Part 1: Solving the 7 Most Common UX Problems on B2B Sites

This two-part series kicks off by focusing on navigational issues often found on B2B websites.

B2B Top Design Solutions(PT1_V2)_Hero.jpg

B2B Users Are People Too!

By definition, B2B companies sell to other businesses, not to the general public, but it’s important to remember that individual users of B2B websites are still people. In my 15 years working in B2B eCommerce, I have yet to see a “business” shop on a website.

Just like everyone else, B2B customers spend far more time shopping on B2C sites than on B2B sites, so naturally, they have come to expect B2C-level user experiences online. In fact, the most frequent complaint we hear when interviewing B2B customers is: “Why can’t [insert B2B site] be as easy to shop on as”

B2B Companies Lag Far Behind B2C in UX

For a variety of reasons, most B2B companies are typically not as mature as their B2C contemporaries when it comes to prioritizing user experience in website and app development.  Unfortunately, there’s no reliable data comparing usability problems on B2B vs. B2C websites, but the usability company Measuring U reports that B2B applications suffer from 2 times more usability problems than B2C applications – and there’s little reason to expect that B2B websites perform much better against B2C websites. Certainly B2B businesses have some unique challenges that make good user experiences trickier to achieve.

Many of the biggest UX issues on B2B websites stem from neglecting UX infrastructure, including information architecture and content governance. Large websites require constant care and pruning; websites that are allowed to grow with little oversight and decentralized governance, which is the way B2B websites are typically managed, quickly become tangled jungles. Good UX requires centralized Web teams with real power over site governance and a holistic customer-centric vision.

But all is not lost! Despite all the challenges, UX teams can drastically improve the usability of B2B websites by tackling seven key problems:

  1. Site navigation is too company-centric
  2. The online catalog is too deep and static
  3. The site’s “Information Scent” is weak
  4. There are no ordering tools for purchasing agents
  5. Prices are not listed on the site
  6. The company’s knowledge leadership, support and multimedia content is organized into navigational silos
  7. Search results don’t prioritize products

In Part I, which focuses primarily on site navigation, I’ll examine the first three:

Problem 1: Site Navigation is Too Company-Centric

When you look at search and traffic metrics on B2B sites, it’s clear that most customers are looking for products. Product-related keywords are by far the most searched for terms internally within B2B sites, just like they are on B2C sites.

However, many B2B websites do not allocate their global navigation real estate in a way that optimizes product findability. Instead, navigation on B2B websites often reflects the company’s internal business units rather than the needs of their customers.

For example, we often see B2B companies lumping their entire catalog under “Products & Services” – a generic title that says nothing about what the company actually does, has terrible information scent, and is bad for SEO, since it pushes the site’s most important category pages one level deeper in the site hierarchy.

Many B2B sites overemphasize corporate information such as “Investors, Newsroom, or Who We Are” which, although certainly important, do very little to drive conversions and get comparatively little traffic. Luckily, not as many B2B sites have hidden their desktop navigation behind hamburger menu icons (mostly because they’re behind on the mobile first trend), which has been proven to hurt navigation UX significantly.

UX Solution: The top-level categories in a B2B site’s global navigation should be the company’s main product and services categories. Company information should be given a secondary spot in the toolbar. Since support information (e.g., user manuals) is often the second most popular content type after products, listing Resources or Support in the top level of the global navigation is a good idea as well.

Aside from the navigation benefits of listing the top level of the catalog in the global navigation, it also helps new customers quickly understand what a company does.

Parker Hannifin has B2B revenue of over $13 billion/year, but who are they?  What do they do?

Figure 1: Parker Hannifin has B2B revenue of over $13 billion/year, but who are they? what do they do?

Parker Hannifin’s global navigation

Figure 2: This proposed version of the Parker Hannifin’s global navigation tells you much more about what the company does and encourages customers to browse based on popular product keywords. It also helps to have a descriptive tag line next to the corporate logo.

Problem 2: The Online Catalog is Too Deep and Static

Static catalog hierarchies, where you manually create file-tree like categories and nested sub-categories, are fine for small catalogs, but quickly become unwieldy once you have more than a few hundred products. Static hierarchies are also difficult to navigate because they force customers down a single navigation path, sometimes up to 8 or 9 levels deep, before they reach the product page.

Unless a site’s categories are labeled in the way the vast majority of customers think – which is more than likely not the case – customers will have a hard time finding what they’re looking for. While you can mitigate this problem by creating poly-hierarchies (listing a product in more than one category), this presents many maintenance issues over time.

One reason it’s difficult to design large, static catalog hierarchies is that there are so many possible ways to organize items. To use a B2C example, if you were building a recipe site, you could categorize based on ingredient, meal (breakfast, dinner), cuisine (French, Indian), time required (quick meals), occasion (Thanksgiving), and so on. Trying to build all of that manually would be very challenging indeed.   

UX Solution: Build a dynamically published catalog based on faceted browsing and metadata-tagged products. Faceted browsing enables customers to find products based on selecting criteria that’s important to them – in any order or combination. You’ll still need one to three levels of product categories, but everything under that should be served up dynamically using tag-based queries.

Converting to a faceted browsing-based catalog is certainly no small task. You have to start by establishing a tagging taxonomy, and then tag every product on the site. Once established, however, maintenance and publication are much easier. To launch a new product, you simply tag it with the right metadata and it appears in multiple categories automatically based on queries.

Steelcase B2B site

Figure 3: The Steelcase B2B site has one level of hierarchy in its product catalog. Each category page (e.g., Desks and Chairs) features faceted navigation, which enables customers to filter product lines by material, use, features, etc.

Problem 3: The Site’s “Information Scent” Is Weak

Most customers do not find the product they’re looking for after the first click – they almost always land on a category or a search results page first and then have to find their way around the site. Or they may land somewhere else altogether based on a Google search.

As a result, providing customers with the information they need so they know where to go next (what Nielsen Norman called “information scent”) is vital for both the search and browse experience. Some UX best practices for good information scent include:

  • Images for all categories and products
  • Customer-friendly category labels (not based on in-house or branded nomenclature)
  • Faceted filtering, which enables customers to filter by specifications and attributes
  • Just enough (but not too much) specification or other information so customers can choose from multiple products listed on the same page
  • Consistent navigational labeling: e.g., page titles that match link titles; breadcrumbs that contain the current page and all parent page titles; and so on.

Unfortunately, many B2B sites do a poor job of guiding their customers.

UX Solution: Aside from ensuring every category and product has an associated image, the solution here is product data and content related. You need to make sure that customers have the right information at the right time. Here’s a suggested approach for figuring this out:

  1. Start with the question: what defines a product? Is it a single item number or a collection of items that vary by one more attributes (like shirts that vary by color and size)?
  2. Once you figure out what a product is, ask: what content and specifications go on a product page?
  3. Move upstream to the category or faceted browse page and ask: what information do customers need to differentiate products X from Y from Z within a category? This information will determine what attributes you select as filters and what you show on an individual product result.
  4. Move further upstream and ask: what information do customers need to understand the difference between categories A, B and C? Maybe it’s just a picture and the name of the category, but maybe you need a short description too.
  5. Follow this logic all the way up to the homepage!


Figure 4: On the website, it’s easy to see the differences between these Real-Time PCR Systems… even if you’re not a scientist.

Now you’re armed with solutions to some of B2B’s most challenging website navigation issues! 

In Part 2, I’ll discuss solutions to other big UX issues on B2B sites, including lack of pricing transparency and impossible-to-find knowledge leadership content.


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