Six Practical Tips for Conducting Qualitative Research with 
Small Business Owners

All illustrations by Irek Jania

Over the last three years, I’ve run several research studies at Groupon with small business owners and managers both in the US and the UK. Understanding these individuals (we refer to them as “merchants”) their beliefs, needs, and their environment is critical to building products that truly add value and help them build long-lasting relationships with their customers.


I am always humbled by merchants’ passion, work ethic, and true devotion to making every interaction with their customers both memorable and excellent. One of my favorite quotes that captures this best comes from a restaurant owner who said: “We are not in the food business, we are in the people business.”

Researching the small business population can be tricky. A month into my new position at Groupon, I was looking for tips on recruiting small business owners and quickly realized there was almost nothing available online (except two short articles). I felt completely on my own, overwhelmed, and worried. Not only was I responsible for running the study but, being part of a tiny research team, I was also the de facto recruiter.

I hope the following tips based on my experiences (and mistakes!) will help any researcher just starting up in this space or perhaps encourage others to share their success stories.


1 Build extra time for recruiting.

Small business owners and managers are extremely busy and have very little time to spare. They often wear many hats and are responsible not only for the “glamorous” business aspects but also managing their employees, solving any and all customer service issues, providing the services, and often even cleaning. When asked what they do, I often hear “Everything!”

Now imagine these merchants being asked by a researcher (a role that is fairly obscure and somewhat intimidating) to take time out of their busy days to answer a series of questions. It’s not an easy sell! But there are ways to ensure your recruiting efforts are successful.

Start with your name and explain you are not selling anything. This simple statement will prevent many merchants from hanging up= or hitting “delete email”. Plan to spend extra time and effort recruiting but also be prepared for no-shows. This means you may need to over recruit — more than double (or triple) for a diary study. Consider having a couple of back-ups (yes, you might need to pay them even if they don’t participate) for any phone or in-person interviews.

For field studies, set clear expectations of where and when the interview will take place. Most businesses are happy to have you come in to their location and will be proud to give you a tour.

It gets trickier when you interview owners of food trucks or restaurants on a bus (yes, they do exist). One solution is to let the participant recommend a quiet spot that’s convenient for them. We’ve successfully conducted interviews at cafes and even hotel restaurants.


2 Plan for seasonal busy times.

Beware of calling a restaurant owner during lunch time (yes, I have done that once and it was quite a rookie mistake). Or a gym manager in January. Figure out when they might have slower times of the day, week, and even the year. Some businesses are very slow in August, while December is busy for most retail locations.

How do you figure most optimal timing to contact your potential small business participants? Learn from your sales team. I’ve met some amazing people across Groupon’s sales orgs, from business development employees to sales operations and support. They are a great source of knowledge when trying to understand your potential participants, the best ways to recruit them, and what times to avoid. They also already have a ton of valuable, first-hand knowledge and might be tracking data relevant to your upcoming study. I sometimes start my studies with internal employee interviews and add their hypotheses to my research test plans.


3 Get creative with incentives.

How do you convince a busy multitasking manager to take an hour or more of their time to show and tell you how they work? A reward can be a powerful incentive, but think of how much their time is really worth. Err on the side of generosity, and be prepared to either pay more than you usually would your consumers or offer something extra.

Small gestures like bringing donuts or other small treats can also go a long way towards showing your appreciation. Just make sure you bring enough for the entire staff. (One tip I want to share from personal experience: avoid coffee as it is very messy, will get cold by the time you arrive, and people are often very specific about what they like.)

What if your recruiting criteria means you’re after a very niche group from a tiny pool of people (fewer than 20)? Get creative. We once had to recruit a small group of managers and ended up showing up at various locations with a small potted bamboo plant, a business card, and an invitation to the study written in three different languages. Needless to say, it worked!

Be sure to also think about how you’ll distribute your incentives. For instance, we learned it’s much easier to recruit in the UK if you offer cash, while a digital gift card link works just fine in the US.


