Beyond Guided Buying and the “Amazon-like” Interface

The Amazon-like user interface was for two decades the gold standard of B2B purchasing experience. Today, however, that approach is increasingly outdated. Here's why we need a new UX paradigm in finance and procurement tech.

Beyond Guided Buying and the “Amazon-like” Interface
Photo by Marques Thomas / Unsplash

What is the ideal user experience for a finance or procurement application?

I’ll tell you what it isn’t: it’s no longer the “Amazon-like” UX that people have been pushing for the last two decades.

Amazon was great for good reasons in a different era — a time where the experience of shopping online was both novel and faster than walking through a physical store.

In today’s hyper-online world, however, the endless options, unlimited scroll, and black box recommendations in Amazon are increasingly akin to navigating a junk heap. This parallels complaints by employees in the B2B world, where navigating catalogs, opaque punch-out guides, and 2000s-style e-request forms now feels burdensome rather than an improvement from paper- and phone-based processes.

It’s time to end the quest for an “Amazon-like” user experience in finance and procurement tech. Instead, we need to move beyond the concept of guided buying embodied in S2P apps. In an era of decentralized technology and generative AI, we need a new paradigm entirely.

Employees Don’t Want An Everything Store

The problem with extolling the benefits of an “Amazon-like” user interface in B2B purchasing is that B2B is not B2C. The desired outcomes, and thus the required user experience, is necessarily different for a consumer vs. a business end user.

Consumers want variety and options. They want to feel empowered to make decisions about what they’re shopping for, and they want to feel confident they are getting the correct value for their effort. They want a “frictionless” experience, too, which is why the one-click, same-day delivery experience of Amazon seemed a compelling analogy.

But the user experience of Amazon is also built around Amazon’s goals — that is, it’s built to increase user time on page, induce impulsive purchasing through a sense of overwhelm, and guide shoppers into a sense of certainty about purchases using an erroneous star review and recommender system.

Those goals have led Amazon down a user experience path that many have noted for its rapid degradation. Customer satisfaction with Amazon’s e-commerce experience has declined considerably, according to a Wall Street Journal report. The root causes: frustration over poor search results and a bloat of low-quality products in the underlying marketplace that leave users feeling like the company is placing a burden on them to sift through a sea of junk. As New York Magazine’s John Herrman put it in a piece on the “junkification of Amazon” earlier this year:

“More products are junk. The interface itself is full of junk. The various systems on which customers depend (reviews, search results, recommendations) feel like junk. This is the state of the art of American e-commerce, a dominant force in the future of buying things. Why does it feel like Amazon is making itself worse?”

This is where the lightbulb should come on for those managing a purchasing experience for employees in a business. The entire model of catalog-based search, a directory of punch-outs, a black box of purchase request forms and menus to navigate — it’s all very Amazon-like. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good experience. In the B2B world, we deride our data quality and lack of clear governance procedures rather than point the finger at Amazon’s business model or low-effort third-party sellers. Yet the same trends toward bloat and overwhelm that result from Amazon’s approach to always adding more make it harder, too, for business stakeholders to interact with finance and procurement systems.

Guided Buying Has Reached its Limit

Digitally navigating a catalog, of course, was never a simple user experience. Instead, the Amazons and Googles of the world had to find a way to show people a way through their seemingly limitless search results before they quit in frustration. This is where the concept of “guided selling” caught on, applying behavioral data and recommender systems based on reviews to proactively push preferred results to users.

In the B2B world, this took the form of routing requisitioners to preferred suppliers, preferred channels, or sources of preferred supply (e.g., a catalog) to make the experience of e-procurement more palatable. As Spend Matters Chief Research Officer Pierre Mitchell, who coined the use of guided buying in B2B, described it in a 2012 research note:

“What makes something like Google great is not the simple UI, but what lies underneath. If you really pay attention to Google search results, you will be awed and frightened by the increasing precision by which they know who you are, where you are, and what you're likely looking for. Interestingly, the pattern matching algorithms used by these B2C sites are not dissimilar to the auto classification technology used by some spend analysis vendors…This is what makes the technology powerful — not just a slick consumerized UI.”

