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User Adoption is Hard: How and Why Products Become Successful

Ryan Frederick | August 19th, 2022

I was having a conversation with a client the other day about some of the challenges involved in getting a B2B product adopted by users. User adoption and retention isn’t a new challenge for any product, including B2B. Still, it strikes me that enough time isn’t spent with the users of a product before much, if any, product design and development has occurred.

It is important to note ‘user’ in this context is a product’s end user, not necessarily the buying authority or customer.

Many B2B products get brought into companies by executives who believe the product is good for the company and the users. Still, the purchasing executives are often far removed from the actual use of a product and therefore don’t understand the process, workflow, or behavior implications of a product. The executives and team behind the product can be caught off guard by how reluctant users are to change to use a new product, even after the benefits and value to them and the company have been communicated.

Change is Hard

Users of a new product being asked to think and act differently can be a significant challenge for a product team. Users are unlikely to embrace a new product with open arms and minds. Users have established routines and are comfortable performing their work — they aren’t excited about changing.

Product teams can work to understand, document, and act on users’ workflows to make a new product closely aligned to users’ existing workflows.

However, users will still have to do at least a few things differently when the rubber meets the road to leverage a new product. Even these tiny changes in workflows, routines, and beliefs are enough to cause friction and discomfort for users that they don’t end up embracing and using a product.

Mandated Product Use Does Not Ensure Success

Product teams have to consider the likelihood that users who have not been involved in the decision of a company to implement a new product will reject using the product irrespective of how well it is designed and works. Compounding the issue is that more companies are adopting a consensus culture. It is becoming less common for executives far from the actual work to mandate those close to the work to use new products and implement new processes.

Unless a problem has been identified as significant enough for a company that the problem becomes a strategic imperative, more users are empowered to accept or reject changes in products and processes as they see fit to perform their work. Forced product use compliance is part of why many B2B products like CRMs are deemed less valuable and impactful than expected.

When purchasing executives have to mandate the use of a product and enforce usage compliance, the product isn’t likely to be as successful for anyone as intended.

It is hard to market and sell an undeveloped product to buying executives. Naturally, purchasing executives want to see a product work to make the use and value more tangible, and this is where product teams spend most of their time on a new product. New product teams spend most of their time with a product’s buyers. Instinctually this makes sense and is an important stakeholder for product teams to align with. Still, product teams can be too focused on accommodating buying executives, causing them to not pay enough attention to end users’ perspectives.

Spend Time With Users

New B2B product teams must find a balance between creating a product executives will buy while understanding and appreciating the changes the product will cause for users. The products most likely to be well-received by users have more to do with the users’ reluctance to change than the overall value to a company. Executives can communicate the efficiency increases, cost reduction, improved security, or any other reasons new products are implemented.

Still, end users don’t care very much about macro company issues if it means they will have to change the way they do their job significantly. The Jobs To Be Done methodology can help product teams to understand what, how, why, and when an end user does as part of performing their work. Still, it doesn’t go enough to deal with the behavior and psychological aspects of end users being willing and able to operationalize a new product.

To overcome the hurdles to end users being willing to operationalize a new product into their work, product teams must spend more time with users before designing and developing anything. Learning how end users perform and view their work is crucial to a product’s success, and the view is more important than how users perform and view.

A User’s Identity Might Be Attached to Their Work

Users who view themselves as craftspeople, clinicians, artisans, creatives, thinkers, analysts, scientists, and other similar positions may not operationalize a new product not because they don’t like the product, what the product does, or how the products does it. They might not operationalize the product because of what the new product means to their professional identity and craft. A product that can help a coach develop a game plan might reject it because that is part of the essence of coaching.

A doctor might reject a product that can help with a diagnosis. A therapist might reject being directed on how to provide care. Professional and specialized users are particularly at risk of not operationalizing a new product because the product is perceived to infringe too far on the core of their work and identity.

Understand How Users Perceive Their Work

New product teams not only have to wade through the information and insights about different user personas, but they have to go much deeper in the situations where users are professionals who might reject a product because of the challenge to their identity and ultimately to their very existence. Product teams have to research and understand the mechanics of the user’s work and also how the users perceive their work.

Users with strong beliefs about how their work should be performed, the skills required to perform it well, and experience proving they are a professional in the discipline are much more likely to have a psychological block and emotional challenge to embrace a new product.

The best B2B product teams meet professional users where they are in what they do and how they do it, why they do it, and what the profession says about them. B2B product teams that excel start with the psychological user perspective and then move into the product design and development. B2B products for professional users must first support the users’ professional identity and attachment before the users will consider any features.

More than any other users, professional users want to be validated and their profession and professional prowess to be acknowledged and appreciated. Products pushed on to professional users by buying executives who may not be professional users, such as hospital administrators and doctors, will have a tough time getting operationalized by the professional users.

When professional users don’t operationalize a product, the product will ultimately not be successful. It won’t be successful for the people and company behind the product because they will spend an inordinate amount of time, energy, and money trying to figure out why the product isn’t being used, none of which was part of the strategy and business model. Also, the buying executives will eventually pull the product because of the lack of value from the initial purchase and implementation, leaving themselves and the product’s company with egg on their faces.

We see many products that offer to change an industry of professional users with minimal impact and success. Undoubtedly, it is hard to change entrenched processes, systems, and beliefs. Still, it is even harder when product teams don’t give themselves a shot to make it work when they focus on the what of the product before focusing on the professional way of the users.