What It Means to Design B2B Systems

Many people may be unfamiliar with the term “business system design” at first glance. However, there is still plenty of room for the power of design to be demonstrated. This time, we asked Aya Sano, who has been involved in the design of business systems for several years, about the actual situation and the real pleasure of her work.

Aya Sano
Graffer, Inc. Designer Twitter

After graduating from Tokyo Zokei University and working at an advertisement design production company, Flasher, and so on, she experienced several development sites with different scales such as a startup and a Japanese apparel company with global expansion. She found interest in business systems and is currently in charge of designing business systems for local governments at Graffer.

Trial and error to get people to use it is the starting point of a virtuous circle

── What exactly is business system design? Please tell us about the products you have been in charge of so far.

Sano: This is my own definition, but it refers to designing a system that is used by staff who provide services such as correspondence, sales, and customer service to users and customers.

At Toreta,Inc., which I joined in 2016, I was in charge of a B2B product that was an iPad application that provides a reservation ledger and customer ledger for restaurants. Toreta emphasizes “normal use” and designs with the aim of making complex functions simple to use. Sales representatives also had a deep understanding of the site by interacting with the shop staff. Through interviews and site visits, I learned that there are various types of restaurants and the differences in the roles of each employee in the store, and it was interesting to document them.

After that, I moved to a Japanese apparel company, where I was assigned to a department in charge of “systems used in stores” in the business department that oversees IT. We improved the operation application for our apparel retail store staff and the application for sales planning. Because the planning and operation of the system were mostly in-house, the data surrounding the product was well organized. It was possible to grasp the inventory of both EC and stores, and it was connected to the POS. However, the issue was that most of the information management in other business operations was done on paper, so I was involved in supporting them in determining the business flow itself, such as conducting workshops for organizations together.

Graffer, Inc., where I am currently working, provides various web services and solutions for local governments to streamline administrative procedures, and I am in charge of designing these systems. Through my experience with COVID-19, I have come to realize that we can only survive if the government and infrastructure are functioning properly. When it comes to leveraging the power of design, I believe the most leverage is in the administrative domain.

Providing web services and solutions for streamlining administrative procedures

── What kind of process do you use to create them?

Sano: Starting from the project we want to work on and the requests of the site, we first create a prototype from research and hypotheses. The general flow is to decide the specifications while receiving opinions on it and thereafter proceed to development. It is almost impossible to reach the goal in a single step, so we go through many twists and turns, such as seeing the actual site and confirming the points where communication occurs on the customer journey map, and putting them into the system. When designing, it is necessary to consider the site environment in which the business system will be used. If the desks are small or there is only one computer per floor, a design based on the premise that it will be used at one’s leisure will hinder the actual operation. It is very important to get feedback from people in the field based on the prototype, run simulations, and repeat close examinations so as not to deviate from the sense of use in the field.

── What is an ideal business system?

Sano: Ultimately, the most important thing is that the product is easy to use for the site, otherwise it will not be used. If we can provide an easy-to-use system, we can reduce the cognitive load and training costs of the employees, and make them feel that they are valued. If the employees can enjoy their work, customer service should improve as well. The ability to create such a virtuous circle is a good thing about business systems, and it is where I work hard as a designer. As a designer, it may be an important quality to be able to hope that the impact of what you are doing is good.

Coming face to face with on-site specialists with both trust and cynicism

── To what extent do you research the sites where your business systems will be used?

Sano: I try to understand everything from the culture and customs of the target organization to seasonal factors. If there is a business manual, I will read it until I understand it, and for Graffer, I will also target books written about how to start working as a local government employee.

I first understand the culture in this manner and then talk to people who are familiar with the domain and get their feedback on the details and the odd parts. I have had multiple exchanges with the staff who have been in the field and are currently in the company as well to deepen my understanding.

── Are there times when the more you know about the site, the more you may have your own awareness of problems and opinions about operations?

Sano: Of course there are. Most of the time, the people in the field already have an awareness of the problems. As is the case when coming face to face with members who are familiar with the domain, it is very important to trust the other party first without sticking to your own stubbornness or desire for approval.

Also, there are situations where I have to stop the site from “getting carried away.” It is also important not to take requests lightly, but to take a moderately cynical attitude and ask, “Why is this operation necessary?” and “Why is this function necessary?”

If the other party is not ready to listen to what I have to say at that time, it is difficult to persuade them even if I propose something because I do not have as much knowledge as them. For that reason, I recognize that the other party is not an IT professional, and I explain the development process well in advance so that they can understand it. Reconciling differences of opinion in this way is both a difficult and an interesting part of this job.

── What aspects do you focus on when deciding which features to implement?

