Designing Consumer or Enterprise Products

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Updated October 11, 2023
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If you’re going in-house, two more factors to consider are enterprise or consumer. If you’re going the agency route, most specialize in consumer products, but some exclusively focus on complex enterprise apps.

Table: Consumer versus Enterprise

NameConsumer companyEnterprise company
Places a premium onSimplicity, high polish, solid craft, aesthetics.Solving for complex interactions, extensibility.
Who do these companies serve?Usually many every-day individual consumers.Usually fewer buyers, who get the product on behalf of a company.
Watch out forFlurry of activity that leads nowhere.Sales-driven culture that doesn’t value design’s input.
Update cycleTypically moves faster with limitations driven by platforms (for example, mobile slightly behind web).Slower, sometimes determined by sales cycles or mandated updates that happen a few times a year.

Consumer Companies

By the nature of their business, consumer companies are more aligned with their customers. This means that they have to provide an amazing experience right out of the gate that can’t be covered up by sales or marketing. Usually these companies tend to favor designers with a high visual design acumen, but that’s not always the case. Some consumer companies might have stronger service design and interaction design components, especially if those companies bridge the digital and physical realms (for example, Eventbrite, Getaround).

Consumer companies are usually the ones that are in the news since they try to appeal to a broad segment of consumers. At the end of the day a consumer company can’t rely on great product experience alone—it has to make money. Usually they can do this a couple of ways:

  • Charging the consumer for a product. This is usually rare for consumer companies, as it puts significant barriers to customers and the industry expectation of “free” is hard to overcome.

  • Charging a subset of the customer population. This is most common with the “freemium” model where the majority of customers use a scaled-down version of the app for free and a small amount of customers pay for more advanced features, subsidizing the overall product.

  • Generating revenue through ads. Allowing other partners to put ads on their service.

Sometimes companies experiment with a blend of different methods. Giving away the product for free is, of course, the easiest way for a company to grow, but at some point they will have to come up with a sustainable business model that doesn’t rely on venture capital dollars. Usually this means relying on advertising. For design, this is an opportunity to find the right sweet spot of driving ad engagement with customers without making everything an ad.

Early-stage consumer startups sometimes may struggle to get off the ground. Because the barrier to entry for these companies is low, this may lead to high competition. This can be the right challenge for you if you’re OK with a moderate to high level of risk and you’re interested in getting in on the ground floor. As a designer, you’ll have the opportunity to shape and define the vision for the company with the founding team by working through many conceptual designs. You’ll also bring some of the promising directions to life—a rewarding experience to take the process from beginning to end.

Mature consumer companies that are already profitable, like Instagram or Pinterest for instance, offer a different type of challenge. You’ll primarily work with an existing product that you will seek to optimize. Sometimes these may be small feature tweaks or they might be brand-new products or features. You’ll learn lots about growth design from an experienced team, and you’ll get to understand what makes the customers tick at a nuanced level.

Enterprise Companies

Enterprise companies operate differently from a consumer business. From a purely economic perspective, enterprise companies make money by selling their product to other companies. Although the customer base for their product is lower compared to consumer companies, the amount of revenue they make per customer is much higher.

The business model for enterprise designers can be sometimes a blessing or a curse. It can be positive because it will allow designers to focus strictly on helping the customer get the job done without detracting or distracting them with ads. However, depending on the company’s design maturity and its culture, you may also run into some challenges. Companies that are sales driven may over-optimize on the client, leading to a fragmented design experience. Design may also be continuously relegated to the back seat as sales people try to “protect” their clients by blocking design from interviewing them.

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Another thing to watch out for when joining an enterprise company is its sales cycle, which is closely tied to software updates. Due to high product complexity or just older software practices, some companies push out changes to their software only a few times a year. This can be a big challenge for designers, as it usually means fewer learning opportunities. Of course there are workarounds for slower releases, but nothing beats real-world learning once the product is out.

Selling enterprise software used to be heavily driven by relationships. An app was designed essentially to a spec sheet. Frequently this would amount to a complex, hard-to-use interface, which conveniently enough would allow the company to charge more for its services, such as training the employees who would ultimately use the software.

With the “consumerization” of enterprise products, most companies are now moving away from this outdated business model. Some companies are also flipping the top-down sales cycle on its head. Instead of appealing to key decision-makers in the company, they market to new hires who are more likely to try out new products that help them get the job done faster. The business incentive here is aligned with design, creating products that work with minimum friction and little to no training.

As a designer for enterprise, you’ll frequently work on complex interaction flows and customer workflows. Every domain (insurance, healthcare, tech, and so on) has its own context and rules that you’ll pick up on. If you’re interested in tackling big, sprawling problems, this direction may be right for you.

Which One Should You Pick?

In the past, the stereotype was that consumer design is glitzy, flashy, and the most coveted place to work. On the other hand, enterprise design would always get a bad reputation with its awkward looking UIs. It was usually unheard of for enterprise designers to transition into consumer. But now the lines are much more blurred. Both enterprise and consumer companies offer complex challenges for design to solve; both now require strong, quality design output.

Designers in the consumer space can help simplify complex enterprise products. Designers working on enterprise products can tackle complex flows in consumer apps as well. Design skills do transfer over, so at the end of the day it’s more about personal preference and the type of challenge that excites you most.

Additional Resources

Interested in learning more about enterprise design? Check out the Enterprise Experience conference by Rosenfeld Media which brings in many well-known speakers in the field.

Designing for Platforms and Devices

Over the last two decades the world of product design and its potential applications has exploded. Previously, desktop computers, slow connections, and basic-feature phones used to dominate the digital landscape. Now with more powerful computers and ubiquitous connectivity, new platforms have emerged on the scene. Mobile is no longer the hot new trend but is a mainstream, mature platform with guidelines that have been refined over time. Emerging platforms like virtual or augmented reality are not brand-new either, but the best practices for them are still evolving.

So what does this all mean for design? In part, it depends on where you want to take your career. Working on a mature platform will offer you a safe space to leverage existing patterns and to quickly shape new features that can help solve user and business problems. Emerging platforms, on the other hand, offer an exciting opportunity to define and pioneer the space since there are no set best practices and standards yet.

Table: Mature versus Emerging Platforms

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