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Usability problems plague b-to-b sites

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Text legibility, functionality, task flow among Web sites' biggest failures

Mary Morrison

Web 2.0 may be the buzzword of late, but many b-to-b marketers haven't made it past Web 1.0, with basic Web site usability issues such as convoluted navigation and poor readability dogging efforts to communicate with customers and prospective customers.

A Forrester Research report released last month evaluated 259 b-to-c sites and 60 b-to-b sites on 25 criteria in four categories: value, navigation, presentation and trust. B-to-b sites lagged b-to-c sites in all categories except presentation.

"There just hasn't been the investment, the targeting, the real focus on usability and general site design in most b-to-b sites that there has been on the b-to-c side," said Alan Webber, senior analyst at Forrester Research and author of the report, "Usability Remains a Challenge for B2B sites."

Text legibility was the biggest issue, according to the report. Both b-to-b and b-to-c sites struggled in this area, with only 17% of b-to-b sites and 20% of b-to-c sites providing legible text. Having functionality where needed, items classified logically and contextual help available at key points were the areas where the gap was largest between b-to-b sites and b-to-c sites. B-to-b sites also struggle with providing an efficient task flow (only 22% passed) and presenting privacy and security policies in context (only 24% passed).

Andrea Fishman, director of global strategy at BGT Partners, a professional services company that focuses on interactive marketing technology, said information overload is the biggest problem b-to-b sites have. Fishman said advanced content management systems sometimes hurt rather than help the situation by allowing anyone in any part of a business to post content to the Web site. "If they don't have a strategy for it, you have so much information coming from so many parts of the business that it's not aligned at all," she said.

The remedy, Fishman said, is to implement a good governance strategy that identifies a clear process and ownership responsibilities so all departments work from the context of a consolidated approach.

To improve site usability, the Forrester report recommends that companies focus on the Web site user as a person, identifying who they are and what they seek.

For manufacturing giant Caterpillar Inc., which sells products such as traditional bulldozers, backhoes, gas turbines for power plants and marine engines for ocean-going vessels, this means creating a personalized Web experience based on extensive customer research. To understand the needs of its varied customers, the company relies on focus groups, surveys and usability testing.

The goal, said John Usherwood, e-channel commercial manager, is to understand what the user needs from the Web site. "Are they a new customer? Are they an existing customer? Are they looking for a new product or to better take care of the product they've got? Are they looking to solve a business problem?" he said. "You've really got to understand those things about your customer. And then you've got to really focus what you attempt to deliver to them so they don't get lost in the shuffle." Addressing those customer needs is a work in progress for Caterpillar, he added.

Answering such questions and creating a Web experience accordingly is called persona and scenario design, and it's key to giving Web visitors a personalized user experience, according to both BGT's Fishman and Forrester's Webber.

"Rather than just talking about brand and strategy and how we want the site to look, it's saying, `Let's document who our users are and what scenarios they would have for coming to our site,' and then we can design the Web experience around them," Fishman said.

So, for instance, a marketer would provide a different user experience for three businesspeople from the same company, she said. The company's IT person might see content that's heavy on details and images, while a project manager would see broader positioning about how the product or service alleviates a business pain, and a senior-level executive would see content focused on ROI.

"By understanding these three different personas, we can take all of our information and create three totally unique experiences tailored to each person," she said.

Still, most companies are reluctant to do the in-depth research necessary to understand why people visit their Web sites, Webber said. "If you ask most b-to-b companies, `Have you done the ethnographic research you need to develop personas for your site?' Most of them will say, no, they're not going to invest in that," he said. "One company [I spoke to] said, `I'm not going to invest money there when the salesperson who goes and talks to those customers already knows that.' They're still focused on that old person-to-person channel."

Caterpillar conducts customer research at two demonstration and learning facilities, Usherwood said. When customers visit the centers, Caterpillar will offer them an incentive, such as a gift, in exchange for their opinions on a new application or function. The company will also send its full-time usability expert to dealers to observe site users in action. "We've found over the years that we have a lot of really good ideas at Caterpillar and our dealers," Usherwood said, "but if we don't involve the customer right in the office, our ideas don't make sense."

Knowing the customer or potential customer also requires keeping tabs on the larger online community and any user-generated content relevant to your industry, Fishman said—the social networking and blogs of Web 2.0.

"Our guidance to our clients is: Think about your Web presence not just as your Web site but as all the places where people in your industry are going to be communicating," she said. "That might mean having a blog, participating in some sort of online seminar or doing a campaign and posting it in alternative places, like a YouTube or something a little more viral where you can get people talking."

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