Many business-to-business (B2B) sites are stuck in the 1990s in their attitude toward the user experience. Most B2B sites emphasize internally focused design, fail to answer customers' main questions or concerns, and block prospects' paths as they search for companies to place on their shortlists.
These sites haven't realized that the Web has reversed the company-customer relationship. Most online interactions are demand-driven: you either give people what they want or watch as they abandon your site for the competition's.
The result of poor design on B2B sites? In our user testing, B2B sites earned a mere 58% success rate (measured as the percentage of time users accomplished their tasks on a site). In contrast, mainstream websites have a substantially higher success rate of 66%.
Considering that there's immensely more money at stake for B2B than for business-to-consumer (B2C), it's astounding that B2B sites offer a much worse user experience.
To discover the usability guidelines for good B2B design, we conducted several rounds of qualitative user research. We collected empirical evidence about the behavior, needs, and preferences of actual users from a broad spectrum of businesses. Our participants' job titles varied widely, from VPs, business owners, and engineers, to marketing directors, buyers, and administrative assistants.
We conducted most sessions in the U.S. (in California, Washington, and Arizona), and a smaller number of sessions in the U.K. to insure the international applicability of the findings.
We combined three different research methods to gain a deeper understanding of the complex issues in B2B usability:
Focus groups. We moderated 12 focus groups. Our goal was two-fold: to understand the range of participants' research and purchasing processes, and to prioritize B2B site features that help facilitate those processes. Focus groups are a lousy method for evaluating actual websites or specific design ideas, so we didn't use them for this purpose.
User testing. In this section, 55 business users tested live websites in one-on-one usability sessions. Individual users performed tasks related to their actual jobs on sites that targeted their circumstances. We asked users to verbalize their thinking, and observed and recorded their behavior. Because this method looks at what people do, it's superior to focus groups for assessing the designs that actually work, versus the designs that people think will work.
Field studies. We visited 7 companies to observe users working in their natural environments. (Some people use the term "ethnography" to describe site visits, but you can do contextual field observation without giving it a fancy name.)
In all, our study group included 79 participants (39 males and 40 females), with an even distribution of age groups. Most users were between 30 and 59 years of age, with a smaller number of users in their 20s or 60s. Participants were also evenly distributed in terms of the size of the companies they worked for, which ranged from small (1-35 employees) to large (more than 3,500 employees).
Study participants tested 179 B2B websites -- far more than we typically test in our studies. In this case, however, the large number was necessary because of the B2B sector's extreme diversity.
B2B vs. B2C
B2B site goals are substantially more complex than those on the typical B2C site. This is the one excuse B2B sites have for their bad usability. In reality, however, the more complex the scenario, the higher the need for supportive user interfaces. Thus, B2B sites ought to emphasize usability more, not less, because they must help users accomplish more advanced tasks and research more specialized products.
B2B purchases are often big-ticket items or service contracts. The sites' products and services are often extremely specialized, with complex specifications. Finally, decisions made on B2B sites can have long-term implications: customers aren't just making a one-time purchase, they're often buying into a long-term vendor relationship that includes support, follow-up, and future enhancements and add-ons.
For all these reasons, research and multi-criteria decision-making dominate the B2B user experience. B2B sites must provide a much wider range of information than what's common in B2C. A B2B site has to offer simple facts that are easily and quickly understood by an early prospect who's just looking around to see what's available. It must also offer in-depth white papers and information to help prospects understand concepts like total cost of ownership, ROI, and whether and how the product or service will integrate with the customer's existing environment.
Another major difference is that B2C users are typically buying for themselves. They therefore use a one-person decision process: a single user provides the budget and approval, researches the options, makes the decision, completes the purchase, receives the shipment, and uses the product. In contrast, in B2B, each of these steps might involve different people and different departments.
A B2B site must address many different types of users with quite different needs. On the basis of our user research, we defined 5 personas to represent the main classes of B2B users:
Sam the Small Business Saver
Ashley the Office Admin
Erin the Enterprise Employee
Barbara the Boss
Pat the Professional Purchaser
Again, this added complexity only strengthens the argument for B2B sites to emphasize usability in their design.
"Add to Cart" vs. Supporting the Full Buying Process
One of the biggest differences between B2B and B2C might be that most B2B companies don't seem to see themselves as engaged in e-commerce. Perhaps this is because most B2B sites don't have shopping carts. The typical B2B product can't be purchased through a simple Add to cart button: it might be custom-made, for example, or require other forms of handholding. Also, prices might not be fixed, but rather adjusted to each customer.
