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July 15, 2014

How To ***REALLY*** Advocate for the Customer

I occasionally see job ads for "customer advocates" or "customer evangelists". They all turn out to be sales and marketing, that is, advocating or evangelizing stuff to the would-be user.

That is so ass-backwards that it makes me foam at the mouth.

A truly useful and inspiring product is something that people seek out, that before it came along is something people say "I wish there was a way I could..." and when they discover it they often are ecstatic with delight.

Anything else has to be sold, often with lots of expensive propaganda.

So, what then should a user advocate do, especially in an established company with an established product line?

Certainly not marketing. There's a whole department for that already, with slick ads and all.

A true "user advocate" works for the customer. This means that they listen to the users, feel their pain, understand their needs and use cases, and then bring those pains, needs and uses back to the business as requirements!! They are the people who yell on internal mailing lists when your stuff breaks and screws up the customer's day. They are the ones who file bug after bug because your redesign served 95% of your users, but screwed the hell out of the 5% power users who bring the other 95% to the product or use 95% of the product (I'm looking at you, Microsoft "ribbon".)

But no one hires for this. They all look for slavish yes-men who will work within the guru driven flavor of the week to churn out poorly designed, half-assed software on short deadlines (the Agile fallacy) and compete bitterly with each other for a few crumbs in the stack-ranked corporate hunger games.

So, why don't companies want real user advocates? Don't they want to delight their users with products that do things for them? Or is their real customer a schlock advertiser who tries to sell them more useless stuff, crap diets, dubious supplements, or sleazy sex? Even then, most advertisers aren't happy either.

A real user advocate needs to be willing to dig in and become an actual power user of the product. They need to hang out on the user forums and support groups, but not "taking calls" and be measured by issues "resolved" per hour. They need to go to trade shows, job fairs, and other places that users congregate, then ask questions about pain points and wishes and listen to the answers. But only marketing even tries to do this, and they are too busy talking about the product to listen to the users!

So, to paraphrase TRON, who fights for the users? Will your company hire someone to do this, and give them the power and influence to accomplish it? Or will you let a bunch of "evangelists" who have no listening skills tell you what they think the users want? Which product will be better in the long run?

Posted by ljl at July 15, 2014 09:32 AM


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