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Don’t put your customers to work in your warehouse

01 Oct 09

Shopping online is not the same as managing a business inventory. It’s so obvious, but I’m constantly amazed at who gets this completely wrong.

As I explained in my previous column Online relations: the user experience, the concept of ‘user experience design’ is a  way of understanding and enhancing the quality of a customer’s experience when interacting with a product or  system. It maximises the ease with which people can learn to use a product like a website to achieve their goals and  how satisfied they are with that process. This is vital when their tasks involve spending money to buy stuff from your business.

Recently I reviewed a B2B interface with a colleague and we got progressively confused. The thing had no shopping  cart; when you selected an item from a top-level category, you had to click down three more levels to find a picture of  what you were buying, and all the operating buttons were in the top left corner, in place of the breadcrumbs we were  rather expecting. The buttons were also labelled in off-putting language that used a lot of intimidating technical terms.

So what was the deal here? After about 20 minutes we realised this was actually an in-house inventory management  application designed for warehouse staff to use behind the scenes. It had had a web interface slapped on the front end so customers could view it in a browser window, but all the user tasks and interface design still pre-supposed that the  users were warehouse managers!

The interface was suited to the warehouse guys, because they:

  • used it every day;

  • understood the business processes driving it from the back end;

  • knew all the stock codes by heart; and

  • needed to create invoices and packing slips prior to physically packing goods for shipping.

The software system engineers who developed this product had never sat down and analysed their new audience (the   customers!) to establish what their goals and capabilities were. They had merely assumed that ordering B2B online was  no different to managing inventory in a warehouse.

This is totally wrong! The warehouse guys merely need to access inventory data, and to add item lines to an invoice.  Because they’re your employees, they use the system all day, every day, they have time and training to learn any  interface, and they never need product images or descriptions because their job is to know the stock by SKU codes alone.

But your sales partners:

  • use your online ordering interface infrequently;

  • don’t know your stock codes (and shouldn’t have to learn them);

  • have varying levels of computer expertise;

  • are very busy;

  • and can choose whether to order from you, or your competitors.

Ordering stock from your business is a chore. Your sales partners need a B2B online interface designed to make this   quick, painless and fool proof. They need one designed to maximise their experience, that is easy to learn and     remember, and that meets their expectations of how an online ordering system ought to work.

If you keep your customers in mind when designing your B2B interface, you’ll be spending your money to produce a  usable system that will grow your market share. But if you simply give them back-end access that puts them to work in your warehouse, without arranging your stock in a ‘virtual showroom’ to make buying easy, you can guarantee they’ll  be shopping somewhere else pretty soon

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