Understanding B2B shopper behavior to inform search experience design

Designing an exceptional search experience requires knowing what your customer wants before they start typing in the search box. When search functionality is well-designed and personalized to a shopper’s needs, it’s almost as if the site is reading a customer’s mind. Helping our client—a seller of clinical supplies—understand shopper mental models was key to success in the redesign of the search functionality on their e-commerce website.

The Challenge

Our client was well aware that onsite search was one of the most critical functions of their website—and also one of the most painful experiences, falling short of user needs.

Knowing search improvements were essential, they decided to purchase a modern, flexible, and personalized search technology platform. But launch was cut short when tricky questions—far beyond the user interface of the search box or results page—remained unanswered:

  • How should items be indexed?
  • What’s the best way to weigh and rank results?
  • What metadata is useful to display?
  • How much will customers tolerate the promotion of “house” brands over the ones they usually order?

Our Approach

While the scope of our initial engagement focused primarily on the design of the search user interface, we recognized early on that—in order to make these kinds of complex design decisions—our client needed a much stronger understanding of their customers’ mental models while searching for products.

Shifting gears, we designed a “hybrid” qualitative interview approach that allowed us to interview shoppers about what happened before they sat down at the keyboard to search for products, to observe their interaction with the current site, and to test interactive prototypes that would inform the implementation of the new search tool. Iterative rounds of A/B testing with realistic product searches and real-life search results allowed shoppers to better imagine what it would be like to use the new experience.

The Outcome

At the end of just one month of intense research with more than 40 customers, we had documented the end-to-end shopping process of both clinical and non-clinical staff searching and purchasing these products. As a result, our client took away:

  • A solid understanding of not just of the search experience itself but the broader task of compiling and completing an order; a clear picture of what was happening before, during, and after their customers hit “search”.
  • Informed decisions about how to place alternative products in front of shoppers to potentially increase profits from higher-margin house brands—balancing both business and user goals in the final search experience designs.
  • Insights around future digital experience projects to support online shoppers, including streamlining the re-order process, simplifying check-out, and working to restructure very large product families.


[Fathom provided us with] insightful recommendations for our project which helped the team see the bigger picture … design decisions were informed and well laid out. Stakeholders liked the structure and content of each presentation and read-out.

—Digital Experience Lead