Part 2: Solving the 7 Most Common UX Problems on B2B Sites

The final article in this two-part series tackles UX issues related to ordering, content organization, and search results.

B2B Top Design Solutions(PT2_V2)_Hero.jpg

In Part 1, I focused on how to solve common navigational issues on B2B websites. Now I’ll discuss solutions to several other major UX issues, including ordering, content organization, and search results.

Problem 4: There Are No Ordering Tools for Purchasing Agents

When you want to buy a new TV or cell phone online, you usually do your own research and pay for it yourself. On B2B eCommerce sites, however, the researcher and buyer are often completely different people.

The researcher on B2B sites is usually a technical person who understands the products and who may (or may not) also be the end user. While this person may sometimes do the ordering as well, in larger companies it’s more common for the actual order to be placed by a purchasing agent, who may not understand anything about the products at all.

Most purchasing agents come to the website with a list of product numbers or names and order directly off that list. Having to search the site and click the Add to Cart button over and over for a long list of products is a big pain point for these customers.

UX Solution: Design a customized commerce path for customers who want to order by part number only. Being able to re-order or add to cart directly from your order history is also really helpful for these customers.

Grainger

Figure 5: Grainger (which serves both B2B and B2C markets) has a special “Bulk Order Pad” that enables customers to add many products to their shopping cart at the same time by simply entering item numbers.

Problem 5: Prices Are Not Listed on the Site

Even though price is by far the #1 thing that every customer wants to know before they buy anything, many B2B sites don’t show pricing at all. This is often because pricing contracts are negotiated separately with each corporate customer, and B2B businesses don’t want company X to know what company Y pays. As a result, there’s usually a complicated matrix of pricing per company, which makes it a challenge to display pricing.

UX Solution: Some B2B sites try to solve this problem by making pricing viewable only after a customer logs in, but that goes against e-commerce best practices for pricing transparency, and doesn’t solve the first-time or anonymous customer use case. Plus, many customers just don’t like logging in.

The best UX solution is to show list price for anonymous or non-logged in users, and contract pricing once a customer is logged in.

However, most B2B companies resist this approach for the reasons mentioned above. While there are ways to indicate relative, rather than exact, pricing by using price ranges (okay) or dollar signs (better than nothing), none of these are satisfying solutions for customers. At the end of the day, lack of pricing transparency is a major UX problem caused by less-than-web-friendly business requirements. And as such, it can’t be solved with design alone.

Problem 6: The Company’s Knowledge Leadership, Support and Multimedia Content Organized in Silos

It’s vital for B2B companies to establish themselves as industry leaders. It’s most important for consulting and services companies, because expertise is what they sell, but it’s still important for companies that manufacture products.

A typical way to establish industry leadership is by publishing white papers, case studies and videos that demonstrate their products’ innovations and technical advantages; blog articles from product experts; FAQs; and other content that demonstrates expertise.

So far so good! The problem is: where do you put all of this stuff?

One way to structure a site is to house information by type: one section of the site for products, another for documents or support, another for videos, and so on. This is an entirely logical way to organize information.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t match the way customers think (see: Nielsen Norman: “Avoid Format Based Primary Navigation”).

If you look at search and navigation patterns on B2B websites, you’ll find that almost all customers search for product names and categories. Most customers want to find all information about a product in the same place -- they don’t want to have to visit 4 different sections of a website to read a case study, download a manual or brochure, read a few FAQs, or watch an installation video or demo.

UX Solution: While it’s fine to have separate landing pages for videos, documents, and so on, this information also needs to all come together on the product page. Think of the product page as the one-stop-shop for everything customers need to know before and after they buy the product.

The best way to bring all of this disparate content together in one place is to establish a tagging taxonomy (sound familiar?), and then tag content by type (e.g., brochure, video) and by the associated products and product categories.

Then, when your development team builds the product page template, you can create components that serve up content dynamically based on these tags.

Steelcase.com’s product pages

Figure 6: Steelcase.com’s product pages have links to photos, design diagrams, documents, which take you, for example, to a photo page that is pre-filtered by the name of the product. This is an effective strategy – but an even better one would be to list the first 3 or 4 photos, documents, etc. on the product page itself, so that customers don’t need to leave the product page at all.

Problem 7: Search Results Don’t Prioritize Products

In most B2C eCommerce sites, the search and browse experience are almost identical. If you search for “hiking boots” on REI.com, you get the same page and results you would if you had browsed there through the global navigation.

B2B sites, however, often have very separate search and browse experiences. Partly, this is because B2B companies publish much more marketing and support content than B2C sites do – and they really want customers to read it (even if customers don’t especially want to). But it’s also because they don’t prioritize the UX of search results as highly as B2C sites do.

As a result, many B2B sites return all results -- products, product categories, articles, manuals, brochures, FAQs, videos, etc. – mixed together in a single list.

This approach is to be avoided, because it doesn’t match customer behavior. Data indicates that customers’ mental model for searching and browsing is very product oriented -- they want to find all site content via their product of interest.

Ingram Micro

Figure 7: Ingram Micro is the world’s largest wholesale technology products distributor – but you’d never know that based on their site’s search results page. When you search for product keywords you get a mix of results for press releases, About Us content, marketing pages, blog postings, product categories… but no list of actual product and services.

UX Solution: There are two workable solutions that match customer behavior.

The best solution is to only return product results (and by product results I mean results that link to individual product pages, not product categories). The idea here is that you’re optimizing the experience for 95% of customers, which greatly outweighs the downside to those few customers searching for non-product keywords like “manuals.” The products-only results page also has the benefit of greatly simplifying UI design and technical complexity, and increasing page performance. And if you have designed your product pages correctly, customers should be able to find all the rich technical information they need on the product page anyway.

Another option is to divide search results into tabs or sections for different content types (e.g., products, videos, documents, etc.), but have the Products tab selected by default when the page loads. This tends to be more palatable to B2B stakeholders, but it brings with it a host of design and performance challenges. For example, it’s likely that the most customer-friendly layout for a list of product results will be quite different than the optimal layout for a list of video results, or for a list of articles or white papers. Beyond just the design, you also have to worry about the independent behaviors of filtering results separately on each tab. Also, as I mentioned earlier, format-based content organization does not typically match the way customers search. What makes the format-based organization slightly more acceptable in this case is that product results are displayed by default.

More UX Problems = More UX Opportunities

In this article, I’ve suggested solutions to some common, significant B2B website UX problems – but there are certainly many more. The good news is: because B2B websites tend to have more usability problems than B2C websites, designers can often have a bigger impact when working on a B2B site than they can on a typical B2C site, where most of the big usability problems have likely been addressed.

However, the flip side of the coin is that there’s a reason that most B2B websites have more usability problems – B2B companies vastly under-invest in user experience. This means that B2B UX teams (if they exist at all) usually have fewer resources and less political influence than their B2C counterparts, both of which make it more challenging to get user experience improvements designed, tested, approved, and implemented. But that’s a topic for another article!

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