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
Chelsey Glasson

Chelsey Glasson

Chelsey Glasson is a user experience researcher whose skills have impacted a wide variety of enterprise and consumer technologies at diverse companies including Google, Salesforce, Udacity and T-Mobile. You can find her on Twitter @chelseyglasson.
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6 thoughts on “User Research With Small Business Owners: Best Practices and Considerations”

  1. Awesome best practices. Love idea for alternative compensation to gift cards or monetary incentives. Do you assign points to answers in your screener? Will you share you examples in a public google folder?

    Thanks,
    Joseph

    1. Glad you found the article helpful, Joseph. Can you elaborate on what you mean by assigning points to screener answers?

  2. Great article! Thanks for writing this and sharing this with the user research community.

    I’m trying to access the example resources you linked in tip#3 but it says I need to request permission to access from Google Drive owner (I’ve done so). Can I get another link or get permission to access it?

    1. Good catch, Charles! That’s an edit that needs to be made to the article. The examples are provided at the end of the article instead of via a Google doc.

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