Artwork by Martin Matousek

Reducing the Pain of Recruiting Users in Enterprise UX

How relationship building helps you find your Stevens, Kevins and Byrons

Design-Test is the name of the game for good UX, but what if you don’t have quick and easy access to your target users?

It’s relatively easy to find target users for consumer products and services, but it’s a different story in the enterprise world. Finding enterprise users with specific skills and experience can be tough and getting them to talk to you and show you “real data” in their environment can be even tougher. And having to go through gatekeepers like a sales organization? That can be incredibly frustrating. User-centered design can’t happen without bringing users into the equation. So, how can we make headway in the enterprise world?

Our strategy has been to transform the way we approach user research. We focus first on establishing rapport and building relationships with our end users, and second on gathering data. Why? Because building relationships with users like Steven, Kevin and Byron (each of whom is responsible for keeping complex IT infrastructure up and running at their respective companies) allows us to go back to them or their organization in the future. And, it allows them to feel confident about reaching out to us if they have feedback at any time. The upshot of applying this relationship-centered approach over the past few years is a streamlined and efficient process for recruiting for user research. It’s not unusual for us to email 15 users about participating in a feature walkthrough and get 10 positive responses within hours. When our teams need feedback in a pinch we can make it happen!

Our approach isn’t top secret or rocket science, and we’re happy to share tips and tricks.

Tip #1: Don’t always be all sciencey

Sometimes you need to be sciencey, but oftentimes you don’t.

If you do user research, you’ve probably been taught to keep your tone neutral, to not treat interactions with users like conversations and to not introduce bias by injecting your personality. Our perspective is that, while rigor in user research is important, you don’t need a white coat. You can be a rigorous user researcher who is also friendly and engaging. More often than not, it’s better to treat participants as interesting people rather than research subjects.

Big “R” Research can be scary and off-putting to participants resulting in conversations that don’t always have a normal flow. A participant on the other end of the phone (or even worse, right in front of your face) may not key off of what you’re saying and may even feel put on stage. Sometimes, these somewhat stilted interactions are the trade-off that we need to make when we’re doing competitive studies or blind studies with non-users — and that’s OK.

However, most of our research here revolves around getting feedback on design ideas from existing users who may spend hours every week, or hours every day, using our products. We don’t just want to talk to them once, we want to build a relationship with them so that they’ll meet with us in the future to review other designs or to show us something from their environment.

So, at the beginning of any meeting with current users, we take some time to chat. If it’s our first time talking with them, we might ask about the weather, or sports, or movies, or our personal favorite, food. “Live in Chicago? — I’m going there in a month, where is the best deep dish pizza?” If it’s a user we’ve talked to before, that first few minutes might be spent asking about kids, recent vacations they’ve taken, or what’s been happening in their life or their company since the last time we talked. This small act of being conversational helps put people at ease and provides a foundation for building a relationship. It also can help make talking to UX (dare we say it?) fun.

Tip #2: Ensure that feedback is a two-way street

We reserve the last 5 to 10 minutes of any activity with current users for a “bully pulpit.” Users have free rein to comment on anything from a feature request to a previous support experience or a need for technical help. Anything is fair game. Our job is to follow up and be a conduit: We connect users with the right individuals in the organization to ensure that users’ voices are heard, open issues are resolved, and questions are answered.

We take it a step further, too. We actually build time in our schedules for ad-hoc sessions at user request. If a user emails us to say, “Hey, this feature is really hard to use,” we have a golden opportunity to reach out and reply, “Got a half hour this week? I’d love to learn more about that if you have time to show me.” Users love having the opportunity to show us exactly what’s going on, and in the process, we get to see our product in action in a real user’s environment.

It makes perfect sense that people who feel heard and listened to — especially about a product that they spend a lot of time with — will continue to increase their engagement.

Tip #3: Get those proxy users involved!

Proxy users can be great stand-ins. For example, if you work in health care, HIPAA regulations may make it difficult to engage with medical professionals and observe how they interact with real patient data. It can be equally challenging to get in front of users from financial institutions, government agencies or other organizations with proprietary restrictions. No worries, proxy users are amazing too! We frequently work with sales engineers, support agents, trainers, and partners. These folks regularly interact with end users and can put themselves into the user’s shoes to provide us with the user’s perspective.

The best part? — Nowadays, our proxies actively encourage “real” users to sign up to participate in UX feedback activities. For example, our technical support agents regularly refer users to UX, particularly users who complain about hard-to-use or inefficient features. Being good to proxy users has paid off many times over.

A caveat

One (good!) problem we’ve had to solve for is participants who are so enthusiastic, they’d participate every week if we let them. We want as broad of a pool of users as possible giving feedback on our products; we don’t just want affirmation from our regular participants. We ensure that we don’t talk to specific individuals too much by setting limits on frequency of participation. In fact, our database red-lights users with whom we’ve talked within the last 3 months so that we’re sure to get fresh perspectives in our UX research activities.

Want more?

Our relationship-building approach has transformed the way that UX works at our company. This approach doesn’t fit every situation, but more often than not, we treat UX research as an opportunity to learn a little and make a friend that we can circle back around with, as needed in the future. We’ll have even more tips and tricks on engaging with enterprise users when we present at the UXPA 2016 conference in Seattle: Re-use and Recycle: Building sustainable relationships with your users. Come share your own relationship building stories and share what has worked for you!

A special note of thanks to Steven, Kevin and Byron, real end users who graciously agreed to let us use their likenesses in this post. You guys rock!