Study: BTB Web Sites Not User-Friendly

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Business-to-business Web sites offer a weaker user experience than business-to-consumer sites, according to a report by Nielsen Norman Group.

The San Francisco-based research firm's first B2B Website Usability report indicates that people using BTB sites accomplish what they set out to do only 58 percent of the time compared with a 66 percent success rate for consumer e-commerce sites.

The problem, according to the report, is that few BTB companies design Web sites with the user experience in mind. The top design factors that caused users either to leave a site or form a bad impression were:

· Incomplete product descriptions, which created skepticism.

· Overwhelming and convoluted content, which created confusion.

· Convoluted navigational structure, which created impatience.

In addition, BTB sites often push contact while offering only superficial information or concealing critical information -- often seemingly on purpose. Such tactics cause annoyance and distrust.

One critical missing piece of information is pricing. In the study, users listed prices as the type of information that mattered most to them. Sites have many excuses for not wanting to display prices. But without giving users a basic idea of what a product or service will cost, users can't accomplish their initial research of a company, the study's authors said. Even if listing exact prices isn't possible, there are several ways to indicate price level, they said.

Another common BTB tactic is to require users to register or complete lead-generation forms, which users are reluctant to do. Nielsen recommends that companies move more information outside the barrier so it's available to users during their initial research. This helps companies establish credibility before people are asked to give their contact information. Companies at least should follow registration form guidelines to make forms easier to complete.

The product information made available without registration must be complete enough for users to judge whether a Web site's solution applies to their circumstances. In Nielsen's study, incomplete product descriptions were the cause of much skepticism. The research firm suggests providing summaries and guides to educate new users about technical products and framing how people think about their problems.

Navigation is another problem. Many sites are segmented, requiring users to click through to the appropriate segment. But these segments often don't match the way customers think of themselves, and users must click many times to find the correct one, the study said. For example, a simple segmentation such as company size isn't always obvious, as not everyone will know what counts as small. Better sites annotate their choices with a definition, the authors said.

By emphasizing usability, BTB sites can help users accomplish advanced tasks and research specialized products. The payoff could be significant as these often aren't one-time buyers but customers looking for a long-term vendor relationship.

Nielsen Norman Group studied 170 BTB Web sites varying in industry, company size and design. It used three research methodologies to gain an understanding of the issues involved: It conducted focus groups, field studies at several companies and observed business professionals using BTB Web sites.

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