Sano: In my case, I try to incorporate as early as possible about 30% of the things that “if done now, will work later.”

The determination largely depends on the employees’ mental models, and it is important to properly grasp the vague objects of the employees’ worldviews and whether it is in line with the part that forms the skeleton. In the case of retail and restaurants, there are many cases where each employee is assigned a responsibility such as “being in charge of the tables” or “being in charge of shelves,” so that is the starting point. I also take into account the parts that will likely have to work across departments in the future if it is an administration. In this way, even if it’s just a little bit, if we do something properly which at first glance is plain and tends to be put off until later, it will come back and work for us later on.

On December 15th, 2022, we announced the start of our providing customized functions for local governments on the information provision site “Worry Handbook”

Without running away from communication, I continue to train my decision-making muscle

── Given that each organization has its own circumstances, how do you design a SaaS-type business system like Graffer that is standardized to some extent?

Sano: Graffer is currently in the process of lobbying local governments to use a standardized system. In doing so, I feel that to some extent the system and humans should come closer to each other. And the business system itself should also include support for that compromise.

For standardization, it is necessary to sample and listen to the users and summarize the trends as a whole. But of course, what each party expects is slightly different, so you have to judge based on the majority to some extent.

Therefore, while listening to each other’s opinions, we will end up creating a worldview that we want to provide based on our desire for them to “increase productivity and use time meaningfully.” Using a business system should be an opportunity to review operations, lead to insights that lead to rethinking everything starting from the environment, and work more from the business system’s side.

── How do you view the area of government that Graffer faces?

Sano: The use of IT is progressing more than I thought, but there are still many local governments that are forced to switch between old systems and paper in their workflow, and there are considerable differences between local governments. How to approach subjects with different circumstances is also an issue for Graffer. I don’t want anyone to be in a situation where they can’t master using the service even if they go through the trouble of introducing it, or the citizens can’t receive the services they should be able to receive. That’s why I would like to actively speak to people who are skeptical about Graffer’s system and think about what we can do.

After all, business systems cannot be managed by designers alone. We need a multifaceted approach like mixed martial arts, and no matter how good we make it, it won’t be used without the efforts of the people in the field. Designers and people working in the field have to work together to be able to finally come up with suggestions for the best possible solutions. So, when all is said and done, there is no other option but to go to many sites and communicate with them, and train my “decision-making muscle” to conclude that this is the greatest common divisor.

I have a so-called “communication disorder”, so I have a hard time communicating, and I have made many mistakes because of that. Sometimes I am too considerate, sometimes I am not considerate enough, and I’m not good at interacting with people in higher positions. To be honest, I became a designer partly because I thought I could avoid communicating with people like that, but I’m already 38, so I think I have no choice but to do it.

── What makes you want to try something you know you’re not good at?

Sano: I think there is a tendency to think that the latter is better when considering “designing things” and “designing ideas,” but it is “things” such as prototypes that can move discussions forward. As a designer, I can make whatever can be considered things, and if I can somehow grasp what everyone wants to do, I can give shape to it. I was very happy that the things I made in that way could help advance discussions about “what should be changed and how,” and I want to create a good flow by working with the output so that there is no situation in which a meeting place or business site operating while someone is stressed.

Aiming for “ordinary use” for everyone

── What aspects of business system design do you find interesting?

Sano: For me, it may be creating things that can be used normally. When I was a student, I was a so-called “bad student,” and even after I got a job, I couldn’t respond to requests to “make it look good,” and I felt that life was difficult.

But what bothered me wasn’t that I couldn’t make a good design, but that I hadn’t decided on the basis for judgment or the why, so I was asked to “make it in a good way.” It’s difficult to answer a request to “make it look good,” but if the request is “able to be used normally,” I can aim for that if I organize things logically and make decisions accordingly. To me, the most interesting aspect of designing a business system is to create it while sincerely facing the person in charge in front of me.

If I face them, what was a rough image of “a person in the field” at first becomes a realistic image of their lifestyle, such as, “When I go home, there will be a 2-year-old child waiting for me…” I further explore what kind of things I should create by modeling them rather than individually optimizing them. I think it’s very interesting to listen to a lot of people’s real voices and face them until I can draw an image that they can really use. There are a lot of serious people who are supporting the Japanese workforce, so I want to face them and help them in my own way.

Aya presenting in Spectrum Tokyo Design Fest 2022

Related Links

Graffer Inc.
Aya’s Twitter

Written By

Shiho Nagashima

Shiho is an editor at Spectrum Tokyo. She has been a freelancer since 2022 after working at a movie company, an advertising agency, and a startup. She supports creators to make the most of their characteristics, while she herself is involved in a wide range of content creation.

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