Tech Bites – Engineering & Product Development
This article outlines the most important technical and design factors to be aware of when building custom software for use in a B2B context.
Building custom software for B2B companies is often vastly different from building digital products meant to assist B2C companies or be sold directly to the consumer. That’s because B2B companies build complex business procedures around the unique ways they serve their customers.
While B2C companies generally serve a mass market with relatively standardized, transactional products and services, B2B companies serve a much smaller number of customers. This means that each customer a B2B company serves represents a greater share of total revenue than the individual customers served by B2C companies.
This difference in relative market power forces B2B companies to compete for clients by offering greater customization and tailored service. For example, a building supply chain may give each contractor it serves bulk pricing and credit terms while expecting its DIY clients to routinely pay full price in cash. That’s because each contractor provides more revenue for the building supply chain than do the DIY-ers.
By catering to contractors, the building supply chain can make more money, but at a cost. Their business operations will become more complex due to the customized attention offered to their B2B customers.
The building supply chain is just one example of how intensive B2B services can translate into unique demands on a business. It can be difficult for a B2B business to scale when each client requires individualized attention. That’s where technology comes in. When designed with these customer needs in mind, custom software can help B2B companies deepen their capacity to serve more clients without having to add to their sales and support staff.
>> To win as a B2B service-based business, you’ve got to move faster and know more. What’s stopping you? Discover breakthrough with custom software development.
Unless a software product is customized to fit the real needs of a B2B business, it may end up making problems, rather than solving problems for the company. With that in mind, here are six technical and design factors product designers and developers should take into account when building custom software for the B2B context:
- Include Power Features
People using B2B software will often be completing more complex tasks than B2C app users. So, when building custom software for the B2B context, find ways to simplify user involvement. Think through power features such as keyboard-driven access (versus tap or click) for data entry, multiple selection processing, customized dashboard views, advanced search and filter options, and robust data import and export options.
These advanced features may be overkill, even detrimental, in a B2C context, like when a user checks their bank statements online. But in a B2B context — for example, a corporate accountant managing a complex set of books — power features are essential.
- Study Context of Use
People occasionally use B2C applications in abnormal contexts, such as using a fitness tracker while exercising. In comparison, B2B applications are routinely used in a wide variety of unexpected, high-pressure contexts. For B2B end users, money and reputation are at risk as they engage with a software product. Ensuring a design works in the context of daily activity is non-negotiable for a B2B application.
At Praxent, we’ve built custom software applications for a variety of B2B businesses. Many of them were designed for on-the-job use outside the traditional office setting. For instance, one application we designed was for use by medical staff as they rushed between hospital rooms. Another app we designed was meant to assist workers inspecting dark, above-ground oil tanks. We designed an app for consultants who spend a lot of time working on cramped airplanes, and we even built one for veterinarians who often use the app as they stand in a cow pasture in the middle of the night. Each of these extreme contexts of use had incredibly important implications for the design and functionality of the software we created.
Context of use affects every aspect of user demand on your software application, from what types of technology should support the app, to how the user interface should appear. It’s impossible to successfully design software for B2B circumstances in an air-conditioned conference room. Get out of the office and observe end users in their work environments. Then design based on what will make their lives easier.
>> How to Conduct Practical User Research (Without Spending Thousands)
- Ease Access to Human Support
B2B customers expect more individualized attention from their technology providers. While completely self-service technology may be a valid goal for B2C products, that is not the case for B2B. While B2B customers do expect to be able to conduct business after hours without needing to call for help, they also expect to get help immediately if the technology fails to deliver.
Plan in advance for B2B end users to contact customer support or their assigned account manager if they get stuck using a software product. Consider embedding chat, text, call, or help desk functionality directly within the product to save end users the time of switching contexts to reach technical support.
- Plan for Heightened Security and Privacy
While security and privacy are essential for any technology product, expect B2B customers to be more concerned with how their data is protected than the average consumer. In practice, this could mean offering on-premise hosting, ensuring all data is encrypted in motion and at rest, conducting regular security audits and penetration testing, and implementing strict access control and disaster recovery procedures.
- Invest in Software Engineering Best Practices
It would be silly to apply the same structural engineering practices when building a dog house as you would when building a skyscraper. Similarly, the amount of care taken to enforce software engineering best practices when building a new digital product should be commensurate with the corresponding complexity and size of the product investment.
B2B products tend to be an order of magnitude more complex than B2C products; therefore, they require more rigorous attention to best practice. To ensure smooth delivery to your client, consider investing developer time into creating:
- Repeatable DevOps processes
- Robust automated test frameworks
- Redundant, horizontally-scalable hosting environments
- Clean-up sprints to optimize code and pay down technical debt as it accumulates
- Design for Multiple Roles and Complex Workflows
B2B applications tend to have a range of user types. Multiple employees with various responsibilities and very different levels of authority will be accessing the same custom software application.
