A while back, I was invited to speak at an event about the challenges of working as a User Experience professional in business-to-business environments. As preparation, some colleagues and I pooled our experiences and pondered this question – why is the prevalence of UX design approaches in the B2C domain not reflected in the design of B2B websites and systems?

I’ve worked on a number of projects where the ‘user’ is not a classic consumer, but a customer who is internal to a business. This might be an employee of the same company that created the system, or it might be someone in an external, client company.

What is most striking about such systems is how awful they generally are. In fact, I would say the current level of user experience design in the B2B world today is roughly comparable with the dreadful state of B2C website design in the 1990s.

Hearing this, you may be forgiven for thinking this blog post is intended as a good old fashioned usability-rant. Fear not, I actually think the state of affairs begs a more pressing question of the UX community. User-centred design is increasingly acknowledged as a differentiator in the delivery of leading products for B2C products such as retail websites, mobile apps and consumer electronics.
However, in the B2B arena, user-centred design for services and products is still relatively rare. Why have we failed to have the same impact here as in B2C?

The obvious argument (It’s all their fault!)

There are some fairly indisputable reasons why the B2B community has been at fault in their resistance to customer-centric design approaches. I don’t think these alone are the only reasons, but they are clearly contributing factors. So, let’s acknowledge them and move on:

  1. Legacy IT systems: most large businesses work on enterprise technology which is phenomenally expensive and difficult to implement. Once you have it up and working, you are not likely to want to change it for a good few years, even when it places constraints on providing the best solution for your customers.
  2. Legacy IT thinking: The B2C design market is served by many lean young design outfits who have an instinctive understanding of the user experience philosophy. In the B2B world, agencies of this ilk do not really exist. This market is dominated by traditional IT companies who do not fully understand user experience design. For them, this means little more than drawing the ‘user interface’ – usually as little more than an afterthought.
  3. The myth of the captive audience: B2B customers are unlikely to be able to exercise the same freedom of choice as a consumer. If they don’t like your website for some reason they can’t simply choose to order from another supplier. They may not have this kind of authority, or you may be the only people they can do business with for a variety of reasons anyway. This is dangerous stuff, as it breeds complacency and an attitude that there is no reason to provide better experiences for customers.

Accepting that this is true, let’s get on to the real reason why UX has failed to make an impact in B2B systems: a collective failure as an industry to look beyond B2C.

The real reason (It’s our fault!)

Most user experience professionals cut their teeth working in B2C environments, as this is the more likely market for UX skills. As a result, the knowledge-base we have amassed as a field is mostly based on user insights and design examples from consumer-facing products.

So, why is this a problem? To try and answer this, it might help to provide a (purely fictional) example:

“Johnny joined an agency as a UX designer six months ago, having graduated with a top degree in interactive design. Since then, he has worked on ecommerce sites for retail businesses, performing user research and creating wireframe solutions for his clients, who have all been delighted with the results.

Johnny’s latest client is a business which sells parts to manufacturers of engineering equipment. Johnny is confident that armed with his knowledge of ecommerce best practices and a set of proven design patterns he will be able to design a workable solution fairly quickly.

However, having created a prototype and getting access to users, he discovers that the similarities with retail sites he has worked on before are largely superficial. The orders in this system are generated by the manufacturer’s clients, as the products are bespoke and only created on demand. The supply chain and logistics for order fulfilment are far more complex than he realised, and even providing ‘simple’ information such as stock quantity, lead time and delivery options is reliant on a complex set of variables.

The users of the site are mostly engineers, and they speak a language that Johnny finds incomprehensible. He is also surprised to discover that many aspects of the design he predicted would be problematic pose no problems for users. Generally, the customers he speaks to are dismissive of his prototype – they feel his proposed solutions are over simplistic and reduce the usefulness of the system for them.”

In this example, the UX consultant has effectively derailed themselves with one major assumption – that insights garnered from end-consumer design projects will be equally valid in the B2B environment.

To be honest, our UX consultant is a talented and skilled designer, but probably just a little too inexperienced to be thrown into such a project alone. In fact much of his acquired knowledge of human psychology and best-in-class design techniques would probably be valuable to his client – if only he knew how to bring these to bear in this context.

What is lacking in his armoury at the moment is simply a more sophisticated appreciation of the business landscape. This is a tricky thing to acquire, as the kind of business consultancy skills required to achieve this level of insight are not commonly taught at design school. However, understanding the underlying business logic which governs these systems, and the wider context in which it exists is crucial to creating designs that satisfies the needs of both client and customer organisations.

UX practitioners need to spend time understanding the wider landscape in which business transactions exist, instead of looking purely at interactions taking place on a screen. Practitioners working in B2B environments are usually required to learn a whole new business vocabulary – often in as little as a few days – in order to properly understand the issues for customers in a specific domain.

Once you have a working knowledge of the business landscape, the interactions that customers have via the system take on a new layer of meaning. This makes it possible to begin separating aspects of the user experience that are genuinely frustrating for customers, from what is simply useful information for experts performing complex tasks.

Or as one customer put it to me recently: “My work is complicated stuff. I’m not sure how you would make this site less complicated without making it less useful. Mind you, if you could find a way to do it, that would be brilliant!”

Now, what business wouldn’t want to be that brilliant? There I would say, is the challenge.

This post was originally published here on Foolproof’s blog on 19 June 2012. This edited version appears with Foolproof’s kind permission.