Product Teams

Feature Adoption in the Real World

Published Dec 2, 2016

In your oddly-work-related dreams: “That new feature sounds great! We’ll roll it out right away and get you any feedback our employees have to help you make adjustments. Everyone should see the value in this improvement right away. Your team is so responsive! We’ll almost certainly renew.”

In the real world: “Oh, was there a new feature? I don’t read the emails really, sorry. That’s right, Dan attended one of your training sessions and we talked about it briefly at the end of a meeting. Our staff get kind of annoyed when we change things up on them, though, and we’ve been so busy. We have another BI initiative coming up that kind of relates to this, so we’d rather wait before trying it anyway.”

keyboard watch

For a consumer product, each user has the power to make a purchasing decision. Get a new feature in front of that user and demonstrate its value, and you’re on your way. If the data shows the customer is using the app a lot, you can pretty safely assume that they like it. But the world of B2B products is far more complex. What makes B2B different?

  • You can’t assume the user and the customer are the same person. Everyday users are often not the people with the power to purchase the software. The person who did choose your product might see broad improvements in work flow and attribute them to the product, but for most users your product is “that system I use to make a vacation requests” or “where we enter receipts.”
  • Relatedly, users usually don’t have a choice. Most staff have to use the software their workplace provides, and so you can’t assume that high usage means that users are satisfied or are gaining value. Thus the challenge of the silent majority.
  • Organizations tend to move slowly. Any change impacts many people, possibly in multiple departments, and requires training or even reworking processes. Understandably, businesses are far more conservative about trying something new than an individual would be.
  • Use of your product is tied to larger business functions. A business has ongoing projects and routines, such as quarterly or monthly reports. Often, a new feature can’t be implemented until it matches scheduled tasks.
  • Your sample size is not that large. A B2B product might support a couple of thousand customers, with a user population in the tens of thousands. Not all will need a certain feature and you won’t expect all to convert over a given period. You don’t have as much data to work with as you would with a consumer app, which might have hundreds of thousands of users trying a new feature.

Many software teams try to move quickly when designing, rolling out, and evaluating new features. But, given all of these constraints, it’s easy to move too quickly for B2B customers. They can easily become overwhelmed with new features to evaluate and consider.

Often there is a gatekeeper who evaluates new features and decides whether an organization will adopt them. Sometimes this is an official gatekeeper (with whom you are more likely to be in touch), but it might be an unofficial gatekeeper hidden from view—for example, the “accidental administrator” who isn’t a tech person but who knows the product inside and out. When these gatekeepers are evaluating a feature, they will be thinking in many layers: Is the new feature secure? Will it require customization? How will this impact our work flows? How much training will this require? Will this be different for employees in different roles?

Interpreting data for B2B apps is also challenging. When a new feature rolls out, you may see a spike in use, but what does that mean? It’s possible that this isn’t actual use, but just people poking around to see what the feature is. They might try it a few times, but not truly integrate it into their day-to-day workflow. I’ve seen cases where, on paper, 75% of users were “using” a feature, but only 10-20% were using it regularly as an integrated part of their processes. Or, if the feature is linked to a less-frequent activity (e.g. quarterly reporting) you might not know anything about how the feature is performing until users have reached the time when they need it.

We have posted about service design for onboarding, and it’s important to remember that new feature introduction is very much a service, and one where you should consider all touchpoints. Here are a few more strategies to help wrangle B2B feature adoption:

small group

Use a small group to create a fast feedback loop.

Try starting small. Closely monitoring adoption by a small group of customers reduces the “noise” associated with all those complicating organizational factors and gets you feedback sooner. Use in-app surveys and messaging to request immediate input, and remember to consider qualitative feedback as well. It can also be helpful to create cohorts at this stage—multiple small groups of similar customers that you can expose to the feature to compare adoption.

Decouple the problems of awareness and value.

Many people try to make customers aware of a feature and make sure that feature improves     their outcome at the same time. For B2B, separating these issues allows you to adjust your approach for different subsets of users. Try building awareness of capabilities first with a small group of engaged customers, then measuring their value and adoption rates. With that information, tackle the problem of boosting adoption among less-engaged users.

Practice driving adoption.

Many teams tend to just move on after the hoopla of a new feature release has subsided. But without practice driving adoption, you’ll always be at a loss when it comes to really changing how B2B users work. Keep on measuring delivered value, iterating based on feedback, and pushing adoption forward!

Many of the factors at play in B2B feature adoption are beyond your control. But by being aware of the complexity of your customers’ situations and making conscious efforts to drive feature adoption, you’ll better align your next feature roll-out with real-world demands.

John Cutler is a product management and UX consultant. His passions are UX research, evidence-driven product development, and empowering the front line to solve business and customer problems. For more of John’s writing visit his Medium profile or follow him on Twitter.  He is honored to team up with longtime friend and editor Katherine Maurer, a freelance editor and poet whose work has appeared in many pretty good literary journals. She is also a graduate student in clinical psychology, and drummer in the band Again is Already.