Sunday, March 11, 2007

Don't Diss Your Business Users!

Forrester Research just published a new report called "Usability Remains a Challenge for B2B Sites" (March 7, 2007). Analyst Alan E Webber opens the report by saying:

"During the last two years, Forrester evaluated the usability of 60 business-to-business (B2B) sites. We found much poor usability, especially when compared with business-to-consumer (B2C) sites. B2B sites received their lowest scores on our navigation criteria and were particularly hampered by illegible text..."

This raises an important point that I have been hitting on for years -- don't diss your B2B clients! For some reason, B2B site interfaces are still frequently developed by IT professionals rather than their User Experience (UX) brethren, and are rarely subjected to usability testing prior to launch. This is true even among firms that have in-house UX professionals and routinely do usability testing on their B2C sites! The situation is made even more ludicrous when you consider that the lifetime value of a single B2B customer is often many hundreds, even thousands of times greater than that of a retail customer. And yet I see this phenomenon over and over again -- automotive companies who spend millions of dollars refining their consumer portals have dealer intranets that are almost impossible to figure out, and banking firms put far more effort into their retail applications than they put into those for Cash Managers who manage millions of dollars a day. It just doesn't make sense!

One excuse I hear for skipping usbability testing with B2B customers is that the standard testing protocols -- focus groups and one-on-one lab testing -- are not convenient for business customers. That's largely true. However, other test methodologies exist that are tailor-made for business users. One example is in situ research, whereby the researcher visits the user's work location and observes how they typically use your site. This research is often no more expensive than consumer research, since the researcher's travel costs are offset by not having to pay for a test lab. Furthermore, I have found that many of your B2B clients are happy to participate in research without even receiving an incentive. They are only too happy to point out to you how to make your product more satisfying and useful!

Yes, B2B usability research is a little different than consumer testing, but the return is well worth it. I've seen improvements in B2B applications show triple digit ROIs. Simple, intuitive applications allow your clients to decrease training time and increase their flexibility by allowing multiple staff members to conduct routine tasks. So the next time you start planning a B2B application, be sure the project plan includes user research. Your best customers deserve your best effort.

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