In B2B, Usability Eats User Experience for Breakfast!

Tom D. Wolf-Bauer
10 min readJan 15, 2023
Metrics are a central part of discussions with upper management.

This article is a sample chapter from the Book “Level Up! UX in B2B” written by Tom D. Wolf-Bauer you can find on Gumroad & Amazon. Illustration by Franziska Arends.

Focus on usability instead of overall user experience. That’s my message here.

Now, why would a User Experience Professional say something weird like this?

Okay, let’s talk about what to consider when you need to measure your work results. Because we need to show that we can measure what we do and manage it respectively like any other department in business, if we want to get a seat at the table to talk about business and product decisions.

So, do you know how to measure and manage the user experience of your products in B2B?

B2B products are usually more complicated than B2C products. Therefore, UX in B2B can often also be a rather complex and relatively more difficult topic to specify.

After all, what exactly do colleagues mean when they talk about a “product” and “the UX of the product” in B2B?

Do they mean the overall user experience of all possible variants of product configurations that the many customers out there have painstakingly developed and customized individually for their company in many projects and possibly with partner companies?

Or do they mean a specific, standardized end-to-end workflow that their product is supposed to enable?

Do they mean a specific work step?

A new feature?

An app?

A single transaction?

A single screen snippet?

If so, what context of use are they referring to?

Which customer in the context of which industry?

Which operating system?

Which browser?

Which client?

Which variant?

… take your pick!

Therefore, I believe, in B2B, it is much more important to focus on the aspects of usability as part of the overall user experience.

And There is Research to Back This Up

This attitude is also supported by initial studies in the field of ‘B2B user experience management’ with results indicating that from customer’s point of view the pragmatic aspects like “reliability” or “ease of use” of technological products are more important than the hedonic aspects like “attractiveness” or “visual aesthetics” (Sundberg, 2015; Håkanson, 2020).

Yes, “Design & Aesthethics” do play a role in B2B value pyramids, but it is usually positioned at the top (among the less important aspects) and are not part of basic needs, meaning, productivity is always more important to corporate decision makers than visual appeal that is rather associated with “reduced anxiety” from employees than enabling business (Almquist et al., 2018).

Productivity is Key in B2B and it is Usually Directly Connected with Usability

So, you have a usable product, if people can use your product effectively and efficiently to achieve specific goals while feeling overall satisfied (not frustrated) doing so — that is the concept of “Usability”.

“User Experience” on the other hand also includes all the expectations and perceptions that may be present before and after using the product, which is sometimes paraphrased as the additional inclusion of hedonic and emotional aspects as well as a focus on overall (psychological) wellbeing (Hassenzahl, 2008; Hassenzahl et al., 2021).

Usability and User Experience

More specifically, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO 9241–210, 2010) defines the term “user experience” as a “person’s perceptions and response resulting from the use and/or anticipated use of a product, system or service”.

And following, Sundberg (2015) this definition includes the following notations:

a) User experience includes all the user’s emotions, beliefs, preferences, perceptions, physical and psychological responses, behaviors and accomplishments that occur before, during and after use.

b) User experience is a consequence of brand image, presentation, functionality, system performance, interactive behavior and assistive capabilities of the interactive system, the user’s internal and physical state resulting from prior experiences, attitudes, skills and personality, and the context of use.

c) Usability, when interpreted from the perspective of the user’s personal goals, can include the kind of perceptual and emotional aspects typically associated with user experience, while usability criteria can be used to assess aspects of user experience.

UX is Multilayered While Usability is Specific

This definition points out the fact that experience is affected by the know-how, feelings and previous experiences even before and after the use, which means that UX is also highly subjective and context-dependent (Vermeeren et al., 2010), while the “context of use” includes the physical environment, social aspects, technology, tasks and the user (Hiltunen et al., 2002). In addition, Hassenzahl and Tractinsky (2006) combine these characteristics in their definition of UX:

“It is a consequence of a user’s internal state (predispositions, expectations, needs, motivation, mood, etc.), the characteristics of the designed system (e.g. complexity, purpose, usability, functionality, etc.) and the context (or the environment) in which the interaction occurs (e.g. organizational/ social setting, meaningfulness of the activity, voluntariness of use, etc.).”

Now, while these broad or holistic definitions of UX are all great in theory you are not always going to be able to control and influence in a corporate context what happens before or after someone uses your product.

