User Research With Small Business Owners: Best Practices and Considerations

Written by: Chelsey Glasson

The majority of our work at Google has involved conducting user research with small business owners: the small guys that are typically defined by governmental organizations as having 100 or fewer employees, and that make up the majority of businesses worldwide.

Given the many hurdles small businesses face, designing tools and services to help them succeed has been an immensely rewarding experience. That said, the experience has brought a long list of challenges, including those that come with small business owners being constantly on-call and strapped for time; when it comes to user research, the common response from small business owners and employees is, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”

To help you overcome common challenges we’ve faced, here are a few tips for conducting successful qualitative user research studies with small businesses.

Recruiting

Recruiting tip #1: Give yourself an extra week, and then some

It generally takes more time to recruit for research projects with small businesses than what’s typical for consumer studies. There are several reasons why this is the case.

Existing user research participant pools tend to be light on small business representation, meaning recruiting for your project may have to start completely from scratch. Also, it can take time to track down the appropriate person at a small business to talk to—are you trying to reach the owner, the accountant, customer service staff, or…?  

Finally, small businesses are accustomed to companies trying to sell them new offerings or get them to sign up for product pilots, and many have been scammed in signing up for “free” pilots or services that end up turning into a perpetual sales pitch. Because of this, the chances of a small business owner or employee saying “No!” to participating in your user research is especially high.

Recruiting tip #2: Make sure you’re crystal clear on what type of business you want to recruit

There’s quite a bit of variation in terms of business environment, priorities, strategies and other factors across different types of businesses. Accidentally overlooking important criteria could be detrimental to a study.

For example, do you want to talk to a certain type of business, such as professional service, service area, or brick-and-mortar? Does it matter if your study participants are from B2B vs. B2C companies? What about online vs. offline businesses? Additional points of consideration include number of employees, business goals (e.g., does the business want to grow?), and revenue.

If you’re not sure if you’ve overlooked important criteria, ask for feedback from product managers, marketing professionals, and other user researchers who may have relevant information. It can also be helpful to see how entities such as the Small Business Administration categorize business types.

Recruiting tip #3: Make sure you’re crystal clear on whom you want to interview

When conducting research with small business owners, it’s common to assume that the business owner is involved in most decisions, but that’s often not the case.

Is it actually the business owner you’re interested in speaking to? Or, do you need to talk to someone who’s responsible for a specific task, such as someone who managing online marketing decisions or handles the company’s financials? The larger the company, the higher the chances are of the company owner delegating responsibilities.

We typically ensure we’re speaking to the right type person by asking screening questions specific to roles and responsibilities (see examples at the end of this article).

Recruiting tip #4: Avoid hobbyists disguised as business owners

It’s common for hobbyists—for example, people who casually sell certain services or offerings for personal enjoyment—to sign up for user research involving small business owners. On the surface they pass many of the screening criteria, but in reality their motivations and behaviors are quite different from a full-time business owner or employee of a business. We typically screen out hobbyists via recruiting screening surveys by asking if potential study participants spend at least 30 hours per week in their role as business owner or employee of the business.

Recruiting tip #5: Recruit extra participants

When conducting research with consumers, we always recruit one extra participant in the event there is a no-show. When conducting research with small businesses, we’ll increase that number to two or more. Given how unpredictable the small business environment  can be, we’ve found that the chances of last-minute cancellations or no-shows is much higher with small business owners and employees than it is with consumers.

Incentives

Incentive tip #1: Provide incentives other than cash

While incentives are a nice gesture, cash or gift cards are not a huge motivator, as they aren’t viewed as a worthwhile tradeoff for inconveniences that come with stepping away from running a business in order to participate in an interview.

What is motivating is providing small business owners and their employees with information and tips on how to run the business successfully: things like offering free accounting software, coaching on social media best practices, and personal access to a member of the support team for assistance. Another approach is to offer 15 minutes after the interview for free coaching and/or advice on a topic that makes sense given the study focus.

