HVAC Systems Manufacturer:
B2B Design Thinking: Product Innovation
when the User is a Network

We differentiate between three editorial levels of stories:

1) Design thinking classics:
Case studies that are well-documented and widely known, which we include in our collection for the sake of completeness. If not stated otherwise there are compiled by our editors via desk research.

2) Normal cases:
Stories, which are less known and got collected and rewritten by our editors via desk research.

3) Stories with validated data:
These cases are based on first-hand empirical information that our editors received during their research.

When B2B companies talk about user experience, they are really considering the aggregated needs of multiple people and roles in a large ecosystem. But what happens when those objectives are vastly different for every individual?

When B2B companies talk about user experience, they are really considering the aggregated needs of multiple people and roles in a large ecosystem. But what happens when those objectives are vastly different for every individual?

“Humans don’t stop being humans just because they entered an office building.” This quote by an old colleague always ring true when we work with B2B businesses. Every person in who uses machines, raw materials, technology, or even furniture and office supplies to get work done has a unique idea of how the experience should be to meet the individual needs as well as the organizational requirements.

But what happens when a product rarely reaches the same level of awareness and preference from users, even though it is widely used and relied on to support a comfortable environment? Does the user experience matter?

Humans don’t stop being humans just because they entered an office building. But …

This question was recently the topic of a heated discussion among business leaders of a midsize Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems manufacturer in central Europe. Some of them initially expressed reservations about the importance of the human experience when designing and redesigning air conditioners, heat pumps, air handlers, thermostats, and indoor air quality controls. But the remaining members sensed they needed to innovate differently to capture a fast-growing customer segment that is converting abandoned buildings, such as factories and schools, into shared and temporary office spaces.

The first design thinking pilot project – the redesign of a well-established heating/cooling system – soon cooled the skepticism in the room. The business leaders were inspired to see how the user-centered innovation approach strengthened the value proposition of their offerings beyond their old unique selling proposition (durability and energy efficiency).

Chasing a New Opportunity with a New Mindset

The executive leadership team started their design thinking project with a meeting that represented every point of the company’s value chain, including R&D, marketing, sales, and aftermarket services leaders. Everyone knew that they needed to identify and explore sources of value creation beyond the existing total cost of ownership proposition to win over the new market segment. But no one could say with certainty how they could boost customers’ willingness to pay for a difficult-to-differentiate product on a system level.

In the first round of research, the team collected internally available information about the buying network the product is sold to, the target market, and the competition. For example, the sales leaders in the room delivered a detailed picture of the purchasing roles frequently encountered when engaging property developers: General managers are considered as the deciders, procurement managers serve as the buyers, controllers are influencers, business developers represent the users, and third-party organizations act as the experts. and a list about which information they still needed to make an informed decision to tackle the challenge.

However, despite the clarity of the buying center, the team realized that for an informed decision to tackle the challenge the company was missing insights into some critically relevant areas of the business, namely:

  • What is the lifecycle of a product or system after it is shipped to the customer?
  • Who is the actual user of the product, since the property developer leases the building to the property owner once construction is completed?
  • What are the interests and incentives of the different companies that employ the business users?

To close the gaps, the team’s design thinking coaches suggested an exercise of determining product users beyond the property developers. The outcome should illustrate the observable user experience and help to derive and synthesize user needs.

Taking the First Step with a Product Journey Map

To get the insights the team needed, the design thinking coaches decided to modify the proven method for customer journey mapping and convert it into a product journey map to reflect the B2B context. This decision was crucial: the first iteration of a classic customer journey map revealed that end users, like freelancers who work in the shared space, would only have minimal contact with the product.

In this twist, the team decided to make the system itself the subject and record the different individuals who would touch or be touched by the product at some point. This perspective enabled the team to construct a product journey map for the system (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: The Product Journey Map of an HVAC System in a Commercial Shared Office Space

Figure 1: The Product Journey Map of an HVAC System in a Commercial Shared Office Space

The map contained several elements of information that were particularly meaningful:

  • Segregated interactions with the system – from individuals who will never see the product (frontstage) to those who will interact directly with the physical system (backstage)
  • A more detailed backstage based on eight relevant journey elements
  • A list of 18 different users representing 14 different roles across seven independent business entities – including the property developer, architects, construction companies, facility management firms, shared office providers, service providers, and freelancers and start-ups

Wow, my user is a network.

This approach proved to be a considerable improvement to the initial analysis, which only covered the property developers buying network and the end user (freelancers and start-ups) or quoting the product manager “Wow, my user is a network”.

Defining the User Network and Its Needs

The team was impressed by the number of users identified in the product journey map. It was much higher than they anticipated. This new knowledge became a pivotal part of appreciating the complexity of the user network which the company’s products serve. To better understand each segment’s experience, the entire team conducted a series of interviews with representatives of each user type and prioritized business requirements accordingly.

The interview findings were consolidated into stakeholder maps and analyzed. Five of the interviewed user segments – engineers, quality managers, location managers, technicians, and freelancers – from five different companies were identified as core representatives of the user network. The user network was named to differentiate its users from the buying network.

Buying Networks vs. User Networks: What’s the Difference?

Throughout the innovation process, user networks and buying networks are equally critical when strengthening the product’s value proposition and relevance. However, there is a distinct difference between the two networks. A buying network (also known as the buying center) consists of the people who are potential purchasers. Meanwhile, the user network includes anyone who might interact with the product in the end.

