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Field Reports

Giving Voice to Small Businesses and Their Workers

Erin Duncan, a Design Research Manager at Intuit QuickBooks outlines a case study in consumer-led research and shares best practices for engaging stakeholders early.

Words by Ben Wiedmaier, Visuals by Allison Corr

Erin Duncan is part of Intuit, the global technology platform that makes TurboTax, QuickBooks, Mint, Credit Karma, and Mailchimp. She is part of the research and insights team supporting small businesses and their workers, a group experiencing a variety of changes accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As she and her team were building and improving software solutions for these folks to stay afloat, more questions surfaced about the employees of these smaller firms who were also acutely affected. The Intuit QuickBooks team wanted to increase their knowledge of these people, who are often overlooked as just a part of the workforce monolith, and use it to create technology for small businesses with their employees in mind.

It was also a way to glean a different, though just as important, perspective into their small business base. In other words, what could Intuit QuickBooks learn about small businesses and their experiences from the vantage point of the employees making it all happen?

If Intuit QuickBooks solutions involved—as users themselves—small business employees, then it made perfect sense for the team to gain insights into their experience just as much as the small business employers.

Additionally, Erin, along with her research partners Mark Vachon and Jennifer Price, provided customer context to the product organization to support their roadmap development.

Intuit QuickBooks has and is developing a number of products for small businesses to grow and run their business, which—again—likely impact small business employees in one way or another. This work would not only support an immediate experience need, but inform and permeate much of what Intuit QuickBooks wanted to do in the future.

dscout: What was your approach to designing this research?

Erin: Our work starts by putting customers first in everything we do. This customer obsession begins with listening and paying close attention to the lives of our customers so we can understand both their dreams and the challenges they face, and then measuring success by the only metric that matters—how much we’ve improved their lives: have we saved them time and money, and are they more confident in the financial decisions they make?

We decided that if we want to understand small business workers, it's not just a point in time. And having done work on a project to follow some small businesses over the course of 90 days through dscout, we felt like, "Oh, a longitudinal study is the way in here. We need to understand small business workers, and of course the pandemic means we can't necessarily be out in the field watching people, interviewing people."

What was really important to us is that we wanted to get a sampling that closely matched the demographics and socioeconomics for that profile of the people who work for small businesses and make sure that our sample reflected that.

It was also important that we have a broad representation across the country. dscout was able to offer that for us and it's something that even if we were to try to leverage some of our own data of the workers that we pay through past research, we wouldn't have been able to get that information...we wouldn't have been able to be that true to the population.

The variety of participants and their perspectives was so rich, and so it's me championing what dscout could let us do and who it gave us access to.

Another reason we chose a Diary study was because we wanted to understand these folks over time, and we know everybody's day is a little different, but Mark and I really wanted to understand, "What are the highs and lows of working for a small business?" It was about building that rapport where we could then start to ask them questions that are more about the financial aspect of being a small business worker.

Just like you would craft an in-depth interview, there's an arc to your story, to be able to build that rapport, to then be able to go deeper and deeper. And because we have a longitudinal study, we're able to build trust in the earlier phases, which allowed us to get really, really rich information when it came to the later pieces where we were asking them to be really candid about their financial tools, situations, hopes, dreams, struggles. That rapport was there.

Lastly, we wanted to be flexible, because you really don't know what you're going to be surprised by when the research starts. We had the majority of the diary study designed in advance, but added and edited a few aspects toward the end based on what we were seeing earlier; that helped us create more accurate prompts and reflected the trends and themes we were seeing.

What was really important to us is that we wanted to get a sampling that closely matched the demographics and socioeconomics for that profile of the people who work for small businesses and make sure that our sample reflected that. It was also important that we have a broad representation across the country, dscout was able to offer that for us.

Erin Duncan
Manager, Design Research & Insights at Intuit

Given the breadth of impact this work could have, how did you coordinate or keep looped-in stakeholders and collaborators?

We wanted to get a core team that had representation from engineering, design, product management, and marketing. But of course people are always moving and shifting, and people have other responsibilities, so they would participate along the way. It was great that dscout was an unmoderated platform in the way we could have the data, and then set aside specific time at the end of each week to work on it together.

We set up a Slack channel to post updates like clips, themes, and key observations as we went through each part of the diary mission. And as we were doing that, buzz was building.

We kept pushing learnings to that channel to keep awareness and stimulate the conversation, because we knew there were parallel pieces of research happening that could benefit from our work. Our stakeholders would drop clarification or follow-up questions in and we'd turn around and ask those of the scouts, deepening our understanding and linking it directly to team needs.

We had a core team that would meet at the end of each week to debrief on what we learned, things we were seeing in the data, surprises. We each took a portion of the sample to help streamline analysis and synthesis, but the data were so compelling that I found it hard to keep to my segment! It's a bit like a reality show—a lens into folks’ real lives—and that is such a force-multiplier for empathy building.

The engagement was really strong. The quick clips—people loved the intimacy—the directness that came from it. The momentum built, and more and more people were drawn to it. Because of that, we were able to do another, unplanned follow-up session with the scouts about how they might use a specific tool. That build-out wasn't explicitly part of our study, but it was really relevant and provided a bridge to some of the concrete things the team was doing in the interim.

We also published when we were conducting Live interview sessions and extended invitations for folks to observe. Many of our designers came to those sessions—their designs and concepts were the focus so it made sense—but we also had product managers.

