Shortcuts for your UX Strategy

Sean Dolan Article

20 Research-Driven Insights to Jump-Start your B2B Website Redesign

Over the years, the gotomedia and gotoresearch teams have worked with a wide variety of B2B enterprises to enhance their websites. In most cases, we conduct original user research to uncover unique customer behaviors, assumptions and desires. It’s fascinating work that never fails to generate surprising insights leading directly to new business opportunities and efficiencies.

To be sure, every company has its own unique problems to solve. But, we are sometimes asked what findings are most common across all B2B enterprises.  Over time, it’s become clear to us that prospects and customers want many of the same things from the B2B websites they visit simply because the process of finding, researching and adopting new products is remarkably consistent regardless of the particular product type involved. This means that the key points of structure, design and interaction are similarly consistent across a wide range of B2B websites, particularly those with an enterprise focus.

Note that these common insights should NOT replace your original research into the unique needs and requirements for your website, but they can serve as a starting point to focus your inquiry to confirm (or not) the key areas of your B2B website redesign project.

1. Prioritize for Prospects

The hard reality is that existing customers are rarely interested in your homepage. Again and again, our testing shows that existing customers are much more likely to skip directly to log-in or drill to known / desired content areas. They do NOT scan the homepage just to see what is new. However, many homepage designs attempt to “balance” content for both existing customers and prospects. This is often wasted effort. The content and design of the homepage should more correctly prioritize the needs of the prospective customer who is still learning about your company and its offerings, while making the pathway to login absolutely bullet-proof for the existing customer.

2. Don’t Fumble the Elevator Pitch

It’s amazingly obvious but commonly overlooked: Your homepage should clearly and concisely communicate what your company does and how it differs from competitors. If the user can’t create a mental snapshot of your company in 10 seconds, it’s time to rethink your homepage priorities and messaging.

True Story: A client’s existing website had a big beautiful promotional area at the top of the homepage. They used this to promote a conference on a particular topic that was related but tangential to their core product line. When we tested the site, many users immediately fixated on the promotional area, and used that to infer what the company was all about. In the wild, those customers would have been lost prospects because their basic understanding of the company was immediately and fundamentally flawed.

There are a variety of ways to implement this positioning statement onto the homepage. The key is to pick an approach that fits well without the overall design of the homepage, but is not so subtle that it gets lost among the other high priority items.

Remember, prospects are usually researching many companies across several rounds of review. Their initial emphasis is on speed and grasping the competitive product landscape. Don’t waste the opportunity to create a durable (and positive) brand positioning that will help your company survive the cut and get on the shortlist.

3. Navigation = Education

Your main navigational structure isn’t just about directing traffic. Our research has been consistent with other usability studies in finding that users almost always scan the site navigation to quickly gain a broad understanding of company identity, scale, and offerings. In a sense, the navigation and menus act as a way for the user to preview your site without committing to a deeper exploration.

What’s the best way to do this? Expanded or Mega menus are a popular option, and are generally effective because they provide both the space and flexibility to preview complex or diverse lower level content. Opinion is more mixed on whether to activate menus via click or mouseover, although we have generally observed that desktop users do scan across menus more readily when using mouseovers. Some sites have even begun adding interactive widgets or tabbed navigation within the menus themselves. While we consider this an intriguing option that should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, it does speak to the value companies have begun to place on using the main site navigation to present a holistic view of the site without requiring the user to ever venture past the homepage itself.

In the end, however, the best argument for conceiving and implementing a navigation that embraces educational scanning is that it reduces the stress on your top level segmentation. Getting those top-level navigation buckets just right can be a challenging and stressful part of the site strategy and design. If the user can quickly and easily scan across the navigation buckets and preview the items within each of them, then the labels for those top-level areas are less important and can be less than perfect.  

4. You Are Your Products

Prospects will immediately scan your product catalogue in order to develop a general understanding of the products and services you offer, and by extension, what your company is all about. This makes your product taxonomy a critical path.

  • – Keep it as simple as possible. Avoid multiple layers of categorization or organization
  • – Look at it from the perspective of prospects, not customers who already know your products.
  • – Don’t organize products according your own internal lines of business or bureaucracy.
  • – Make it easy to scan across categories.
  • – Get users directly to product pages as quickly as possible.

Stumble on any of these and users will quickly conclude you don’t have your act together.

5. Users Understand Their Problem. Not Your Product

Remember, the new product evaluation process is hard — made harder still by multiple vendors putting their own spin on their products and solutions. The one piece of knowledge a potential customer can cling to is a deep understanding of their own business and their own problems. That’s their starting point. It makes sense, therefore, to position and describe your products in a way that most directly maps to the specific problems the user is trying to solve. Too often, onsite marketing can evolve to primarily serve internal business goals, rather than speak to how users actually think about your products. Don’t fall into this trap. Constantly and consistently map your products to the problems that customers are looking to you to help them solve. In fact, understanding the micro and macro problems of customers is one of the key areas of user research that gotomedia advocates companies conduct. More often than not, this research uncovers new opportunities to market and message your products, as well as insights that can seed future product development.

