Still, every year, Web sites get a few percent higher usability, so we are on the right track. In 2000, most Internet managers still believed in flashy design and ignored user data. Today, all the biggest and most successful Web sites, from eBay to Yahoo!, have big usability groups and perform frequent user research that drives their design decisions.
We are also close to eradicating many of the worst design stupidities that flourished in the early days of the Web, such as splash pages and Flash intros. We still see usability atrocities from time to time, but not on sites that want to make money.
Unfortunately, b-to-b sites lag far behind b-to-c sites. All the main e-commerce sites have very simple pages with highly polished checkout processes, as well as workflow support tools like wish lists.
When we test users on b-to-b sites, they tell us that they expect the same level of simplicity and polish as they are accustomed to in their personal shopping; after all, when you are spending $10,000 on a business purchase, you expect to get service that is at least as good as when you are buying a $6 paperback on Amazon.
Most b-to-b sites fall short of meeting this customer expectation. They also don't provide sufficient support of the b-to-b buying process, which is much more complex than the b-to-c process. Workflow tools need to go far beyond wish lists, but even this simple feature is often not available in b-to-b.
There's one area where there has been no change: The recommended methodology for improving usability remains the same. Do frequent user testing and conduct field studies on customer locations to discover their needs and their buying processes.
User testing in particular is extremely easy and cost-effective. Just a few days of work usually doubles the sales of a site that has never been tested with real customers. B-to-c sites know this because they have already realized this first round of gains.
Unfortunately, the return on investment is not as stupendously huge once the low-hanging fruit has been picked, but big b-to-c sites continue to improve their conversion rates a little here and a little there as a result of ever-increasing investments in usability.
The good news for b-to-b usability is that most sites are still in that early phase where the investment is small and the improvement potential is staggering. To continue with the fruit metaphor, much of the b-to-b fruit is so low-hanging that it's touching the ground. Unless picked, it will start to rot soon, as people become less forgiving of poor user experiences.
The Web is becoming the main way people research b-to-b purchases. It's replacing print collateral as the way customers follow up on what they have seen at trade shows. Instead of lugging home piles of brochures, prospects look up potential suppliers on the Web to read more about their products and services.
Suppliers must change their communication strategy and develop content for the Web first, and print second-if at all. The days of repurposing printed brochures as lumpy and unpleasant PDF files must come to an end.
The Web offers interaction and hypertext, and a much better way of communicating complex b-to-b material, if only we will take it and develop for the medium and its strengths.
Jakob Nielsen, Ph.D., is principal of Nielsen Norman Group, a usability research firm (www.nngroup.com). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.