Approaching User Research at an Enterprise-Focused Startup
At Enigma we’re working to encourage our users to always ask why, and be empowered to find an answer. We build tools that complement their expertise as analysts, investigators, and data scientists. Doing this successfully means developing a strong understanding of our users’ goals, needs, skills and frustrations. Complementing expertise requires that we become experts about our users. One of the ways we do that is through user research.
In theory, everyone can agree that collecting feedback from users is valuable. Who wouldn’t want to verify that the thing they’re building is actually useful? Really, it’s challenging to find viewpoints against doing some level of research. So when user research doesn’t happen, what is it that went wrong? Why do product teams sometimes skip validation and go straight to building? Of course I can’t say for all situations, but here are a few common challenges I’ve come across working on enterprise-level B2B products, and ways I’ve found to mitigate them.
“The target user has a niche skill set – we can’t grab people off the street to test.”
Even under the best circumstances recruiting users for research can be hard. But targeting a specialized user isn’t an insurmountable obstacle to conducting user research. Think about what it is you really need to learn at each stage of testing. Often there will be things you want to learn about your user (and your design) that don’t require your target user’s subject matter expertise. They might just require a familiarity with highly technical interfaces, or experience leading large teams. Understanding which aspects of your user are necessary for successful testing can help you identify reasonable proxies, which in turn can increase your total user testing pool.
“These aren’t just our users, these are client relationships.”
Because B2B apps are, well, B2B there’s often a more complex sales process than users simply signing up for a free trial online. It might include months of conversation, negotiation, and relationship building on the part of the commercial team. When a contact goes from a prospect to a user, recruiting them for say, an interview, might itself be a delicate process. It pays to be in close communication with the commercial team — know who the ‘friendly’ users are, and which ones are mostly likely off-limits. Keep in mind that B2B apps also often have a buyer who may or may not be the same as the end user. The commercial team may not only be able to give you an idea of who’s ‘friendly’ and who’s off-limits, but also who can give firsthand usability feedback.
In the event that there aren’t any ‘friendly’ users at a given moment, try picking the brains of the commercial team members themselves. Chances are they’ve deeply familiarized themselves with the challenges facing your user and can be a good proxy in a pinch. A final, proactive way to make sure that necessary user research isn’t putting a strain on business relationships is to see if there are ways to build research participation into contracts themselves, like offering beta access as a release partner.
“We don’t have that many users (yet).”
This challenge certainly is not unique to enterprise products — it can be an issue for any new product. And there might not just be few users — there might be zero users. In either case, it’ll be a long time before you can get quantitative data. But the volume threshold for useful qualitative user research is remarkably low — in most cases testing with five users is enough to see patterns. When you have few to no users though, even five can seem like a lot. In situations like these, your coworkers are your best resource. It might take some creativity, but find colleagues that perform similar job functions or are tasked with solving challenges related to your target user, and treat them just like you would an external tester: write a script, have others observe and take notes, analyze the results.
Despite the inevitable challenges, learning about your users and validating your assumptions is well worth the effort. It may take a few creative solutions to make sure you’re building the right thing for the right user, but doing so will pave the way for more efficient planning and building in the short term and a much greater likelihood of strong client relationships and successes over time.