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The 6 Challenges of B2B E-Commerce UX Design

When you want to build a useful B2B e-commerce experience, UX becomes complicated. While working on many UX design projects, we’ve discovered that B2B shoppers have unique needs. This is part I of our series. Check out part II to get UX design ideas for B2B e-commerce.

Abstract cover showing B2B against B2C design for e-commerce websites.

1) Decision Making Is Systematic in B2B E-Commerce

The user experience must be designed to satisfy the rational aspect of decision making first.

The UX for any e-commerce experience must accommodate the user’s decision-making process. When people buy something for business use, they spend half the time researching the product, and a ¼ of the time discussing it within the group of buyers.

There is a preexisting set of product requirements. Regardless of whether customers outline criteria in a formal process or not, they exist. The UX design must highlight how the product ranks according to that set of criteria.

This also means that impulse buying won’t work well in B2B e-commerce. The decision-making process will consist of comparing specs and trust signals. The user experience must be designed to satisfy the rational aspect of decision making first.

Finding suitable design patterns that don’t leave out emotions completely can prove to be problematic. Most B2B products are complex, and creating a UX that is not entirely rigid is a major challenge.

A diagram showing the decision making process of buyers in B2B e-commerce websites.

2) B2B E-Commerce Users Are High Maintenance

In B2B the stakes of the first transaction are high: the seller is acquiring a new long term customer.

In B2B e-commerce, the lifetime of a customer is much longer. Their lifetime value is also much higher. This means we must face a set of consequences:

  • Customers will expect more and better service;
  • Competition to win leads is much higher;
  • Decision making is more complicated;
  • More people are involved in the process;

Typically, a B2B e-commerce vendor will want a user experience that makes it very easy for a buyer to get menial things done on their own. They strive to relieve the support team, so that they have more time to deal with complex questions.

Discouragingly enough, even finding the right product or understanding the specs of the product is difficult in B2B e-commerce. The user experience design must overcome the most critical steps in the journey first.

3) Multiple Actors Participate in B2B E-Commerce

It is not unusual for consumers to be influenced by friends and family when buying online, but in B2B e-commerce multiple actors are involved in more profound ways. These are the most common processes:

  • a committee draws up a list of requirements, one person puts together a shortlist, and then the committee makes the decision;
  • the requirements are created by the committee, and multiple people are involved in creating a shortlist, while the decision is either made together or by one actor;
  • one person writes the requirements, and a shortlist with a recommendation based on an explicit analysis. The acquisition is sense checked and approved by a superior or a committee;

The process depends on the type of business, but the UX must appeal to all. User research is the only way to discover the concerns and pain points of the customers.

Diagram showing several decision makers in a B2B e-commerce website.

In the UX design process, you must take into account that the person writing the recommendations or performing the research may be technical, but may also be a finance department representative who is thinking about a sound investment, not about the best technical performance.

Sometimes, the person who ends up buying is different from the people researching. They have to go through part of the experience again, without actually having a mandate to make a decision. They may discover the opportunity to buy a cheaper version of whatever was requested.

4) B2B Products Can Be Complicated

Dealing with complex product configurations is a nightmare for both buyers and designers.

In B2C, products are configurable on one or two dimensions. In a B2B world, products are rarely designed to be as simple. Instead, they are designed to have a basic setup with multiple extensions and add-ons.

This poses a challenge. Users have to understand the following before purchasing:

  • Is this the right base model for me?
  • Is there a pre-configured model that’s right for me?
  • What configurations and add-ons do I really need and what is the price?
  • Am I sure I have all the configurations I need?
  • What if there is a different base model with a different configuration that is more cost-effective?

If users can’t find the answer to these questions easily, they might give up or get a distorted view of price or availability. Thus the user experience for B2B e-commerce must be designed to deal with information flows and with the emotions of a user as they go through a labyrinth of choices.

5) Pure E-Commerce May Not Really Work For B2B

In reality, for most B2B suppliers, the e-commerce idea is just a ruse to lure in traffic, the rest is still old school.

This is bound to change in time, but most customers still need support from humans to select the right product, for customization, for delivery options and to receive relevant aftercare.

This makes it difficult for designers to create a user experience that encourages customers to do as much as possible on their own, while also making it clear that they can get support at any point. Nobody wants to lose leads.

There’s a contradiction in the design brief, and given how rigid most classic e-commerce design patterns are, finding the right balance is really difficult.

This is further complicated by the fact that many lucrative sales can only come about from a custom quotation process, where the sales team must adapt to whatever the requirements of the customer are.

Design of a request quote form as part of a B2B e-commerce website.
Request quote forms are an end-point in many B2B e-commerce websites.

6) Many Processes Are Unique to B2B E-Commerce

UX designers have to create flows that simply don’t exist in B2C.

For example, they might have to create an experience to submit a quote request and then receive a response, plus the ensuing interaction. The user experience must also offer an easy way to manage multiple orders, to make amendments to an open order, to group orders into cost centers or to invite multiple people along for the journey of completing an order.

Once the order is completed, the user experience should cater for aftercare, warranty processes and maintenance. Some B2B companies also offer buyback plans or used equipment and rental of accessories which are only available to some customers.

The e-commerce side is merely a storefront for a much more comprehensive user experience.

How to Overcome These Challenges in B2B E-Commerce Design

Classic UX design patterns cannot be applied to B2B e-commerce directly.

Designers of B2B e-commerce solutions must work systematically in order to create a UX foundation that makes way for versatile solutions to all these challenges.

They must start with user research and a customer experience map, which captures:

  • What happens before customers come to the website;
  • What each actor expects from the website;
  • Any off-site touch points;
  • Pain points experienced in the process;
  • How the purchase concludes;
  • The process after the purchase;

The insights must then be brought together with research around the state of the product catalog, the extant sales processes and what can change. User experience designers must offer support to the organization to adapt processes for an improved way of operating.

Actual solutions for how each of these challenges manifests go beyond the scope of this article, but ignoring the importance of research constitutes a form of self-sabotage.

Take Away

Unlike B2C, where most e-commerce design patterns are fixed, in B2B the user experience design is a set of tailored solutions that reconcile the processes of the seller with complex user needs.

Good solutions can only come about by researching each challenge in the context of the industry and business and iterating UX solutions. In part II, we have created a collection of examples of solutions to B2B e-commerce design challenges.

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Excellence in UX Design

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