Words by Nikki Anderson-Stanier, Visuals by Allison Corr
I grew up doing B2B (Business to Business) user research, and it holds a special place in my heart.
Because my first two full-time roles as a user researcher were in B2B, I didn't understand the difference between B2C (Business to Community) and B2B research.
For example, I wasn't aware that it’s typically harder to recruit for B2B, or that the usability tests were often more nuanced and complex.
I often had to go further in some of my B2B research, reaching into the B2B2C space, which meant talking to our clients' users.
When I first encountered the world of B2C research, I was shocked at some of the differences. Sure, I still was going through the same types of processes, but different steps of that process were vastly different.
Since then, I've worked at both B2C and B2B companies, and I know we aren't supposed to have favorites, but I love B2B user research despite its difficulties.
Why B2B user research is worth trying
The only way to figure out what we love is by being exposed to various projects, teams, ways of working, and organizations. Different organizations call for other methods and approaches as well.
Exposing yourself to different situations allows you to experiment with many more processes, approaches, and methods. For example, there was a vast difference between working at a larger organization with a structured process versus the lack of structure at a startup.
Without these experiences, I couldn't tell you right now that I absolutely love start-ups, especially those in the B2B space. That's where I do my best work because it energizes and motivates me.
Within the B2B space, I learned so much creativity when it came to my approach, and it also helped me drop the mentality of "only one way to do things." I'm not saying you can't do this in B2C research because it is possible, but since my primary early career experience was B2B, I learned much from being in B2B situations.
However, with all my love for B2B research, sometimes it can be downright frustrating. Recruitment may take ages, leading to colleagues' fear of research taking too long—and I can't blame them because it does! It can sometimes feel like everything is out of your control.
Luckily, there are some great ways to approach these challenges.
Sometimes as researchers, we don't get time to think about our craft and process, so it’s essential to take a step back and understand where we are struggling and why to fix it.
Founder, UX Academy
B2B challenges (and how to start overcoming them)
I don't want to paint B2B research as the perfect rosy picture, as I did encounter many challenges that felt exhausting to battle against constantly.
After working in the space for such a long time and being able to try, fail, and iterate—key being that it's okay to fail–I found some strategies to overcome these challenges.
✔ Making friends with other departments
I was employee 30 for the first company I worked for. Within this organization, we lacked clients since the company was starting, but we had little resistance in speaking with the clients we did have.
In my next role, we had many more clients, but it wasn't the same mentality of simply reaching out to connect with them whenever I wanted to. Many departments were wary of me speaking to our users because they didn't understand what I would do or say. In addition, I was the first user researcher, so the scope of my role was still mysterious and unknown.
At first, I was frustrated. I finally had all these users to talk to, but I felt I was being gated from them. Then I realized my colleagues weren't doing this to be difficult, they simply had worries and anxieties about how I would interact with users. And their relationships with users were something they were assessed on. So it was no wonder they were concerned.
From there, I spent time educating them on user research and how I wanted to interact with our users. I also pulled them for usability tests so they could understand how I conducted them. Finally, I talked through my goals, and eventually, we got to a point where they felt comfortable letting me reach out to a few users.
At first, they also sat in on the interviews, which I didn't mind. Over time, they helped me connect with more users and faded from the background of interviews unless I needed them there.
By understanding their nervousness and worry, I helped them understand my goals and the overall purpose of user research at the organizational level and gain their trust.
As I alluded to above, recruitment in B2B research can be tedious and slow. One of the first studies I recruited for was a mess. I was confident we would recruit all seven users in the two-week timeline I had found on Google.
I sent countless emails, kicking my feet back and feeling excited that we would probably have more than seven people for this usability test, which meant I could already kick off another test with the remaining users.
My inbox was crickets. I've never refreshed my email so many times.
In those two weeks, we managed to recruit three people. THREE. I was blown away by the lack of response and knew my beautiful Google timeline wouldn't work.
To combat the poor recruitment timeline, I started to get creative with solutions. I went beyond the cold emailing and reached out to people on:
- Craigslist (yes, that was still a thing back then)
- Facebook/LinkedIn communities and groups
- Reddit forums
I then asked any participants I spoke to if they had anyone in mind that I could talk to, which is an approach called the snowball technique. I then offered an extra incentive if that person could find me another participant.
Finally, I started building a database of users. This was a bit before the time of participant databases, so mine lived in an excel spreadsheet until I migrated it to Salesforce.
I asked participants if they wanted to be a part of our community (and had a landing page for this as well) and if it was okay to reach out to them for more research. If yes, I added them to this database. I also used this to conduct customer days and created a community forum for constant feedback.
It took me nine months to hit 100 participants—so remember that this can be slow-moving—but it is incredibly beneficial and foundational work.
Remove the headache from recruitment
The team at Steady needed to generate user personas, but how do you recruit participants when you're still trying to establish who your audience is?
See how they were able to quickly recruit 50 quality participants for their longitudinal study, identify personas, and encourage leadership to share their findings at conferences with dscout.
✔ Data analytics
I wasn't a big fan of data to begin with, despite my background in statistics. Data at some of the B2B organizations I worked at made my head spin.
It can be extremely difficult to set up great data and product analytics within B2B, and sometimes organizations don't prioritize that work. So, I struggled whenever I wanted to look into product usage or understand current metrics.
But I had always been taught that triangulation was incredibly important as a researcher, especially when I still had smaller-than-ideal sample sizes from my lack of participants.
I got creative in triangulating data through:
✔ Rolling research programs
Since recruitment took so long, I decided to roll with it (did you see the pun?).
I created a rolling (or continuous) research program. Through this program, I aimed to speak with 15-25 users per quarter for a particular project or initiative.
For example, one big project we wanted to accomplish was creating our first persona. However, we were still struggling with slow recruitment. I finally decided to stop working against what was happening and work within our constraints. I made it a point to speak with 20 of the segment we determined for our persona over the quarter.
By acknowledging upfront that this initiative would take time and working within our constraints, no one was as frustrated, and I could focus on other, smaller projects while still accomplishing this larger goal.
In the end, we finished that persona right at the end of the quarter, and it felt like a huge accomplishment while working with limitations. Even when recruitment got more accessible, I continued with the rolling research program for more extensive projects with a more flexible timeline.
Try these out!
Whether in B2B or B2C, these approaches are all worth trying, especially if you’re struggling with the above. Sometimes as researchers, we don't get time to think about our craft and process, so it’s essential to take a step back and understand where we are struggling and why to fix it.
As a caveat, and for someone who likes to do things yesterday, these strategies take time to implement and take effect. So I recommend giving yourself the time, space, and grace to try these different approaches and see how they work.
Since every business is different, you might have to alter these strategies to fit your exact organization. But that is the beauty of what we do. We can constantly experiment, iterate, and improve our process!
Interested in other articles like this? Check out...
- The team at Headspace needed to better understand new users' motivations for joining to ensure they gave them the best onboarding process possible. See how they were able to recruit the right participants, deepen the team's shared understanding of their users, and build empathy across the org so they could take the data and run with it.
- It's in the DNA of tech startups to pivot. How do you react when you're halfway through your UX research? Here are five tips for staying agile in an ever-changing work environment.
- Cross-team collaboration is essential to ensuring user research becomes an org-wide priority. Learn how to build better working relationships with account management, product, sales, marketing, and executive teams with our collaboration playbook series.
Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs.
To get even more UXR nuggets, check out her user research membership, follow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.