Creating Great First Experiences with B2B Software Products

I still recall the first experience I had using a mobile banking application several years ago. After opening the app for the first time, I was immediately invited to deposit a check by taking a photo, a totally new feature at the time…I recall being surprised and ecstatic at the possibility of not having to drive to the bank and wait on line ever again. After quickly succeeding at making a mobile deposit, I became a lifelong fan of the app and the bank…and told all my friends they should switch.

In contrast, I also recall many first time software experiences — particularly with B2B software — that were a lot less magical. For example, I worked with a large company rolling out a new global expense reporting system. After clicking on a link in a non-informative email, new users of the system were immediately dropped into the middle of an extremely complex application with no discernable info about what the application offered or where to get started. As a new user I struggled to create my first expense report getting many experiential paper cuts along the way. This grating and confusing first experience, made me very reluctant to invest any time in figuring out how to resolve difficulties within the application… I quickly emailed support to get answers to my questions rather than risk wasting more time and more paper cuts trying to figure it out on my own.

Although software companies have learned a great deal about the importance of optimizing users’ experiences with their products — investing more time and effort into user experience/interface design and user testing — they often neglect to deliberately design and optimize “first experiences” or they mistakenly assume that providing a “tutorial” about or “tour” of their products will do the trick.

Moreover, organizations are often unclear about the meaning and boundaries of the “first experience”. Is it when a prospective user first hears about the software from outbound email marketing? Is it when a user signs up for a free trial? Is it when users walk through a structured how to “tutorial”? Is it when a user completes his/her first task using the software?  Unfortunately, this ambiguity often creates uncertainty about who in the org — marketing, product management, product design/development, customer support/success —  is responsible for “first experiences”….which in turn can lead to fragmented first experiences that inhibit seamless movement from prospective user to delighted newbie ready to actively engage.

The first adoption challenges a product company faces are optimizing awareness and kindling motivation – essentially getting people’s attention, optimizing their basic comprehension, and eliciting their interest in exploring and/or investing their time and efforts in actually trying out your software. This entails helping a prospective user quickly discover a coherent story or concept  — a “mental model” — about what your software is and does AND it’s potential value to the user.

Note that enabling this type of user discovery is not the same as teaching people how to use your software and does not require a lengthy “tutorial.”  It requires having a crisp story — engaging for your specific target users — that tells the prospective user the what and the why of your software – what it is, what it offers and why it is/will be personally valuable.

Once the prospective new user grasps the basic story, she may be motivated to take the software out for a test drive. But how to best get started? The challenge here is to both provide simple guidance about what the user may want to do first as well as to find a way to deliver value and a positive experience as quickly as possible. In the mobile banking example I described earlier, I was invited to deposit a check not only because it was a frequent need of users, but also because it was a fast way to deliver a valuable, delightful and memorable experience.

There’s no cookbook for creating great first experiences, but there are some key principles to keep in mind.

Quickly convey a simple, but personally compelling story and mental model.

Quickly enlighten the user with what the product is, what it does and how it will be valuable to them. Avoid lengthy pedantic tutorials. Utilize crisp narratives and infographics tuned to the perspectives and language of your target users. Strive to provide a model that users will not only understand themselves, but that they could readily explain to other prospective users.

Help users get started and get to value quickly.

Don’t overwhelm users with a plethora of choices to illustrate the amazing breadth and power of your app. Don’t drop them into “empty” software that requires a lot of data input or set up before a user can either simulate or actually complete a personally relevant task. Provide users with guidance about what to try and do first. When doing so, don’t just focus on the logical workflow of the application and don’t require a full “setup” or configuration of the software.…think about how you can surface your most useful functions and deliver value to the user as quickly as possible. Experiencing and achieving something valuable will provide the user with incentive to do and learn more.

Strive to create magic moments.

Disney is smart. Identify small ways you can surprise and delight your prospective users all along their journey…particularly at the beginning. Surprising and satisfying first experiences provide at least a temporary halo effect for your product that users can draw on if and when they run into friction later. They also subtly incent users to persevere to pursue further magic.

Evaluate your current “first experiences” with real people in real scenarios.

You know too much about your software to serve as a proxy for new users. A scenario-based user experience walkthrough and review of the first experience is a good place to start. But, as with any aspect of the product experience, it is critical to directly test, measure and evaluate the first experiences that people have with your product. Conduct in context observations and scenario based user testing with truly new users — assessing not only how successful they are in completing tasks, but also the degree to which they grasp the product story, perceive personal value, identify how to get started, take action on their own, accomplish something valuable and experience small moments of positive surprise and magic.

With this, you’ll have everything you need to deliver a great first experience.

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Mark Burrell
Mark Burrell
Design Director

Dr. Mark Burrell is a Customer Experience & Product Adoption Strategist with over twenty years of experience designing, evaluating and accelerating adoption of high impact digital technology solutions. He has built world-class User Experience practices for leading software product and consulting companies including Endeca, Oracle, Microsoft and Sapient. Mark applies his background as a clinical psychologist along with his expertise in human-centered design and lean innovation to help companies gain actionable insights about their customers, design and build better products and accelerate product adoption. Currently he is the Design Director, Watson Health at IBM.
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