But in the context of a B2B business, any group of individuals can move freely across the boundaries of both networks if their corporate roles define them as both buyers and users. This characteristic can make the networks especially challenging to manage because members do not choose the participants nor do they know each other well, as they would in a private network.


In the user network, two roles – freelancers and technicians – are either far away from the physical system or close to it. The remaining three roles are considered links between frontstage and backstage users.

The team also learned that the freelancer profile resembles a traditional end user with specific and unique needs, goals, and challenges. In comparison to that, all other user segments are deeply embedded into organizations which need to fulfill a job or participate in the system, signaling a completely different set of objectives. In other words, building empathy across a B2B user network is challenging because design researchers need to consider the individual needs as well as the organizational expectations on a given role.

Recent scholarly work on B2B value elements by Almquist et al. (2018, B2B Elements of Value, HBR) offers a workaround for this obstacle. In a field study the authors analyzed what business customers value and identified 40 mutually exclusive elements of value, grouped into five categories like functional value (such as product quality) or individual value (for example, design & aesthetics).

This framework provides a path to apply design thinking principles while considering the specific B2B realities and build so-called network empathy. Essentially, the elements of value serve as a proxy for an individual user’s needs in the classic design thinking space.

This approach was instrumental in the given context for two key reasons: 1) each user segment’s organizational and individual (career) goals were considered simultaneously and 2) requirements were captured in a structured and systematic way.

The team went back to the user network one more time and applied these elements, as illustrated in Figure 2. Some of these value elements were grounded in the individual’s personality, while others related to the organization’s objectives.

Figure 2: User Network Ideation Board

Figure 2: User Network Ideation Board

With this picture in mind, the team felt comfortable enough to define relevant opportunities and rephrase the design challenge. Changing the value proposition for the buying network was no longer an objective. Instead, the team focused on how to leverage the products net promoter score by creating additional value for its user network while remaining cost efficient.

With that, the team was enabled to ideate potential innovations for the business resulting in a long-list of fresh and substantial concepts. The ideas were ranked according to their cost/benefit ratio and differentiation potential. The short-listed ideas were ready to be prototyped and tested, while the others shifted to a rolling backlog of future system improvements.

Innovating the White Label App

One of the many innovations that the HVAC manufacturer prototyped was a white label mobile app that could control room temperature either centrally through a facility management provider or through an in-room thermostat.

App control is technically possible, but not practical in office buildings. However, the team’s discovery that shared space providers require their customers to download a building-specific app to book a room, check in, and submit a payment provided a solution to that obstacle. The team tested the white label app as an embedded feature in the building app to allow users to control the spaces they booked.

The effect of this app ripples throughout the entire user network. The engineer can configure the system entirely without thermostats, enabling substantial additional value capture. The quality manager does not need to monitor thermostats’ status, and technicians spend less time and resources maintaining the system. Meanwhile, the location manager can market the space with an additional feature, and freelancers and start-ups control the room temperature of their own space from their device.

This concept is also being deployed in other business environments that have frequently changing space users and high smartphone penetration, for instance hotels.

Figure 3: Initial Prototype of White Label App

Figure 3: Initial Prototype of White Label App


Realizing the True Value of Design Thinking in Unexpected Ways

The midsize HVAC manufacturer benefited from design thinking when redesigning its products: The entire value chain now understands the user network it serves and appreciates the nuances of each user segment’s experience and needs in ways that were not available before. On top, the analysis provided an outlook to the redeployment phase which has not been addressed before but will be of future importance when engaging in circular economy endeavors.

This new approach to the (re)design process centered around the Product Journey Map and the User Network concept is becoming a lasting part of the company’s repository of best practices. The project may have faced some challenges along the way, stemming from the need to shift mindsets and adapt to new ways of using design thinking in the context of a B2B environment. But by the end of the initiative, every trial, error, and experiment led to an enriched innovation process and significant contribution to a new system that delivers more value to the entire user network. 

redesigning product innovation when the user is a #network #b2b #designthinking Click To Tweet

Image Sources

  • product-journey-map-b2b-design-thinking: Marc-Alexander Winter / Nils Schekorr | CC BY-SA 4.0
  • user-network-ideation-board-b2b-design-thinking: Marc-Alexander Winter / Nils Schekorr | CC BY 4.0
  • Protoype-White-Label-App: MAW@wisquare | CC BY 4.0
  • b2b-design-thinking-product-journey-teaser: Photos by: Kuman Electric, Christina @wocintechchat, LinkedIn Sales Navigator, ThisIsEngineering RAEng, Unsplash; Nils Schekorr

The Authors

This article was written by Marc-Alexander Winter and Nils Schekorr.

Get in touch with the authors:
Marc-Alexander Winter LinkedIn Email
Nils Schekorr LinkedIn Website Email


The B2B Elements of Value – Almquist, E.; Cleghorn, J.; Sherer, L. – Harvard Business Review, March-April 2018; Reprint R1802D

Credits and Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank the faculty of the HPI Academy for their continuous feedback and support and Karen von Schmieden for being a wonderful editor!

Please rate this


  1. Great to finally see an article addressing the underserved B2B area. Eye opening content!

    Post a Reply
  2. Nice to see some b2b coverage! Great template, thanks a lot

    Post a Reply

So, what do you think ...?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Pin It on Pinterest