The small business community is tightly knit, and small businesses are often invested in each other’s success. Because of this, another option is to frame the study as an opportunity to improve offerings for all small businesses.

Even better, small businesses owners and employees love the opportunity to share feedback on tools and services they routinely use to run their business. If the product you’re testing or exploring touches upon tools and services already in use, it can be motivating to frame user interviews as an opportunity to shape the future of the offering being reviewed.

Finally, consider offering small business owners and employees the opportunity to participate in an exclusive Trusted Testers community, which provides the option to share feedback, receive “insiders” information and tips, and interact with and learn from other small businesses. We’ve found this option can be especially motivating for engaging in user research.

Interviewing

Interview tip #1: Consider in-person interviews

It can be hard for small business owners and employees to take time away from the business to participate in research that might be conducted at your lab or office. Likewise, for remote interviews, small business owners and employees don’t always have convenient access to needed technology at their place of business.

For these reasons, we’ve found that small businesses are much more likely to participate in user research if interviews take place at their place of business. This way they can tend to the business during interviews if needed and don’t have to waste valuable time setting up technology to participate in the interviews.

Also, conducting in-person interviews provides context often needed to understand complicated processes and workflows that business owners and their employees face.

Interview tip #2: Be flexible with scheduling

We’re also always especially flexible with scheduling when conducting research with small business owners and employees. In addition to leaving extra time between interviews, we usually also leave an interview slot open in the event we have to move the schedule around suddenly. We’re also mindful of offering early morning or late evening interview times, especially if the verticals we’re focused are service oriented (restaurants, spas, etc); trying to conduct a field visit during peak hours can be really intrusive for these types of businesses.

Interview tip #3: Be prepared for last-minute changes

The world of small business owners and their employees can be unpredictable, which is why we always schedule extra, backup participants for research. We’ve run into countless situations where a research participant cancels an interview at the last second on account of unexpected business or emergencies.

It’s also common for small business owners or employees to request location changes at the last second. For example, one time I (Chelsey) was scheduled to interview a business owner at his home (which is where he ran the business). He called five minutes before the interview explaining he wanted to be respectful of his roommates and asking if we could meet elsewhere. Good thing I had scoped out the area before this happened and had a nearby coffee shop in mind where we could talk!

Interview tip #4: Emphasize participant expertise early

When interviewing small business owners and employees, it’s common for them to want to seize the opportunity to get insider information or training on whatever topic is being explored. When this happens at the start of an interview, the interviewer becomes the expert for the remainder of the conversation which can prevent an open, honest dialogue.

To establish the participant as the expert early on in the conversation, there are a few things we’ll typically do. For starters, we always state that the goal of the study is to learn from the participant.

Next, we’ll ask the participant to give a tour of the business (if a site visit) and to explain what the day-to-day looks like in running it. During the tour and/or day-to-day explanation, we’ll call out pieces of information that are new to us and ask a few follow-up questions. This strategy usually does the trick in placing the research participant in expert mode and researchers as the student.

Interview tip #5: Bring extra NDAs  

I (Chelsey) will never forget, in kicking off an interview with a business owner in India, when I unexpectedly discovered several family members waiting to enthusiastically participate in the conversation!

The reality is that running a small business—whether in India, the US, or elsewhere—is rarely a solo operation. Consequently, we’ve found it’s common for family, friends and employees to be asked by interviewees to join interviews. This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, in many situations it’s a wonderful surprise that can lead a an engaging, insightful conversation.

Because of how frequent this scenario can be, we now always make sure to bring extra copies of NDAs.

Reporting

Reporting tip #1: Provide context

When socializing your findings to a product team, building empathy for the participants and their challenges is key. Reporting on consumer insights is relatively easy because most of us face similar challenges in our daily lives and we can easily identify with the participants. However, small business owners and employees face challenges that are less relatable.

Therefore, it’s important to create a narrative that includes the context of the merchant’s business and business practices. For example, what vertical do they work in? What does their day to day look like? How has their business evolved? What do they feel their customers’ needs are, and how does that in turn translate to their use of your product?

