers did not give their salespeople admin privileges on their laptops. These customers hadn’t figured among those we had interviewed, but they were important. We went back to the drawing board and designed a solution that worked transparently to the logged-in user who didn’t have admin rights.

Let’s examine why this happened.

Blind Spots Caused by Poor Understanding

Simulating B2B software environments can be tricky. It can include a network of interdependent B2B applications — a complex landscape. Business processes can span different roles and can run for a long time. There may be company-specific policies that govern software usage. Users may work not in offices but in spaces like a factory floor or an oil rig. To understand a user’s needs you first need to simulate her environment, which is not easy in the B2B space.

As the CRM example showed, this lack of understanding leads to blind spots in our thinking.

B2B software is also complex. Not for its own sake, but simply because the reality it tries to model and automate — those real businesses — is complex. One way to manage that complexity is to break the solution into smaller modules or applications, each of which is designed, developed, and delivered independently by a small team. While such teams can be efficient, they often miss the big picture and don’t quite see how their local module is used in the context of the larger product.

This again results in blind spots. And the impact here goes beyond user-experience.

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