6. Explain What Your Product Actually Does

The impulse to trumpet a laundry list of features and benefits can overshadow the obvious need to concisely explain what a product actually does. Users often have little patience regarding this issue — particularly those who are more technically focused. Our rule of thumb is that a company should be able to accurately describe each of their products in 20 words or less. Just like your company positioning statement on the homepage, this should be the absolute first thing the user sees on any product page.

7. Compare & Contrast Your Products

People learn best through comparison. Almost unanimously, users have told us that comparison charts (as well as clear product hierarchies) are a critical resource in their evaluation process because it allows them to quickly understand not only how products differ, but their relative strengths, weaknesses and tradeoffs.

In most cases, evaluators will be creating a product checklist themselves. Using a comparative matrix, to help them jump start this process, not only builds goodwill, it’s an opportunity to position your product attributes as advantageously as possible.

8. Show How You Stack up Against Competitors

Yes, this is a sticky one. Companies often hesitate to even mention their competitors, and creating an apples-to-apples product comparison may be fraught with business, brand and maintenance complications. That said, users consistently ask for some level of a comparative data that makes it easier for them to gain a quick understanding of the relative strengths (and weaknesses) of different companies and products within the ecosystem. While a straight-up comparison chart may not be feasible — particularly for market leaders — it is worth noting that providing even a high level comparison may have the benefit of advantageously positioning your company and product line against competitors.

9. Visual Explanations Work Best

Most people learn better visually — particularly when it comes to understanding of how a particular technology works, or how a particular product fits within their established notions of functionality and infrastructure. This is where visual communication tools such as infographics, flows, diagrams and animations can bridge the gap. The challenge here, however, is that creating these type of artifacts can be more difficult than initially presumed. In order to be effective, they must be sufficiently detailed and realistic, while at the same time abstract enough to be simple. Too often we have seen half-hearted attempts at this type of visual communication that are either too vague or marketing-centric. To do this effectively, create a dedicated team that includes a visual designer (or interaction designer), product marketing specialist and product developer (or engineer). This multi-disciplinary team has the best shot at creating a visual artifact that truly represents key areas of functionality in an effective manner that’s in line with the overall product positioning.

10. Product Pages Need to Stand By Themselves

Given that a large percentage of users will access product pages via Google or direct marketing efforts, the design and content of product pages should assume that the user has no context nor experience with any other part of the site or its navigation. Further, the product pages should act as a central hub for all product related information — including post-sales resources such as support. Users (regardless of the method they have used to access a product page) have consistently expressed a desire to have “everything in a single place” rather than being required to search through different parts of the website to access different types of product-supporting resources.

11. Pricing is Important, But …

When it comes to on-premise enterprise software, users rarely expect to see explicit pricing information — especially if the product offers a high degree of customization. However, users do want some basic understanding of how pricing will be determined. This means outlining the method by which the price will be set (e.g., flat rate, per seat, per license), as well as how specific configurations may increase the overall cost. The key is to help the user understand how their particular type of implementation or usage scenario will work best with the available pricing models. Some ability to “ballpark” cost, even without specific prices, is a key element in keeping the evaluator engaged.

For SaaS products, the expectations are somewhat different. Given the self-service nature of many SaaS purchase processes as well as the progressive cost structures that allow users to quickly start small and gradually increase the scale of their usage, users have become more accustomed to seeing actual pricing and cost configurators. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, and many companies may offer a mix of products, some of which offer explicit pricing information and some that only outline the pricing rules. In these cases, it is critical to design a pricing presentation model that can gracefully accommodate both scenarios.

12. …. It’s Often Not the Deciding Factor

It’s worth noting that the actual cost of the product generally is not the primary driver behind the decision-making process. Evaluators are generally more focused on making sure the product fits their specific needs. The better the fit, the more likely they would recommend the product be purchased, and perhaps advocate increasing budget if the product far outshone other vendors’ offerings or better addressed longer-term needs. In other words, it’s less about price, and more about highlighting value.

13. Showcase Your Product UX

Despite the importance that prospects put on a product’s UX, this is often difficult to determine during the initial evaluation phase. Many users have noted that while the product’s functional capabilities are paramount, a simple and easy-to-use interface has high value in helping them to understand whether a product will fit with their workflows and end users.  Free trials, Sandboxes and interactive demos are often cited as a low-impact but effective mechanism for previewing the user experience to users who are still in the early stages of their evaluation process. At the very least, liberally insert screenshots of your products’ interfaces throughout the product sections. Do not rely extensively on live demos, since many users consider these little more than sales pitches. Exposing evaluators (and end users) to an enjoyable user experience can often impact their perception of the product and be a significant method of encouraging internal buy-off.