Additionally, keep in mind that your product won’t exist in a vacuum. Small business merchants are experimental, and are willing to try out numerous tools and services until they find one that meets most (usually not all) of their needs. Small business owners also value integration and may find creative ways to DIY integration that doesn’t already exist. It’s therefore not unusual that small business research may occasionally graze the edges of competitive analysis.

When crafting your report, create a story around the participants — what are their challenges and successes? How do they feel about their customers? How does (or could) your product fit into their business processes? Finally, video recordings and direct quotes are highly impactful and help emphasize the person behind the findings.

Reporting tip #2: Limit, but embrace, variation

Because small businesses are so varied in terms of vertical, structure, and practices, it takes a careful eye to draw unified or cohesive themes across what can sometimes seem like disparate participants.

Often in user research there is an impulse to sweep outliers under the rug. However, in small business research it can actually be helpful to call out and explain the outliers. They may represent an edge case that your team has an opportunity to address, or they might reveal something new about a vertical, business, or merchant type.  

Of course, as we mentioned earlier, it’s important to clearly define your intended participant group. Even with a clearly definition of who you want to talk to, you can expect to see a healthy amount of variation among your study participants.

Concluding thoughts

Small businesses have different pressures and motivations than consumers that are important to consider in setting up a successful user study with business owners and those who help run small businesses. To get the most out of your time and theirs, study up on what might relieve these pressures and speak to motivations, and adjust your recruiting, incentives, and interview techniques accordingly.

Sample screening questions

Which of the following best describes the business where you work? Please select one.

Food and dining (e.g., restaurant, bar, food truck, grocery store) 1
Retail and shopping (e.g., clothing boutique, online merchandise store) 2
Beauty and fitness (e.g., nail salon, gym, hair salon, spa) 3
Medical and health (e.g., doctor, dentist, massage therapist, counselor) 4
Travel and lodging (e.g., hotel, travel agency, taxi, gas station) 5
Consulting services (e.g., management consulting, business strategy) 6
Legal services (e.g., lawyer, paralegal, bail bondsman) 7
Home services and construction (e.g, contractor, HVAC, plumber, cleaning services) 8
Finance and banking (e.g., accounting, insurance, financial planner, investor, banker) 9
Education (e.g., tutoring, music lessons, public or private school, daycare, university) 10
Entertainment (e.g., movie theatre, sports venue, comedy club, bowling alley) 11
Art / design (e.g., art dealers, antique restoration, photographer) 13
Automotive services (e.g., auto repairs, car sales) 14
Marketing services (e.g., advertising, marketing, journalism, PR) 15
Other 16

Thinking about the next 12 months, which of the following are overall goals for the business you own or work for? Select all that apply.

Acquire new customers 1
Conduct more business with existing customers 2
Target specific customer segments 3
Improve operational efficiency/capabilities 4
Expand to more locations 5
Develop new products/services 6
Offer training or development for my employees 7
Invest in improvements to physical locations (e.g., new paint, interior remodeling, etc.) 8
Maintain current business performance 9
Acquire competitors 10
Other 11
None of the above 99

 

How does your business operate? Please select all that apply.

You have a physical business location that customers visit (e.g., store, salon, restaurant, hotel, doctor’s office etc.) 1
Your business serves customers at their locations (e.g., taxi driver, realtor, locksmith, wedding photographer, plumber) 2
Your customers can purchase products and services from any location, online or by phone 3
Other 4

Which of the following best describes your role in your business?

Owner 1
Employee 2
Other 3

Which of the following are you responsible for at the business you own or work for? Please

select all that apply.

Hiring employees 1
Managing employees 2
Business planning/Strategy 3
Marketing/Promotions 4
Finance/Accounting 5
Sales/Customer Service 6
Legal 7
IT 8
Other 9
None of the above   99

Which of the following best describes your current employment status? Please one.

