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Designing for enterprise, part 3: Balancing user and business value

In previous posts in this series, we’ve talked about the overarching differences between designing for consumers and designing for enterprise, and called out additional personas to keep in mind when designing enterprise products. We’ve also briefly touched on another topic that’s important for any designer but particularly crucial for enterprise products: the need to balance user value with business value. When we talk about business value, we’re not only talking about value for the company that purchased our product, but also the value for the company that created it.

Championing the user – and the business?

As designers, we often see ourselves as the champion of the user above all else. In extreme cases, we can even feel ourselves to be at odds with the rest of our company, championing the user’s needs against the steady march for profit and growth. Considering the user first and foremost is an important part of our job, and by designing for their needs we make sure we are maximizing user value.

That’s a noble approach, but we have to remember that (in most cases) at the end of the day our company has to make money to survive. This is true for consumer products as well but is particularly important for enterprise products; rapidly growing the user base and worrying about monetization later is a common approach in the consumer world, but enterprise products are judged more strictly early on by their revenue strategies and business plans. The bottom line is that if we want to make the lives of our users better through our designs, our company has to remain in business long enough to grow and expand our impact. To do that, we need to consider both user value and business value when making design decisions, and decide how best to balance these often-competing interests.

Designers should learn about the business model

To help achieve growth (and continued existence), it’s important for us to understand how our company makes money from the product we’re designing. While this can be a fairly complex minefield wrought with terms like recurring revenue and license model, at the most basic level, the majority of companies either charge by the user or charge for the amount of usage (whether that’s a function of time or data).  If revenue for your product is based on the number of users, for example, it might break down to a simple formula of (# of users) * (price per user).

Once we know what the formula for our company is, we can make decisions in our designs to help turbocharge it and thus provide business value. In our example above, we probably don’t have much say over how much our company charges per user, but we can definitely use design to help grow the number of users. Prioritizing and designing features that increase adoption within a customer company will result in higher revenue for our company. For example, we can design features that make it easy for existing users to share work they’ve created in our product with users in their company who don’t have a login; this increases visibility and generates further interest in using the product. When Penelope in accounting receives a beautiful report from Harvey in sales that contains insight she couldn’t get anywhere else (and elegantly branded with our product information), she’s likely to bug IT about getting access herself.

Business value and customer value don’t have to be at odds

While it is frequently the case that business value and user value are at odds, they don’t always have to be. In our example, being able to share with other coworkers can actually provide value to the user as well. Showing her boss that insightful report that she can now create with her login to our product might help Penelope do her job better, and faster too.

The hard decisions come when business value and user value are at odds, and this is when we need to decide how we balance the two. Perhaps the best business value for us with our sharing example comes if we require that to see the report he received, Penelope’s boss has to create an account (and pay us). For both Penelope and her boss, the best user value might be if he can see it for free, possibly as a pdf in his email. One way we might decide to balance these two value propositions would be to provide a link to the report in the product that doesn’t require a log in, but if Penelope’s boss wants to change parameters like time ranges, or drill in to a chart, he must create an account.

Performing this sort of balancing act can be uncomfortable, but it’s a vital part of our job and important to get right if we want to stay in business long enough to create more great products.

Seeing design as the ultimate differentiator

Ultimately, striking this balance between the customer and the business comes down to seeing design as a major opportunity for differentiation.

In the past, it may have been enough to be able to simply solve a particular problem with technology at all, but in a world with a proliferation of libraries, frameworks, and pre-built turn-key services, it’s getting easier to build complex products quickly. Good design and a focus on UX can be the key differentiator that allows your product to win when doing isn’t enough.

Being able to solve a problem technologically with your product in a way that no one else has figured out yet may buy you some time, but your competitors will be building their version using more advanced tools than you had. Potential customers won’t care that you were first, or that the competitor’s version is built on open-source software whereas your product is custom bespoke hand-written code; they will make their decision based on features, price, and usability (and weather, political opinion, what their cat had for breakfast, etc.). When all else is equal (and frequently when it isn’t), a well designed product will win over one that is hard to use, ugly, and boring.

While design can be a tie-breaker for customers, its benefit goes far deeper than that. We all use an increasing array of well-designed devices, apps, and services in our daily lives and the expectation that this level of experience stops at the door to our workplaces is massively outdated. The concept of the “Consumerization of the Enterprise” has been around for a while now, and it’s becoming table stakes to have a well-designed product. That means we can’t ignore design as a core capability in our companies, and it’s even more important to invest in great design to differentiate our products from our competitors.

To learn more about our design process, contact us.