However, the lack of an Add to cart button doesn't mean that B2B vendors should ignore their websites. The site should still support the many other stages of the buying process -- including the post-sales stages, which are crucial to customers' long-term brand loyalty. In fact, many complex products require supplies, spare parts, or other consumables that are perfectly suited to traditional e-commerce.
Most important, B2B sites can be great lead generators. Prospects use websites during their initial research and stick with the helpful sites during subsequent research.
The website represents the company to prospects. In today's world, people don't always save brochures and advertisements, because they assume they can find equivalent information on the Web when the need strikes. Most of our users also said that when they were thinking of doing business with a company, one of their first actions was to check out its website. Thus, a site that inadequately communicates the credibility of a vendor and its products can seriously deter incoming leads -- long before your official sales efforts begin.
One reason so many B2B sites have poor usability might be because they're less directly accountable for sales. On a classic B2C e-commerce site, every single design decision directly and measurably affects the site's conversion rate and other metrics, such as the average shopping cart size. Many B2C sites are religious in their observance of e-commerce usability guidelines because they know from their own statistics how much money they lose every time they get usability wrong.
In contrast, because B2B sites don't close sales online, they can turn away the vast majority of users and never know how many sales they've lost. A company can determine how its site helps or hinders users only by conducting user research with representative customers -- something most companies don't do. Given our experiences in testing 179 B2B sites, we can safely predict that most companies would be shocked if they ever tested their own sites.
B2B sites often prevent users from getting the information they need to research solutions. Sometimes this is deliberate, as when sites hide the good stuff behind registration barriers. Other times it's inadvertent, as when confusing navigation prevents users from finding information, or when the information they do find is so voluminous and convoluted that they can't understand it.
A simple example: Many sites use segmentation, in which users must click through to the appropriate site segment. Unfortunately, these segments often don't match the way customers think of themselves, and thus require them to peek through multiple site areas to find the right one. Even a simple segmentation such as company size isn't obvious. What counts as small? Better sites will annotate their choices with a definition (stating, for example, that their small business segment targets companies with less than 100 employees).
Another common B2B tactic is to require users to register or complete lead-generation forms. Users are very reluctant to do this, however. If your site wants to pursue this approach, you should at least follow registration form guidelines to make your forms easier to complete. In most cases, however, we recommend moving more information outside the barrier so it's available to users during their initial research. You must establish a certain level of credibility before people are willing to give out their contact information. Business people are too busy these days to have time for sales calls -- unless they think the vendor is likely to offer something they want.
The product information that you make available without registration must be complete enough for users to judge whether your solution applies to their circumstances. In our study, incomplete product descriptions were the cause of much skepticism. At the same time, you can't just dump everything on a first-time visitor. Even if you sell highly technical products to a highly specialized audience, you can't assume that all users understand industry jargon or the key considerations that distinguish your product from the competition. Provide helpful summaries and guides to educate new users. If you can frame how people think about their problems, you're half way to selling them.
The most user-hostile element of most B2B sites is a complete lack of pricing information. And yet, when we asked users to prioritize which of 28 types of B2B site information mattered most to them, prices scored the highest by far (29% higher than product availability, which ranked second).
Sites have many excuses for not wanting to display prices, but they are just that: excuses. Users expect to get a basic understanding of products and services during their initial research, and they can't do that without some idea of what it's going to cost. Even if your company can't list exact prices, there are several ways to indicate price level, which is really all people need initially.
We tested many B2B sites with good design elements: navigation that worked, useful product descriptions, informative comparison charts, enticing up-sells, helpful support, instructive white papers, and so on. We know these sites can be done well. Unfortunately, the good designs were few and far between.
The average B2B user experience is not very supportive of customers. As a result, the websites fail to provide business value because they ultimately turn prospects away rather than turning them into leads. The only good news in this assessment is that most sites can dramatically enhance their business value by simply following a few more usability guidelines, and thereby offer a more customer-centered environment. It's time to upgrade B2B to the level of user experience that mainstream websites have long offered.
The full research report with actionable design guidelines for B2B sites is available for download. (Note that this link now points to a newer edition of the report than the one discussed in this article. The main conclusions remain the same, however.)