Contextual Ethnographic Research in B2B Markets

3 Common Mistakes (and Tips to Avoid Them)

John Bernero

October 2 nd 2019 | 7 minute read

This article has been edited from the original version dated May 2013.

There are many “best practices” articles on the topic of contextual ethnographic research available online. However, very few of these speak to the contextual research mistakes made in B2B markets. Here you’ll learn the three most common pitfalls of B2B ethnographic research — and how to avoid making them yourself.

In consumer product research you can spend a day at a gas station to observe and talk to drivers about their experiences at a fuel pump. But with B2B markets you need special permission to observe an end user in their environment.

You cannot simply walk into a hospital to observe a surgeon performing a procedure.

Nor can you walk into an oil refinery to observe maintenance workers doing their job. And, if you do get the access needed for these kinds of research experiences, you may be limited in what you can observe and will be escorted most of the time.

Then how do you set up your field research for success in the face of these challenges? To help illuminate your best options, consider the three most common pitfalls of B2B market contextual research:

  • Failing to establish rapport with research subjects
  • Neglecting to prep the person escorting you within the facility
  • Assuming you will be properly immersed in the users’ environment

Failing to establish rapport with research subjects

If there is anything you need to remember for your next research project, it is that building a positive relationship with research subjects is critical. Users do not like to be observed because it gives them the feeling that you are critiquing or testing them. But counter to that, you want the research participant to act and work naturally as if you weren’t there.

An easy way to do this is to make the person feel valued in the research being conducted. Speak to them ahead of time. Make sure to do this away from their workstation to explain the goals of the research and items you’re interested in learning more about. This can also be done ahead of time over the phone or over a meal or drink. By seeing you as a researcher looking for ways to improve their job or workflow, they will begin to treat you as a VIP rather than the “annoying visitor.”

With this tactic, I’ve had surgeons verbally commentate what they are trying to do (or can’t do) or even stop during the surgery to point out a problem they commonly have.

Tip #1: For successful B2B field observation, establish rapport with participants prior to engaging in the research. Talk with them five minutes, hours or even days ahead of the planned research. Always plan for at least a short conversation with your research subject prior to starting the research. And do not forget to thank the individuals for their participation before you leave (no matter if you learned something or not) and ask if you can come back in the future.

Neglecting to prep the person escorting you within the facility

Since you cannot simply walk into a hospital or an oil refinery, you need to plan ahead to be allowed in. Once you arrive, you’ll likely need to be escorted within the facility. To get around this limitation, many B2B manufacturers rely on their sales reps to initially gain access to these restricted areas. The good news is that the sales reps are great at making this happen, but they may also tag along during the research. Alternatively, you may have a security or facility person join.

The problem with these escorts is they are there during the research and are usually untrained in your research methods. They can inadvertently interject or derail your research by providing their unprompted thoughts and opinions. Like in the prior establishing rapport tip, have a discussion prior to entering the facility about the research goals and objectives. Explain your expectations for user and facility access, and ask these potential escorts to withhold questions or opinions until the end so their input does not influence the research results.

Sales reps are notorious here. They like to provide solutions and ensure their customers have what they need. But in research, we are trying to uncover latent user needs and problems – not solve them on the spot. Don’t let poorly executed research turn into a sales call instead. Explain how this research effort will arm the sales rep with a future pipeline of well-informed products by identifying unmet needs and improvements. Sales reps have a very difficult job, and if they have been selected to work with you on a new product development project, they are probably very good at what they do. However, don’t forget that a sales rep is motivated by very different objectives than yours. Focus on what you have in common: creating and offering great products that are easy to sell. Also, be sure to ask if there are any sensitive topics or special circumstances at the account that he or she would like you to avoid. This lets the sales rep know you appreciate the value of the relationship they’ve built. Doing so may prevent the sales rep from feeling the need to dominate the interaction in order to preserve that relationship.

Despite good intentions, the escort may still interject. If this starts to happen, pull the escort aside and politely explain how they could be inadvertently influencing the research and that you want to hear from them later.

Tip #2: Set expectations with those responsible for brokering the visits. Go over the research plan with them and remind them what their role is (and isn’t). When they interject, politely let them know and make a point to get their input afterward.

Assuming you will be properly immersed in the users’ environment

A primary objective of field research is to immerse the researcher in-context to identify unmet needs. This cannot be accomplished with web research or by watching videos on YouTube. Proper pre-planning is required to get you into the facility instead of observing users through a window – or worse.

The benefit of being in-context is that you can better understand the interactions between people and equipment while tasks are performed.

It allows you to understand the environment, noise levels, lighting, and other aspects influencing users’ ability to accomplish tasks.

To prevent a lack-of-immersion situation, ensure your escort is aware you do not wish to simply speak with random individuals during their work break. Detail out what and how you want to observe tasks, who you need to meet with, and how you plan on recording the research. In healthcare field research it can be a challenge to record audio, images, or video due to confidentiality reasons. There are recording methods that can used to avoid capturing sensitive data during the research. If required to video record a surgical procedure, you can have the patient sign a release form ahead of time.

There may be times that you will be unable to see what you need because of safety or line-of-sight issues (i.e., unable to see what a surgeon is doing because they are working through a small incision). To help alleviate those situations, you can attach a GoPro to the research subject’s head or set up a camera on a tripod – just be sure to do so before your research begins. Make sure you know your equipment so you can hit record and forget about it. Your time in the field is valuable and needs to be spent observing the wider perspective of the room and interactions, not constantly worrying about your equipment.

Contextual research recordings are invaluable for post-research analysis. They allow the project team to immerse and empathize with various users and identify meaningful solutions. You are there to observe and record so you can identify problems without a proper solution. We consider these product innovation opportunities.

Tip # 3: Explain ahead of time what you expect to observe and record. State how close to the task you wish to be. For example, do you want to just observe from 2 feet away or actually be able to interact with the product in context? Do you expect to record video or simply take notes? Think all this through and have the necessary discussions ahead of time to ensure success.

Finally, your 3 best practices for meaningful research insights:

We have found that fewer research visits that are properly set up in this context produce more meaningful insights than larger sample sizes of ad-hoc or poorly planned ones.

In order to effectively perform contextual research in B2B markets, avoid the three most common pitfalls using these best practices:

  • Establish rapport with participants prior to engaging in the research. Engage with them five minutes, hours or even days ahead of the planned research.
  • Set expectations with those responsible for brokering the visits. Go over the research plan with them and remind them what their role is (and isn’t).
  • Explain ahead of time what you expect to observe and record. State how close to the task you wish to be.

Following this advice will improve the quality of your contextual research and help you identify more product innovation opportunities.

About the Author

John Bernero – M3 COO / Director of Engineering