September 21, 2006

Call for "User Advocate" Position

Microsoft's Windows Media Center 2005 woke me up at night by making two sounds and turning on the screen. Presumably this was a result of an auto update and reboot. But whatever the cause, having a product targeted for home and bedroom use that can ever wake the user up by its "normal" behavior is totally unacceptable.

I set the alarm on my Palm Treo 650 to wake me up for a morning appointment and was frustrated that I overslept because the alarm never went off. Despite the beautifully clear interface for setting the alarm, and the clear hardware switch that silences all sounds, I didn't see that the hardware switch had silenced the alarm. The interface that lets you set the alarm doesn't tell you that all sounds are turned off.

Adobe Reader 7.0 displays an annoying advertisement in the upper right corner of the window that changes every once in a while and thus continually distracts me, interrupting me from my reading. It turns out that you can turn this purposeful annoyance off through the “Edit->Preferences->Startup->Show Messages and automatically update” menu. This was clearly done to make it very difficult to find while giving Adobe plausable deniability if customers complained. I want to let them know that I am aware of their anti-consumer tricks.

Google's Picasa photo-management software politely saves edits to photos separately from the original photo so the original photo is not damaged. But many times I want to modify the original photo and there is no way to do this. Even if you export the edited photo back into the original directory, it gives the photo a new name rather than overwriting the original. And if you manually delete the original and replace it with the exported one, then the edits are mistakenly applied a second time to the edited photo. Surely I am not the only person that wants to crop their photos and see those crops reflected in other photo browsers? Yet there is no way to do this.

The User Advocate

All too often, users of software find themselves frustrated by the user interface of a company's product because of decisions the designers made that may not have taken into account the customer's particular use scenario. Perhaps because of how the customer integrates the product into their work flow involving other tools or perhaps because the user is not part of the product's targetted demographic, things just don't work right. And sometimes these problems occur day after day, and there is a clear solution waiting to be implemented – if only the company would realize it. The challenge is that even for loyal customers that want to help the company, there is often no way for them to give this feedback. And there is no way for users to know that there are masses of other users out there that feel the same way.

I thus call for a new "User Advocate" position within all end-user software companies, similar to "Ombudsman" or "Public Editor" in other contexts. The User Advocate's role would be to cross product lines and business units and communicate directly with the public to understand their concerns, and to communicate them within corporation.

The User Advocate position should have the following characteristics:
  • Reports directly to upper-level executive, and must not be affiliated with any business unit, product team, or organizational structure.
  • Has vocal executive support, with encouragement to all in company to be responsive to his/her requests for information.
  • Has ability to receive input directly from the public - probably through a website that could process, cluster, and tag comments. This would require technical development and some special mechanisms to limit volume. I.e., could require a human entry using a CAPTCHA (human detector), and a valid email address or mobile telephone # that limits suggestions to, say, one per month. Or make these valuable in a way that encourages a market for them, and limit to just a few per year.
  • Has a dedicated team to support above-mentioned technology and communication.
  • Has public venue to communicate to the public on corporate property (i.e., company webpage or blog).
Of course most companies already have a significant focus on usability and have dedicated tremendous resources to understanding user requests and usability problems through each group's product management team, but based on what I hear about user's feelings about just about every company's products, it is not enough. I believe that this failure is partly due to a focus on usability within the business units that create the products, and thus are somewhat blinded to real user experiences. This can come from many things, including different products interacting with each other, from real-world use environments that differ from those that are tested, and from differing expectations among product teams and users. It is for all these reasons that I advocate a new executive role focused specifically on the user. As a cross-divisional role, such a person could oversee and manage a company-wide user-focused strategy.

The primary goals of this call are to: 1) improve the products by having a direct mechanism to learn from the public and influence products outside of the normal command chain; and 2) improve public perception of the company by providing an outlet for user concerns, and proof that those concerns are being listened to.

There is a lot of frustration out there in the world of computing. My favorite current analyses of the situation comes from two current studies. The first study is of people's feelings of rage towards computers, separated by Windows and Apple. The second study, led by my colleague Ben Shneiderman, looks at user frustration, and finds that of 111 students and 50 professionals; more than 40% of the time using the computer is wasted in one way or another.

Other models
There are other models for positions similar to a user advocate in other industries. The most notable of which is the Public Editor introduced at the New York Times a few years ago who has had significant success in effecting culture change to improve the newspaper in difficult, but important ways. The public editor is employed by the NY Times, and is given a prominent place to publish his independent views in the Week in Review section about two Sundays a month. He is independent of all departments and presumably reports to executives directly. He communicates with and represents the public's interests. He has direct access to all employees. Most impressively, he writes openly about trends, policies and individual articles in the Times. His existence makes it abundantly clear to every reader that while not every action of the Times may be perfect, they are making an honest attempt to do a good a job as possible, and they are open to public comment and to change.

Many other institutions have an ombuds office (ombudsman) whose role is to provide an impartial, independent and confidential resource for employees, students, etc. This role has been in use since the 19th century when it was initially used to investigate citizens' complaints against governmental agencies.


As with any ambitious project, there will be challenges. Some issues I foresee are:
  • There is a potential for friction between the user advocate and the individual product management teams. This position only has the potential of working if it comes with real power for the advocate and strong backing from the highest levels of the company. The goal of the user advocate is to convince the product managers of problems so they want to change their products to reduce user frustration.
  • There is likely to be a fear of publicly admitting fault. This is wrongheaded. Politicians and the public have shown over and over that people much prefer the admission of honest mistakes over hiding the obvious. Furthermore, by exposing problems that everyone knows to be true, it will put internal pressure to fix them, and this pressure is apparently needed since the problems are not getting fixed well enough without it.
  • This could be perceived as an attempt to replicate or renounce the excellent internal design and usability work done within product groups. The user advocate would not be concerned with day to day design characteristics and feature sets that were decided on by sound business analyses. Rather, the user advocate would focus on show stopping user experiences that product groups may be unaware of, or are outside the control of the product group because the experience is a result of feature interaction between multiple products or happen in real life outside the scope of internal testing.
  • There is the potential for increased legal exposure when faults are admitted. The larger point is that this is a strategy to improve products and improve public perception of the company which in the long run will reduce legal attacks. In the short term, there is no reason that the user advocate can not work with legal counsel to minimize legal exposure without abrogating his/her core responsibilities to the public.
Many companies produce incredibly sophisticated software that is wonderful in many ways - and yet fall flat in a few key ways that continuously irritate their customers. As software becomes more and more competitive, especially in the home markets, companies must focus on "delighting the user" in order to be successful in a landscape of growing competition.

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