Work full-time (30 or more hours per week) 1
Work part-time (fewer than 30 hours per week) 2
Not employed 4
Student 5
Retired 6

Five Things They Didn’t Teach Me in School About Being a User Researcher

Written by: Chelsey Glasson

Graduate school taught me the basics of conducting user research, but it taught me little about what it’s like working as a user researcher in the wild. I don’t blame my school for this. There’s little publicly-available career information for user researchers, in large part because companies are still experimenting with how to best make use of our talents.

That said, in the midst of companies experimenting with how to maximize user researchers, there are a few things I’ve learned specific to the role of user researcher that have held true across the diverse companies I’ve worked for. Some of these learnings were a bit of a surprise early on my my career, and I hope in sharing them I’ll save a few from making career mistakes I made in the past for lack of knowing better.

There’s a ton of variation in what user researchers do.

In my career, I’ve encountered user researchers with drastically varying roles and skillsets: many who focus solely on usability, a few who act as hybrid designers and researchers, some that are specialists in ethnography, and yet others who are experts in quantitative research. I’ve also spoken with a few who are hybrid market/user researchers, and I know of one tech company that is training user researchers to own certain product management responsibilities.

If you take a moment to write down all of the titles you’ve encountered for people who do user research work, my guess is that it will be a long one. My list includes user experience researcher, product researcher, design researcher, consumer insights analyst, qualitative researcher, quantitative researcher, usability analyst, ethnographer, data scientist, and customer experience researcher. Sometimes companies choose one title over another for specific reasons, but most of the time they’ll use a title simply because of tradition, politics, or lack of knowing the difference.

At one company I once worked for, my title was user researcher, but I was really a usability analyst, spending 80% of my time conducting rapid iterative testing and evaluation (RITE) studies. When I accepted the job at that company, I assumed–based on my title–that I’d be involved in iterative research and more strategic, exploratory work. I quickly learned that the title was misleading and should have been usability analyst.

What does this all mean for your career?

For starters, it means you should do a ton of experimentation while in school or early on in your career to understand what type of user research you enjoy and excel at most. It also means that it’s incredibly important to ask questions about the job description during an interview to make sure you’re not making faulty assumptions, based on a title, about the work you’d be doing.

Decisions influence data as much as data influences decisions.

I used to think the more data the better applied to most situations, something I’ve recently heard referred to as “metrics fetishism.” I’ve now observed many situations in which people use data as a crutch, end up making mistakes by interpreting “objective” data incorrectly, or become paralyzed by too much data.

The truth is that there are limitations to every type of data, qualitative and quantitative. Even data lauded by some as completely objective–for example, data from website logs or surveys–oftentimes includes a layer of subjectiveness.

At the beginning and end of any research project there are decisions to be made. What method should I use? What questions should I ask and how exactly should they be asked? Which metrics do we want to focus on? What data should we exclude? Is it OK to aggregate some data? What baselines should we compare to? These decisions should themselves be grounded in data and experience as much as possible, but they will almost always involve some subjectivity and intuition.

I’ll never forget one situation in which a team I worked with refused to address obvious issues and explore solutions without first surveying users for feedback (in large part because of politics). In this situation, the issues were so obvious that we should have felt comfortable using our expertise to address them. Because we didn’t trust making decisions without data in this case, we delayed fixing the issues, and our competitors gained a huge advantage. There’s obviously a lot more detail to this story, but you get the point: In this circumstance, I learned that relying on data as a crutch can be harmful.

What does this mean for your career?

Our job as user researchers is not only to deliver insights via data, but also to make sure people understand the limitations of data and when it should and shouldn’t be used. For this reason, a successful user researcher is one who’s comfortable saying “no” when research requests aren’t appropriate, in addition to explaining the limitations of research conducted. This is easier said than done, especially as a new user researcher, but I promise it becomes easier with practice.

You’re not a DVR.

Coming out of school, I thought my job as a user researcher was solely to report the facts: 5 out of 8 users failed this task, 50% gave the experience a score of satisfactory, and the like. I was to remain completely objective at all times and to deliver massive reports with as much supporting evidence as I could find.