Custom software for B2B companies needs to allow for complex, configurable workflows and differing levels of data access. Consider the following features when designing for multiple roles and complex workflows:
- Single Sign-On capabilities
- Configurable role-based access control
- Hierarchical data access that mirrors a customer’s organizational structure
- Queue-based system for task management (This type of system emulates the physical inboxes that enabled corporate collaboration before the rise of computers.)
Custom Software that Becomes a Competitive Advantage
The software B2B companies use to run their businesses must facilitate financial growth by making the most of their customized business offerings. Digital product designers and developers can offer B2B companies the tools to not only do business faster, but entirely disrupt the way their industries operate.
That being said, B2B custom software is a huge investment. Building a digital product that not only serves your client’s business goals, but is also delivered on budget and on time requires strong development process, hands-on user research, personal and consistent communication, and expert designers and engineers who excel at creative problem-solving.
About Kevin Hurwitz
With more than fifteen years of experience delivering business software solutions for more than 150 organizations, Kevin carries the responsibility of delivering innovative web and mobile-based software solutions at Praxent. He provides strategic and technical oversight to all client engagements to ensure quality development and exemplary client experiences.
Praxent is a digital innovation agency. Our team of US-based digital strategists, UX designers, and software developers works nationwide, converging at our home base in Austin, Texas. Our passion is to transform processes, enhance experiences, and empower people for B2B businesses who want to win. We help our clients unlock potential and fuel growth with effortless user experiences and strategic technology tools.
Picture this: Doctors performing surgeries from miles away. Augmented reality devices providing employee training at a job site in real-time when a crisis occurs. Self-driving vehicles cutting down travel time by 40 percent. Twenty billion Internet of Things (IoT) devices communicating across the globe. Wireless connectivity that helps save lives and cuts healthcare costs by billions of dollars each year.
This is not the far-off future; this is happening now. Smarter devices, faster data, and new technologies have led to a dramatic shift in the way people consume information and how businesses apply it, leading to a significant increase in data demand and usage.
We live in a world where connectivity is no longer a luxury, it’s an absolute necessity to how we function and grow as a society.
5G technology is the solution that can deliver this type of connectivity. But implementing 5G doesn’t just happen with the flip of a switch. It requires an intricately connected web of communications infrastructure with many partners working together. The end-product, which we know as networks, are the result of cell towers, small cells, and fiber working in concert to ensure users have the coverage and access they need.
Source: Crown Castle
Small Cells: Making the Future of 5G a Reality
Small cells increase network coverage and capacity by bringing wireless networks closer to end users through a series of small cell “nodes.” These small cell nodes, connected by fiber, are smaller and more discreet than traditional towers and are typically deployed on existing infrastructure like streetlights, utility poles, and traffic lights.
Here in Austin, Crown Castle has also been working with the city to build the foundation for the fast-approaching 5G revolution, deploying miles of fiber, constructing 17 small cell nodes, and investing millions in Downtown Austin with this work.
5G and Manufacturing
5G’s impact will be seen across nearly every industry, particularly manufacturing. Smart factories are the future of the manufacturing industry, and the low latency and high reliability that 5G brings will support critical applications and advancement.
5G will enable greater agility on the factory floor, improved safety management, real-time data collection and analysis, and increased awareness of manufacturing processes through enhanced communications and feedback. The coming technology will also enable the automation and control of robots and smart logistics systems and make factories more efficient.
Companies are recognizing these benefits and investing in 5G. Here in Texas, Ericsson recently announced a new 5G smart factory in Lewisville. This facility will produce 5G radios and advanced antenna systems and utilize innovative 5G-powered solutions for on-the-floor processes including connected logistics, automated assembly, packing and product handling, and autonomous carts.
Crown Castle and the City of Austin
Austin has a global reputation as an innovation hub. The city prides itself on being commerce-friendly and promoting economic development.
Communications infrastructure and 5G technology play a leading role in fostering a competitive local business climate, and wireless bandwidth is essential for Austin to realize its potential as both a smart city and future global tech hub. From autonomous vehicles to smart manufacturing, the evolution of new technology and innovation relies on a robust, local communications infrastructure.
Full 5G coverage will take years and will depend, in part, on city leaders collaborating with the private sector to reduce regulatory barriers and streamline an expedited permitting process for small cells and fiber. Crown Castle looks forward to continued collaboration with the City of Austin and key stakeholders to prepare the region for the ever-increasing demand for data and information.
Malcolm Eve is a public affairs manager for the South region at Crown Castle, the largest provider of shared communications infrastructure in the U.S.