Function over frill: the particular considerations of B2B e-commerce design

By RocketAir Crew
November 3, 2022

The transition to digital commerce has been unfolding over the past several decades. At this point, it’s easy to assume that every e-commerce experience should adhere to a universal set of best practices. But the reality is that there are still uncharted waters, and the slow-to-transition industries have good reasons for dragging their feet: what they’ve been doing has been working. The most successful businesses make their customers feel welcome, safe and invited. And often, the status quo feels comfortable. 

At RocketAir, we’re adept at helping late-bloomer industries translate their traditional in-store and catalog-based experiences into dynamic, intuitive e-commerce websites. Here, we outline a few of the nuances product teams must consider when designing for B2B audiences.

Help users navigate with contextual design

In order to translate that sense of belonging into the digital world, to make people feel safe and invited, you must deeply know your customers. With B2B e-commerce design, there are particular and nuanced audience considerations at play. Not only do you have the standard demographic and psychographic audience attributes to consider, but you also have to think about a narrow set of experiences and reference points that apply to the particulars of a given industry. So you cannot enter the work with assumptions—even those based on common e-commerce best practice. Everything must be tested with audiences. 

Often we’ll encounter B2B users who are less tech-savvy than the general public. For example, we worked with a client whose user base was not instinctively familiar with the functionality of a search bar icon and had to solve for that. Beyond a lack of familiarity with technology, we’re often designing for users who are very habitually rooted in a certain set of processes and experiences and may be resistant to (or even fearful of) change. Imagine you’ve been ordering parts from the same catalog over the phone for the past 25 years, and suddenly you’re being asked to place your orders online. Think about the emotional perception of that adjustment to the user and the danger to a brand’s reputation if your core customer journey becomes a stressful or impersonal experience.  

That’s why it’s so important to bring users along thoughtfully, using contextual design tactics. Using our previous example, as users engage with the search bar, it simultaneously teaches them how to use it. By educating users in a seamless way, we can ease them into the new experience rather than throw them into the deep end. Then, we can strategically reveal new functionality over time as we observe our audience gaining confidence.

Functionality that drives business efficiencies

There are also often very specific functionality considerations that play into the development of a robust B2B e-commerce platform. Whereas a B2C e-commerce experience needs to be optimized for aesthetics and driving the customer through frictionless funnels to the point of purchase, there’s often more complexity at play in the B2B world. 

RocketAir CEO Taylor Rosenbauer describes it this way: 

Our aim is to create business efficiencies, to lighten the very real human workload for both the people operating a B2B company and the end-customers who need that e-commerce experience to function smoothly so they can operate their own businesses. As a design team, we’re thinking about how we can leverage feature sets to enable self-service, to cut down on manual labor and time-intensive processes. Making lives easier is really the power of what well-designed B2B e-commerce experiences can do.

While interfaces must always be intuitive and feature sets always strive to create efficiencies, the emphasis of B2B is often on heavy-duty functionality. B2B users are not intimidated by large tables of data or lists of hundreds of items. In fact, they'll usually appreciate features that are optimized for larger sets of data and larger (and repeat) orders.

When it comes to designing a B2B e-commerce experience, Brandon Fiksel, Product Strategist at RocketAir, explains:

Consumers tend to care about the vibe—big visuals and graphic elements—but B2B customers look past aesthetics, putting a greater emphasis on functionality. More than frills, they want details. Focus on utility and simplicity rather than brand journeys or tantalizing upsells. B2B users don’t want to be distracted while they’re doing their jobs. They just want to do their jobs.

And because those jobs are often very complex, B2B e-commerce platforms require much deeper functionality. These products are highly utilitarian, and the stakes are higher. People’s livelihoods rely on the usability of these interfaces to access analytics, check account balances, execute bulk ordering, coordinate freight shipping, and other vital work functions.

With heavy-duty functionality comes a more active user experience. One of the core differences between a B2B and B2C user experience is audience intent. Most often, the B2B user comes into the e-commerce experience with a very specific set of needs. This is an active user—someone who knows exactly what they need already. There is almost never a “browsing” scenario for a typical B2B customer. The passive user experience prioritizes demonstrating breadth of inventory or serving up intriguing novelty, curated collections, and reducing the number of clicks to purchase. Whereas, the active user experience must prioritize things like product comparison tools and reliable access to deeply knowledgeable customer service representatives—features that help them effectively get the job done.  

Demonstrating brand value throughout the experience

Of course, we’re concerned with more than just creating deeply useful customer experiences. That’s table stakes for any design team worth their salt. We need to also look through a holistic lens, tying design decisions back to a brand’s value propositions. 

In a B2B e-commerce experience, the user is immersed in the path to purchase for longer. It’s not enough to craft a CTA in your brand voice or smack a big logo on the checkout page—you have to make sure that your company’s essence shines through in every interaction.

For example, when designing SECLOCK’s new digital catalog experience, we prioritized the depth and breadth of inventory throughout the UX— highlighting the number of products available and the number of manufacturer brands they carry as much as made sense. Knowing that unrivaled technical support is another differentiator for the brand, we made sure to include their phone number and a live chat function at every step of the journey. 

Fuel for thought

  • Are you reluctant to introduce e-commerce functionality to your user base for fear of alienating them? 
  • Do you consider your inventory too cumbersome, complex, or large for digital commerce? 
  • Do you think of your e-commerce UX as an extension of your white-glove customer service? 
  • How are you collecting and implementing user feedback?