I now think it’s old-school for user researchers to not have an opinion informed by research findings. Little is accomplished when a user researcher simply summarizes data; that’s what video recordings and log data are for. Instead, what’s impactful is when researchers help their teams prioritize findings and translate them into actionable terms. This process requires having an opinion, oftentimes filling in holes where data isn’t available or is ambiguous.

One project I supported early in my career involved a large ethnography. Six user researchers conducted over 60 hours of interviews with target users throughout the United States. Once all of the interviews were completed, we composed a report with over 100 PowerPoint slides and hours of video footage, summarizing all that was learned without making any concrete recommendations or prioritizing findings. Ultimately we received feedback that our report was mostly ignored because no one had time to read through it and it wasn’t clear how to respond to it. Not feedback you want to receive as a user researcher!

What does this mean for your career?

The most impactful user researchers I’ve encountered in my career take research insights one step further by connecting the dots between learnings and design and product requirements. You might never be at the same depth of product understanding as your fellow product managers and designers, but it’s important to know enough about their domains to translate your work into actionable terms.

Having an opinion is a scary thought for a lot of user researchers because it’s not always possible to remain 100% objective in bridging the gap between research insights and design and product decisions. But remember that there’s often always limitations and a subjective layer to data, so always remaining 100% objective just isn’t realistic to begin with.

Little is accomplished when data is simply regurgitated; our biggest impact is contributing to the conversation by providing actionable insights and recommendations that helps decision makers question their assumptions and biases.

Relationships aren’t optional, they’re essential.

As a student, my success was often measured by how hard I worked relative to others, resulting in a competitive environment. I continued the competitive behavior I learned in school when I first started working as a user researcher; I put my nose to the grindstone and gave little thought to relationships with my colleagues. What I quickly learned, however, is that taking time to establish coworker relationships is just as important as conducting sound research.

Work shouldn’t be a popularity contest, right? Right–but solid coworker relationships make it easier to include colleagues in the research process, transforming user research into the shared process it should be. And trust me, work is way more fun and meaningful if you enjoy your coworkers!

What does this mean for your career?

Take the time to get to know your coworkers on a personal level, offer unsolicited help, share a laugh, and take interest in the work that your colleagues do. I could share a personal example here, but instead let me refer you to Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People. Also check out Tomer Sharon’s book It’s Our Research.

Expect change–and make your own happiness within it.

Change is a constant for UX’ers. I’m on my eighth manager as a user researcher, and in my career I’ve been managed by user researchers, designers, product managers, and even someone with the title of VP of Strategic Planning. I’ve also been through four reorganizations and a layoff.

What does this mean for your career?

Change can be stressful, but when embraced and expected, you’ll find that there are benefits to change. For example, change can provide needed refreshment and new challenges after a period of stagnation. Change can also save you from a difficult project or a bad manager.

I remember a conversation with a UX leader in which he shared he once quit a job because he couldn’t get along with a peer who just didn’t get the user experience process. A few months after he quit, the peer was fired. If only he had stuck around for a while.

The U.S. Navy SEALs have a saying: “Get comfortable being uncomfortable,” which refers to the importance of remaining focused on the objective at hand in the middle of ongoing change. Our objective as user researchers is to conduct research for the purpose of improving products and experiences for people. Everything else is secondary–don’t get distracted.

For more detailed recommendations on how to deal with change as a user research, I highly recommend watching Andrea Lindman’s talk “Adapting to Change: UX Research in an Ever-Changing Business Environment.”

Concluding thoughts

I’ve been happy to see in the past two years that the user experience community has stepped up in making career advice more readily available (we could do even better, though). For user researchers wanting advice beyond what I’ve shared in this article, here are four of my favorite resources:

  • Judd Antin’s talk in which he covers many opportunities and challenges of doing user research: http://vimeo.com/77110204.
  • You in UX, an online career conference for user experience professionals.
  • Tomer Sharon’s book It’s Our Research.
  • A special issue of UXPA’s UX Magazine, with the theme of UX careers.