Even business brands need effective UX

June 18, 2013: 11:18 AM ET

Traditionally the province of consumer-oriented companies, user experience design has become more important for B2B companies.

By Doreen Lorenzo

doreen_21FORTUNE -- The clear separation between consumer brands and business-to-business brands is fast disappearing, with profound implications for how companies plan, develop, design, and market their products and services.

In many ways, this evolution was inevitable. Our smartphone, tablet, and app-enabled age raised customer expectations. Whatever we do at home, at play, or at work, we expect fast connectivity, sparkling content, and intuitive and easy-to-navigate digital tools. The standard is the same for a consumer booking a flight or shopping for shoes, as well as a business buying jet engines or financial services software: The user experience is paramount. The concept of the consumer user as distinct from the business user is gone; everyone is the consumer all the time, which is why diverse companies today place a high value on User Experience (UX), the sum of all interactions with a brand's products and services. Traditionally the domain of consumer brands wooing shoppers on short sales cycles, UX is gaining influence in a wide range of sectors courting rationally minded business buyers.

MORE: Meet Margaret Fuller, proto-Sheryl Sandberg

The heightened expectations for UX design can be seen in both subtle and striking ways. Recently while boarding a flight I peeked into the cockpit and noticed the pilot and copilot both downloading weather charts and other critical data to their tablets, which are easy to understand and read and can be instantly updated. Just a few years ago they might have been hunched over thick manuals and binders and well-thumbed maps balanced on their laps. It all changed largely because these pilots are accustomed to using their smartphones for a wide variety of other tasks. They demand the same applications and consumer-friendly technologies whether they're watching Netflix (NFLX) at home or flying a jet. It is no longer acceptable to have a good user experience at home and a poor one at work. Call it the "consumerization" of our economy: You are the same person wherever you are, and you have the same expectations when it comes to digital experiences.

UX is even more important for the emerging generation of young people who are now finding jobs as knowledge workers. They have little patience for outmoded interfaces, as they came of age with self-updating smartphones and tablets, along with paradigm-shifting software like Zappos (AMZN) and Netflix. This can be problematic for financial services companies, for example, that still use the standard and often cumbersome auditing software. These companies face the challenge of recruiting and keeping young professionals right out of school who are used to current interfaces that make older industry standards seem antiquated. Young CPAs expect that the elegant software applications they used in college will be at their work desks too, and that the experience will be similar.

Many large industrial companies are catching on to this phenomenon. General Electric (GE) asked my company, frog, to help them develop a company-wide UX strategy that would guide product development across diverse business units. GE is known for its jet engines, power plants, and other heavy industrial machines, yet it is also a major producer of software to run, monitor, and maintain those machines. We collaborated with GE to create UX Central, an online hub that provides all GE's employees with a common language and understanding of user-centric software development. In the process we helped GE demonstrate the business value of a comprehensive UX strategy, and they have used it to design cutting-edge software applications that help customers optimize industrial equipment from jet engines to power plants.

MORE: Apple's new MacBook Air is the ultimate road warrior's notebook

An effective UX strategy not only complements and strengthens a brand, it can uncover new forms of value. German logistics company Agheera, a spin-off from global courier company DHL, asked frog to help create a virtual gateway to track shipments, assets, and related business processes. Agheera tracks cargo around the world using sensors, which indicate whether a package has left a factory or arrived at a warehouse. But the greater value, and what sensors cannot reveal on their own, is the real-time status of a package: whether it is banging around on a freighter or whether the container has been compromised. We helped design an online tracking portal for real-time logistics management that can be used on a smartphone, as well as a software development kit and a marketplace of software extensions, which let anyone create and sell their own applications to extend the capabilities of Agheera's platform.

So everyone from airline pilots to power plant engineers to logistics managers responds to a great UX. As the line between consumer and business brands dissolves, many companies are realizing that UX is not just "nice to have" -- it is a tool for creating long-term and meaningful relationships with technologically adept customers. In this way UX has become a basic requirement of doing business.

Doreen Lorenzo (@doreenl) is the president of global innovation firm frog and an executive vice president and general manager of the Aricent Group, frog's parent company. Doreen drives frog's company strategy and oversees its worldwide operations. During her 14 years with the company, she has been instrumental in restructuring the company, taking it from a traditional design boutique to becoming one of the world's foremost global innovation firms, securing broad-based arrangements with an array of Fortune 500 clients. She serves as a member of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies, 2011-2012.

Join the Conversation
Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.