In one of his New Yorker pieces, Malcolm Gladwell talks about Howard Moskowitz, the psychophysicist who gave Americans three things that changed the way we looked at supermarket shelves forever: variety in spaghetti sauce, horizontal segmentation, and a little thing we call “happiness”.
Interestingly, all those things tie back to one simple truth – as consumers, you and I look for choice. We need apple and guava and peach juices, because just orange does not satisfy us enough. And even if we walked into a store together to pick up a gallon of orange juice for the week, you’d probably look for 100% juice, while I enjoy those little pulpy pieces during my breakfast. And, by extension, the need for choice (and Howard’s Invisible Hand) is clearly felt in consumer software too. That’s probably why we have 200 different apps on the iTunes store to plan our day, and 15 different ways we can throw birds and destroy pigs.
But what about when we get to work? How has B2B software taken to choice?
Choice? What choice? The B2B Straitjacket
B2B software business models have traditionally taken a top-down approach. That means the CEO, top management or IT decided and mandated what tools everyone else should be using. Users had, and in most companies continue to have, little impact on what device, tools and systems they used every day. And the result? The drivers of user adoption in consumer tools were replaced by cluttered usability, unnecessary complexity and zero choice when it came to business tools, until very recently.
So how did everything change now?
Business users everywhere have three global epidemics to thank –
i. The Rise of SaaS
As long as software was on-premise, the only people who could see, explore and even voice their opinion on the tools available were the big guns. Plus, when a business has to shell a few thousand dollars on a new tool, they really really have to be sure. With software as a service, every business user has the option to try, experiment and choose. And that means the old adage of “nobody gets fired for buying this bloated software” no longer holds ground. You now get brownie points for trying!
ii. Social Power and Democracy
Social media changed the seat of power from the makers to the users. Before social media, the only way a vendor could reach the end user was from the top. Of course, you could still laterally try and talk to the end user directly, but the traditional hierarchies in how information flew through an organization, and the costs involved in breaking it were just too prohibitive. For the first time, social media gave the end user an open platform to talk to his/her peers. The network administrator could now get the latest information and tips from the Network Admin groups, and the customer support manager could learn best practices and ideas by simply following the conversations of thought leaders. And that opened the doors for what kind of tools they needed to use, and why.
iii. Mobile & Bring Your Own Device
Remember the time when groups of guys in James Bond suits would whip out a Blackberry as they stood in line at Starbucks? That was considered pretty neat, until they realized the iPhones and Galaxies were way cooler. And more functional too. There was actually a point in recent recorded history when executives would carry a boring “work” phone, and a more fun “personal” phone. That worked well, till they realized that they did not need email alerts coming in from two devices – and the one without AngryBirds just had to go!
The choice of software has always been been limited by the hardware. And with the IT department deciding what PC configuration, laptop and even phone an employee should have, end users did not have a lot of choice coming their way. But today, when they bring their own iPads and Androids and phablets to work, it only makes sense that they get their work done with the tools they love.
Strong demand + Unmet needs = Revolution
Over the past three years, B2B software has had the biggest evolutionary jump in all history. The established players of yesterday are fighting for market share with tools that have cut through the traditional top-down route and gone from the bottom up. Adoption of forced software has dropped, and end users are discovering and driving up the adoption of newer, better and more flexible tools.
If the number and activity of software review sites are any proxy, the demand for more choice in B2B software is exponentially increasing, while most vendors today are still lagging far behind. The business user today needs tools with a personality. Offering themes, design choices and usability options is not just about features and technicalities – as Malcolm Gladwell says “it is the difference between coffee that makes you wince, and coffee that makes you deliriously happy”.