Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, “Make look good!” That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.

Steve Jobs

User experience (UX) design has shifted the focus of product planning towards the end-user. UX has become a core competency for many businesses, with the potential to build a sustainable competitive advantage. This is particularly true in the B2B sector, where the consumerization of technology has led to more intuitive interfaces that blend consumer-facing experience with enterprise-grade utility.

In this article, Peter Melcher from Sabre’s global communications team speaks to Brian Sullivan, Director, UX Design Strategy, delving into the nuances of modern user experience design and how it is approached at Sabre.

Peter: Let’s start with the basics: What is UX design and why is it important?

Brian: User Experience (UX) design is the process of creating products and services that provide meaningful and relevant experiences to users. It goes beyond creating visually appealing interfaces; it focuses on understanding users’ needs, challenges, and aspirations to deliver great experiences. It’s about creating a clear, user-friendly path, enabling users to navigate information quickly.

According to research by Forrester, every dollar spent on improving a brand’s user experience can yield a return of up to $100. UX is the core differentiator for many successful brands, and it’s especially critical for B2B companies attracting enterprise users.

Peter: Why do you think strong UX design is important for B2B businesses?

Brian: With the rise of digitalization, consumers noticed a gap between the technology products they access at work and those they use in their personal lives. Outside of work, they were accustomed to well-designed, innovative technology that is constantly evolving. However, when they came to work, they often encountered older, poorly designed systems that hindered productivity. To bridge this gap, B2B companies, just like B2C businesses, had to focus on creating products that meet users’ unique needs and expectations. B2B companies that prioritize UX design can stand out in a competitive marketplace and create products that meet the high standards set by consumer-grade experiences. It’s also important to remember that B2B buying decisions are frequently long, complex, and involve various stakeholders, each influenced by different factors, so a smooth, effective user experience is especially important.

Peter: What are the key aspects of successful UX design for you?

Brian: I’d say that empathy is at the core of effective UX design. Products must be intentionally and elegantly designed to meet the unique needs of specific users. Design is not about pretty pictures and pushing pixels. It is about understanding how to make our product function better by understanding our customers better than they know themselves: their expectations, challenges, aspirations, extreme conditions, and unmet needs. By focusing on empathy, UX designers can gain a deep understanding of the problems they are trying to solve, and the pressure users face daily. In fact, according to the Harvard Business Review, product teams that prioritize empathy for their users are 200% more successful. Empathy leads to innovation by enabling designers to create products that truly address users’ pain points and provide them with exceptional experiences.

Peter: Why is focusing on the user so important?

Brian: Focusing on users first is crucial in UX design because it allows designers to gain context, inspiration, insights, and empathy. Users can explain their pain points better than anyone else, including their managers and customers. The best data comes from observing users performing tasks in their natural environment, as their workarounds and adaptations highlight areas where the user experience needs improvement. And last, but not least: when you exceed user expectations, they let others know and can positively influence the marketplace over time.

Peter: Are there certain design strategy principles that you and your team follow?

Brian: At Sabre we are employing a so-called macro method towards UX design. At its most basic, the design process boils down to observing, reflecting and then creating, in a constant iterative manner until we’ve achieved our goal.

Observing means seeing users with fresh eyes, looking for patterns and workarounds, discovering insights that others may have missed, and setting aside assumptions to gain a deep understanding of users’ experiences. Reflecting means that we analyze what has been learned to solve the right problem for users; we synthesize and prioritize what’s important to users based on their needs and expectations. Creating means visualizing ideas and exploring options together with users as well as generating and evaluating concepts.

Peter: That sounds logical, but I’m not sure I understand how the process works in practice. Can you speak to the process you employ at Sabre?

Brian: Certainly. At Sabre we have a well-developed design strategy that we apply when creating a new product, reimagining the “next generation” of an existing product, improving a core internal business process or rethinking the experience of external Sabre customers. There are numerous tools and processes that we employ, from personas to empathy maps to prioritization chart, but the basic process is quite simple and consists of four steps.

  1. Know the user problem you’re solving: By identifying specific user challenges and unique needs, you can pinpoint focus areas to address and improve.
  2. Involve users and multidisciplinary teams: We actively engage with actual users early and often in the design process. Additionally, we are building cross-functional internal teams that provide diverse viewpoints, enabling the creation of more powerful outcomes.
  3. Decide to differentiate: Users love products that meet their unique needs. Differentiated products virtually sell themselves. We are pushing our teams to not settle for parity but seek real differentiation when reimagining our products.
  4. Visualized and validate: We are sketching out and building prototypes early in the process so that we can validate ideas with our users. Early in the process, we use low-fidelity approaches to rapidly test product concepts.

Peter: It sounds like collaboration and teamwork are quite important.

Brian: Absolutely. Solving design problems requires alignment from every person on the team. When working on a project, we are always striving to assemble teams with mixed specializations, including experts associated with the problem area and stakeholders with relevant perspectives. The size of the team may vary based on the scope of the challenge, but there are two types of participants that should always be present: Sabre sponsors and actual users. Sabre sponsors may include the product manager, architects or developers, designers, related experts (e.g., AI specialists), and researchers. Obviously, user teams are essential because they represent the actual users of the product or service.

Peter: Thank you for your time! Any final thoughts on the future of UX design?

Brian: UX design will continue to evolve, driven by changing customer expectations and technological advancements. Companies that prioritize user experience and constantly adapt to these changes will be the ones that stand out in the crowd.

In essence, a successful UX design strategy is about understanding users, meeting their needs, and exceeding their expectations. User experience is no longer just about functionality; it’s about creating memorable experiences that resonate with users and drive business success. In the world of B2B, user experience is not just a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have.