Folks liked accessing the recordings, too, in case they couldn't watch in real-time. The recordings are so critical for stakeholders as they build and refine based on them without any framing from us. It's that initiative and interest that really makes those recordings useful.

The variety of participants and their perspectives was so rich, and so it's me championing what dscout could let us do and who it gave us access to.

Erin Duncan
Manager, Design Research & Insights at Intuit

And what did analysis and synthesis look like in this approach and can you share any learnings about small business workers?

When it came to actually synthesizing the data, we had a divide-and-conquer method. We used MURAL boards. We had a MURAL board for almost every part.

We each had dedicated scouts that we were responsible for synthesizing and keeping up with; and then at the end of every week, we'd have a team synthesis session with our cross-functional core partners.

The core research team (Mark, Jennifer and I) was constantly processing the data as it came in, pushing what we thought was great to keep the interest going, then pushing explicit things out to the cross-functional team members, and then every Friday we'd have an hour-and-a-half long just debrief discussion, synthesis session.

And then after all of that, when we had the data from the live sessions, it was the core research team going through it really trying to make those connections, getting to the, "So what?" of all the information.

As for learnings, we discovered a lot of motivations for starting in and sticking with small businesses from the worker standpoint. Some people intentionally choose to work at a small business because of the things that it offers, like flexibility and feeling part of the business in a real way.

It's also that work-life balance, because it's close to home and doesn't require a commute, or they get to learn the business firsthand; they might want to be an entrepreneur themselves. At Intuit our mission is to power prosperity around the world. Intuit QuickBooks does this by leveling the playing field so small owners can succeed in the world that is out there.

There was a participant who was an immigrant, and has multiple master's degrees in her native country, but came to the states and described how the only job she could get was volunteer work. So, for her, the small business job was a great chance, and she described how it was challenging but that she is grateful for the learning. She described learning so much that she is now pursuing her own consultancy. Small businesses can serve as a launch for many folks who might be shut out of the traditional employment paths.

And as we were unpacking the experience of small business workers, we were conducting Live interview sessions with employees to get a sense of the overlap or differences and what opportunities there might be in those spaces.

We'd share general findings from our work with small business workers with a set of small business owners in order to get a fuller picture: Are they hearing these things? How might the information we're seeing be communicated to business owners, and what might that mean for the solutions we're building? The picture is bigger, but not always clearer.

What's the worker experience? What do they need? And is that something that we can offer? Our ideal outcome would be one where both small business owners and their employees feel supported. Those mutual benefits are all the more timely given the challenge it is to retain workers.

The combination of open-ends, closed-ends, and certainly the video is really powerful, helps me distill insights that move the needle with a specific stakeholder; it's not one-size fits all.

Erin Duncan
Manager, Design Research & Insights at Intuit

The Intuit QuickBooks team has used dscout a few times now. Do you have advice for another team considering using the method?

I think the fact that Diary is unmoderated is great because, although there might be bias in the questions that you're offering—you do your work to prevent that—but your energy (as a researcher) isn't necessarily there to bias it either. It's certainly different than in a moderated interview.

Of course, it was nice to have both types of studies in this single project. We did the diary study and the live session, and it was great that the diary studies were unmoderated, so we could get some of who they are without us... them trying to mirror or respond to our perspective, and then we got to know them a bit better in the live session.

The core format of doing a longitudinal study is that we are not just capturing one moment in time, and even just having a few makes an impact in the analysis. It doesn't have to be over weeks like ours was.

That was really intense and robust, but it was an audience that was basically unknown to us, and depth in the study was needed. But just to get to know people over a span of time, you get so much... you get the seasons of their life. There are more data points there, but you build that relationship, and you get to see things and learn about things that you wouldn't otherwise.

I think socializing the findings and insights, big or small, is critical. We pushed it out to our Slack channel, and the more we do that, the more energy because hearing it in that scout's voice, just hits stakeholders—design, anybody—in such a different way. Even if you have the verbatim, it's that intimacy—they're telling you—has so much power.

The last thing I want to mention is this idea that there's never enough time. dscout is really fast, especially considering the depth that's captured from folks. And again, because some tools are unmoderated, you can launch something and pick up another workflow, then return to the data to check in on things, see what's happening, and share things out.

The combination of open-ends, closed-ends, and certainly the video is really powerful, helps me distill insights that move the needle with a specific stakeholder; it's not one-size fits all.

So what has the impact been—what’s next?

What we learned and our success with dscout Diary set off a chain of other adjacent research and product explorations. Directly related to this worker research, several teams have been iterating on solutions to help small business employees who are paid with QuickBooks Payroll.

As far as research, we are just now kicking off a follow-up quant study to help us understand our small business worker findings at scale, providing us another dimension to the story.

It’s easy to say ‘work is work’ and employees at an organization or business of any size share common struggles and aspirations. However, working for a small business is different from working for a large one, and that difference should be recognized, respected, and celebrated.

By keeping our focus on our customer, and not the solutions we create, it ensures that we continue to work on what matters most to them.

Ben is the product evangelist at dscout, where he spreads the “good news” of contextual research, helps customers understand how to get the most from dscout, and impersonates everyone in the office. He has a doctorate in communication studies from Arizona State University, studying “nonverbal courtship signals”, a.k.a. flirting. No, he doesn’t have dating advice for you.

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