14. Nix the Solutions

The definition of a “solution” varies from site to site, so users are often faced with content they may not expect or desire. While the rationale behind this area is sound, in truth, solutions often represent a muddled type of content that rarely satisfies. Business users may find them too detailed and complex, whereas more technical users may be frustrated by an abundance of “marketing-speak” and a dearth of actual details. Our research has consistently shown that business users only skim these areas, and are more interested in Case Studies and Testimonials — particularly those from their industry. Technical professionals, on the other hand, prefer more explicit Use Cases or Usage Scenarios that detail how a product can be used in a particular situation or to address a specific technical problem. “Solutions” tend to be a compromise catch-all that fail to efficiently and effectively meet the needs of either group.

15. The C Suite is Not Your Target

While the C Suite may be the ones to eventually green light a purchase decision, they’re usually only tangentially involved in product exploration and selection. A tremendous amount of work and planning often takes place well-prior to their involvement. Even then, C Suite engagement tends to be peripheral. So, developing site content and architectures geared towards their high-level needs may frustrate the folks who are tasked with actually building the short list and running proofs of concept. (One exception to this might be C Suite executives who play a more hands-on role, particularly at smaller companies.)

Instead, focus on providing more detailed and technical content for those evaluators who are more deeply involved. This tends to be more effective and appreciated. That being said, evaluators will need to share their findings and recommendations with decision-makers, including the C Suite. To make this as smooth as possible, the site should provide easy-to-digest materials that highlight key selling points and variables and justify the inclusion of the product on the shortlist. Generally, it makes sense to be able to make these downloadable for easy sharing.

16. Feed the Checklist

Evaluators are the gateway to product adoption. However, building the evaluation checklist is one of the most challenging tasks they face, especially if this is an irregular or infrequent task. Useful tools create a significant competitive advantage by increasing engagement and positioning products in a favorable way. Therefore, considerable thought should be given to providing content and tools that assist the evaluator in developing the framework of the checklist itself. The most commonly requested tool is some method for building the comparison matrix or checklist that easily captures the most valuable criteria for comparing products from different vendors.

17. Chat with Experts, Not Sales Reps

Most sites provide some sort of chat function to engage the user. Many users have noted that they are loathe to click on this function until they are “ready to buy” or “ready to deal with a salesperson.” Even if the user has significant questions about the product, they will likely avoid engaging with a representative they assume will be sales-focused, and generally do not trust that the representative will be able to answer their detailed technical questions about the product.

Better results are often seen when this functionality is labeled or positioned as “Chat with a Sales Engineer” because the user has more confidence that the conversation will focus on answering questions and solving problems, rather than simply pushing them towards a sales decision they are not ready to make.

18. Support Sells Products

Before they become customers, most users want to have a clear understanding of the types of support that will be available to them during both the integration and maintenance phases. Often, product support resources are obscured or require a purchase-verified account to access. Or, the exact nature of the Service Level Agreement is not clearly spelled out. These are unnecessary obstacles that may deter potential customers from developing the necessary confidence in your company’s ability and commitment to their success. Instead, don’t assume that support information is only for customers, and make sure to clearly package and promote this information as part of your sales support content.

19. Design for an Extended Purchase Experience

One of the specific challenges for enterprise software sales is the duration of the evaluation process. This is driven primarily by the complexity of the software, its cost and the need for absolute confidence that the selected product will meet  critical business needs over the long term. This extended purchase process means that users (or teams of users) may be visiting your site multiple times over a longer period. This may lead to duplicative, repetitive or even lost “work” during the sales cycle. This can be avoided by providing some mechanism to remember / save / package the work that they user has completed, without explicitly linking it to the purchase process itself.

Longer sales cycles also often mean collaborative teams with members of varying skills, interests and needs. As well, these members may only participate in one part of the sales process. Explicitly packaging information according to different points in the evaluation process and different roles can make this dynamic easier to manage.

Also, there is always the danger that the evaluation process will lose momentum, and the user may gradually disengage with the site. Developing tools and communications methods that continue to engage the user over the extended period may help to keep the evaluation process moving forward.

20. Don’t Underestimate Your Content Needs. Really.

One of the most common complaints we have heard from users concerns the content that is supposed to educate and support their evaluation process. Too often, the major focus of the redesign is on creating the structure and framework for the site, and the development (and maintenance) of the actual content is an after-thought. Content may be out-of-date, superficial, missing or only tangentially related to the user context, and may be added to the page in a seemingly haphazard manner. This significantly degrades the user’s impression of your company, but also frustrates them at the exact the point when they want to dig deeper into your offerings. This is a missed opportunity.

As part of our design process, we often recommend including a review of existing content and comparing it against the projected content in order to provide a simple gap analysis that can illustrate a roadmap for the content development need for launch and beyond. This analysis also includes the anticipated AMOUNT of articles that will need to be developed, as well as where this content will be promoted contextually within the site.

Regardless, developing strong, meaningful and effective supporting content is not easy and is often underestimated. Companies that do not have an established content development team well-practiced in creating web-friendly and engaging materials often find themselves hard-pressed to fulfill the content requirements of a site design.


About the Author

Sean Dolan

Head of UX Strategy