4 Be prepared (and prepare others) for the unexpected.

Be ready to go with the flow and set the right expectations with your stakeholders. I’ve run studies while seated at nail drying stations, restaurant dining tables, and even sitting on top of a massage table while my stakeholders sat on tiny stools and on the floor. As long as you can plug in your laptop, you will be just fine.

It’s also important to be patient and understanding. As I said, merchants are busy and have a lot on their minds. I’ve shown up to appointments on time only to learn the manager who was “on the way” is actually 45 minutes late or finishing a service on their client which took a full hour. Merchants have also mixed up the times, i.e. “I thought you were coming at noon, not 10 am” despite receiving a 24-hour reminder. These types of situations may occur in any research setting, yet based on my experience are slightly more common with merchants. It’s okay. As frustrating as these situations can be in the moment, learn from them and remember they will make great stories later on.

Whenever I run field visits, I always allow extra time before and after the session for travel and for debriefing afterwards. Don’t assume your stakeholders will remember to build the extra time into their schedule either. Help them by sending Google calendar invites so the time slot is already blocked off. Include details like where to meet prior to the study; the participants’ name and location; and the estimated travel time plus a link with directions. As my coworker discovered, Google allows texting direction links right to your cell phone, which is super handy when you’re in the field.


5 In the field, less is more so leave your gadgets at home.

Unlike lab studies, field research is all about being scrappy. Invest in a comfortable backpack as it will seem to weigh twice as much at the end of the day, especially if you end up taking public transportation and walking a lot.

In addition to your laptop and your phone, don’t forget to pack your charging cable, a portable hotspot (so your prototype can work), a backup phone battery, and a notebook. A clip-on microphone is small yet will help capture the audio in loud locations, such as restaurants and beauty salons that often play music. Bring extra pens as inevitably you or one of your teammates will need one.

I used to bring a small camera with but you can take great photos on your smartphone as well. Have a small bag with all the connection cables you might need and an old-school mouse. If your session includes showing an online prototype or a website, keep in mind not every participant is familiar with a laptop trackpad and you want them to be comfortable when testing on your computer.

If traveling abroad, bring a couple of outlet converters. Don’t forget in some countries you have to switch the outlet on for it to work.


6 Get your stakeholders up to speed.

One of the greatest advantages or running field studies is bringing along various stakeholders to the field sessions with you. Being behind the scenes at a small business is quite an eye-opening experience for many people, even front-line employees.

We always try to invite a wide array of cross-functional partners including designers, product managers, content strategists, engineers, sales reps, and customer support agents. Not only do they get first-hand exposure to merchants, they also often become great advocates for the value of your research.

Prior to running each field study I usually set up a meeting with all my stakeholders who are “newbies” to field research. I try to help them understand what to expect (the unexpected), bring (pen and a notebook), say (ask open-ended questions at the very end and don’t correct anyone) and do (if you are offered water, please do accept it).

Leave some time to answer any and all questions to make sure everyone is ready and relaxed on the day of the study. I often get asked about what to wear, if they can bring their laptop, if they will have time to ask questions, etc. Be patient in answering even the silly questions and throw in a few anecdotes from past research. Do emphasize how important it is for them to be open-minded and take great notes.


To sum it all up:

1 Build extra time for recruiting.
2 Plan for seasonal busy times.
3 Get creative with incentives.
4 Be prepared (and prepare others) for the unexpected.
5 In the field, less is more so leave your gadgets at home.
6 Don’t forget your stakeholders.

I hope you will find researching small business owners and managers as fascinating and rewarding as I do. I am always amazed how many hypotheses we can help validate by triangulating our field study findings with other data points. The videos and photos we capture often speak louder than several bullet-points on a slide and are quite powerful in changing company-wide assumptions.

Have any tips you’d like to share? Feel like I missed something? I’d love to learn from you. Please add in your comments below or send a direct message.

Special thanks to the amazing content strategist Tae Kim for his editorial magic and eye for details and to Irek Jania for lending his talent to create the beautiful illustrations.

Here are a couple more helpful articles about the subject: 
Ethnography and Small Businesses by Laith Ulaby, Shyp

Looking in before looking out: a field guide for field researchers by Leia Atkinson, Shopify