This paradigm was revolutionary at the time for Amazon and Google, but today it is showing its age. This is because guided buying or guided procurement, as a concept or framework for how an e-procurement or purchase request experience should work, provides process guidance at the interaction/user level to influence behavior. It is crucial to note, however, that this guidance occurs in the transaction or process layer, meaning that the system puts the burden of work for shopping on the end user, the idea being to shift the low-value, transactional labor off of the finance or procurement team.

Said another way, guided buying or guided procurement is not unlike Microsoft Office’s Clippy — an unsubtle, persistent presence in the user experience of an employee always trying to help, but not alway succeeding.

clippy Memes & GIFs - Imgflip

For the same reasons that Amazon has largely become junk and Microsoft decided to snuff out Clippy, the user experience paradigm in finance and procurement tech needs to evolve away from guided buying. Rather than frame everything as procurement guiding step by step, more modern approaches like intake-to-procure are putting more power in the hands of users to manage their distributed spend collaboratively and flexibly, rather than follow a set of narrow procurement-guided paths.

The Next Wave of UX

So, what is this new paradigm? Much like the physical world in the shift from the 20th to the 21st century, we are going to increasingly push more and more information out of view, surfacing only the bits and synthesized information needed to navigate the increasingly digital world. Blogger Drew Austin put it brilliantly in his Substack Kneeling Bus (emphasis added):

Ironically, the physical world has already been cleaned up in this way, with information receding from the landscape as the digital sphere absorbs it. The 20th-century cityscape was saturated in text, relative to today’s. Clocks, printed documents, and even wayfinding signage have since declined in importance alongside analog media of every kind … Phone numbers are still the underlying system that organizes our contacts, but we never have to see a given number again after saving it the first time (and frequently not even then). Information is always being pushed below the user interface, replaced with more intuitive symbols; we might expect this to make the digital environment less semantically cluttered, as it has the physical environment, but the internet is still in its noisy 20th-century era, with discarded newspapers littering the proverbial sidewalks, and AI might be the outlet for that clutter just as digital technology was for analog information.”

The way we will have to fix the clutter and chaos of the Amazon-like user experience in B2B purchasing is by radically altering the UI paradigm to turn guided buying into collaborative buying — but the collaboration will be mediated by AI in the style of ChatGPT or other interactive interfaces.

Beyond the computational prowess of ChatGPT and other large language models, there’s also a relevant insight on UX. What exactly makes the experience of interacting with ChatGPT so powerful? Design blogger Dejan Blagic summarizes a few key points:

  • Minimalistic, almost “no UI” — almost no complex menus, options, drop-downs, tabs, buttons, and infinite lists with other interface elements to navigate
  • Easily learnable — based on other previously established experiences (Slack) and the system shows you how it works as you interact with it
  • Functionality is discovered, not taught or pushed — the system reveals its capabilities and limitations as you work with it, rather than directing you to a separate guide or info boxes explaining what to do

Consider the scale of this shift for the B2B purchasing experience: a system that is able to browse, summarize, and synthesize all of your product and service data so that an end user can query and discover the right purchase outcome interactively. Then compare this with the old paradigm, in which there is guidance down a set of paths, but the burden is on the end user to unearth and decide what to do, with some offline guidance usually needed to succeed.

Much like the physical world analogy above, the user paradigm of 21st century finance and procurement tech will now become a new layer, one that cuts out all of the clutter to deliver an experience that is truly as close to no UI as we can get. We will begin to unify all of the fragmented data silos that have become the norm — the ones that sit untapped in email and project management tools like Notion or Asana, too — and then run the infrastructure of transactions below the surface with bots and AI, synthesizing this subterranean complexity into a single layer that governs interactions between stakeholders and finance/procurement.

Are we fully there yet? No. Much like with generative AI, this is still early innings. But are we on the cusp redefining how the UX game is played in B2B software? I certainly think so. Hit reply if you want to discuss!

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