Furthermore, due to the dynamic variation of different perceptions in everyday life, the concept of user experience as a whole seems to be rather unstable and time-dependent compared to usability as a rather goal-oriented concept (Harbich & Hassenzahl, 2016).

And in addition to that, for example, the research on the “Technology Acceptance Model” (TAM) shows:

If you want to promote the acceptance of a product, you should primarily focus on optimizing factors that ensure that users perceive the product as “useful” and “easy to use” (Davis, 1989; Iyamu, 2021).

Users perceiving a product as “useful” and “easy to use” is key!

But that is not always easy to do, as top-down business goals, which often indirectly include some reference to UX, can go hand in hand with all sorts of branding and marketing goals.

Like it or not, UX is Closely Intertwined with Branding

For example, sometimes you may need to prioritize visual appeal, enjoyment, or delightfulness higher in your design work and associated testing, simply because the branding team demands images of a user interface that is perceived as, e.g. “modern”, “beautiful”, and “engaging”. And branding, all things considered, usually has a longer tradition and a better political position in any B2B company than UX.

Nevertheless, I would personally suggest to tackle the basic usability related things first, because we usually talk about interactive products, systems, services or websites. And in my experience, usability always eats visual appeal for breakfast!

All in all, I would argue, a good UX in B2B should primarily enhance the job satisfaction as well as making the user perform a better work (Hildén, et al., 2016), enchanting the effectiveness (Edwards, 2015) and reducing the effort needed to perform a task (Zolkiewski, et al., 2017; Håkanson, 2020).

But from a political point of view this is not always easy.

Branding Usually Has the Upper Hand in Many Discussions

Take ambiguous user research results for example. Let’s assume you run a usability test to compare two different versions of the same screen layout or workflow, while one version looks more minimalistic or poor from an aesthetic point of view (e.g. no colors, just black and white and a few gray highlights) and the other version is a modern and optically advanced version (e.g. appealing colors, special design of buttons and animations in the behavior of various menu items).

Well, let’s also assume that the results of this comparative study show that users complete the test tasks significantly faster with the visually minimalist version than with the visually appealing version. However, the visually more modern version receives 80% more positive (opinion-based) verbal feedback from users during and after the test session.

What Would You Do in Such a Case?

In my opinion, this result offers a rather clear decision to continue working with the visually minimalist version in order to offer customers a solution that comes with a proven optimum in user productivity, measured by the time required per test task.

Well, that’s all exaggerated and a nonsensical generalization of the comparison between usability and aesthetics. But I just want to make this point clear to you.

“We don’t need pretty, we need something that just works!”

And what can I say?

I have had the situation several times where customers and users have literally said in workshops that the tools must not be beautiful but must function well and make their work as easy as possible.

One customer even went so far as to say:

“It’s about our workflows and the tool’s performance.

These are our issues.

So, why are you still trying to make things pretty?

We don’t need pretty, we need something that just works!”

All in all, it turns out that similar situations like this can cause significant trouble in some companies. After all, if the development team were to rely on the visually minimalist design that comes without an interesting spectrum of colors, the team would provoke a conflict with the marketing and branding team — simply because such a visually minimalist look of a product would make an extremely bad first impression on static images, videos or demos for any promotional purposes.

People never use tools that are beautiful but not useful & easy to use!

Again, overall, I would just rely on usability metrics that focus on user productivity and continue as before, simply because usability is a much better predictor of customer success and loyalty than opinion-based metrics around visual appeal factors.

It can at least be argued that for a product experience, goal orientation is more important than beauty (Hassenzahl, 2004). In other words, you might sell more products in the short term, if your product looks visually attractive, but you are not likely to turn those customers into loyal long-term customers if your product is not usable.

It is just like in your personal life, since beauty is fleeting, your partner or friends will not love you for your looks, but for what you do.

And in my opinion, it is the same with B2B products.

Job Usability Rules!

Customers and users need to be able to rely on your solution for its robust, efficient and cost effective workflows. It’s not about comforting consume but jobs to be done (Ulwick, 2016; 2017) and then we are talking about design for efficiency (Degen, 2022). Therefore, I am really sorry, but a B2B product is neither a simple Google search nor an iPhone.

It is a tool for rather complicated and cumbersome activities that normally no person would volunteer to do on their own in their spare time (well, not everyone at least). It’s just that B2B use cases can be very different from B2C and so are the products.

B2B and B2C products will always differ significantly!

So get in touch with your branding team and clarify together what on the one hand your company wants to sell and promise with which “image”, and on the other hand what your customers and end users really expect from you to be able to give their best at work!

Good Luck! And thanks for reading :-)

This article is a sample chapter from the Book “Level Up! UX in B2B” written by Tom D. Wolf-Bauer you can find on Gumroad & Amazon. Illustration by Franziska Arends.

Literature References

Almquist, E., Cleghorn, J., Sherer, L. (2018). The B2B Elements of Value. Harvard Business Review, March-April, 2018. URL: https://hbr.org/2018/03/the-b2b-elements-of-value.

Davis, F. D. (1989). Perceived Usefulness, Perceived Ease of Use, and User Acceptance of Information Technology. MIS Quarterly, 13(3), 319. DOI: 10.2307/249008

Degen, H. (2022). Respect the User’s Time: Experience Architecture and Design for Efficiency. Published by Helmut Degen. URL: https://designforefficiency.com.

Edwards, J. (2015). The great oxymoron: B2B UX. Journal of Direct Data and Digital Marketing Practice , 16(4). DOI: 10.1057/dddmp.2015.22

Håkanson, J. (2020). User Experience Design as a Building Block in a B2B Company’s Market Strategy: An empirical study of how the user experience of a software service can be used to create increased customer value. Linköping University, Department of Management and Engineering, Industrial Economics, DOI: Diva2:1518354.

Harbich, S., & Hassenzahl, M. (2016). User Experience in the Work Domain: A Longitudinal Field Study. Interacting with Computers, 29, 306–324. DOI: 10.1093/iwc/iww022

Hassenzahl, M. (2004). The interplay of beauty, goodness, and usability in interactive products. Human Computer Interaction, 19, 319–349. DOI: 10.1207/s15327051hci1904_2

Hassenzahl, M., & Tractinsky, N. (2006). User experience — A research agenda. Behaviour and Information Technology, 25, 91–97. DOI: 10.1080/01449290500330331

Hassenzahl, M. (2008). User experience (UX). Proceedings of the 20th International Conference of the Association Francophone d’Interaction Homme-Machine on — IHM ’08, 11. DOI: doi.org/10.1145/1512714.1512717

Hassenzahl, M., Burmester, M., & Koller, F. (2021). User Experience Is All There Is. I-Com, 20(3), 197–213. DOI: 10.1515/icom-2021–0034

Hiltunen M., Laukka M., & Luomala J. (2002). Mobile User Experience. IT Press.

Iyamu, T. (2021). Technology acceptance model. In: Applying Theories for Information Systems Research (pp. 143–154). Routledge. DOI: 10.4324/9781003184119

Sundberg, H.-R. (2015). The Role of User Experience in a Business-to-Business Context. Doctoral Dissertation, Tambere: Tampere University of Technology. https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/The-Role-of-User-Experience-in-a-Context-Sundberg/744834d26b0fe1a361faaae6fdc4e536d09ef45d

Technical Committee ISO/TC 159/SC 4 Ergonomics of human-system interaction. (n.d.). ISO 9241–210:2019, Ergonomics of human-system interaction — Part 2010: Human-centred design for interactive systems. In International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Retrieved January 15, 2022, from URL: https://www.iso.org/standard/77520.html .

Ulwick, A. W. (2016). Jobs to be Done: Theory and Practice. Idea Bite Press.

Ulwick, A. W. (2017, January 6). Jobs-to-be-Done: A Framework for Customer Needs. Medium.Com. URL: https://jobs-to-be-done.com/jobs-to-be-done-a-framework-for-customer-needs-c883cbf61c90.

Vermeeren, A., Law, L.-C., Roto, V., Obrist, M., Hoonhout, J., & Väänänen, K. (2010). User experience evaluation methods: Current state and development needs. In NordiCHI 2010: Extending Boundaries — Proceedings of the 6th Nordic Conference on Human-Computer Interaction. DOI: 10.1145/1868914.1868973

Zolkiewski, J., Story, V., Burton, J., Chan, P., Gomes de Souza, A., Hunter-Jones, P., O’Malley, L., Peters, L., Raddats, C., & Robinson, W. (2017). Strategic B2B customer experience management: The importance of outcomes-based measures. Journal of Services Marketing, 31(2), 172–184. DOI: 10.1108/JSM-10–2016–0350.

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Tom D. Wolf-Bauer

Sociologist turned UX Professional with 10+ years of experience in B2B. Author of the book "Level Up! UX in B2B" published on Gumroad & Amazon.