The Rise of the UX Ombudsman

We design for humans — whether we call it User-centered DesignCustomer ExperienceService Design or Design Thinking — our focus is on human needs and human interactions with our products. In our design approach, we interview customers to get insights, and we test on users to validate our products. But a question I’ve asked myself: is this really enough? Should we only invite users at certain points, or should we always involve them in every step of the way? Do we perhaps need to appoint a “UX Ombudsman”?

In a recent First Round Review articleSteve El-Hage explains how Massdrop, a “Community Commerce” platform, invites power users into their product development process. Steve uses the term “mini product manager” to describe how these influential users are involved in designing the platform.

“If someone truly has a great vision, we basically make them an unofficial mini product manager. We ask them to walk us though all their thinking. We ask them what they would do if they had more resources. We ask them what they would do after shipping the feature to optimize its capabilities. We don’t just take their proposal at face value — we tell them, ‘This is yours. You own it. You’re inventing it.’”
- Steve El-Hage

Imagine having that opportunity? Maybe you have a product or service that you love? Do you have ideas to share? If you were given the chance to be involved, would you take it?

The first time I heard of something similar was by David Noelwho explained that Product Owners at SoundCloud closely collaborate with so-called “Community Representatives”, who act in the interest of the user base.

After I read the article about Massdrop, something clicked. Are we seeing a trend?

The term “Crowdsourcing” seems a bit dated in this day and age. But the concept is quite remarkable: Customers are empowered to share their opinions about a company’s products and services, even enabled to give ideas on new inventions. An example such as “My Starbucks Idea” shows the true potential. However, the fundamental flaw with Crowdsourcing is that it’s one-way communication. Submitting a form on a website is not the same as hearing the customer’s full story. Writing in a field on a website is quite different than collaborating in real life.

Massdrop and SoundCloud are taking Crowdsourcing to the next level. They are inviting customers to be a part of product development and be the voices of the user base.

Have you heard the term Ombudsman before? It’s a common profession in a government setting. The term stems from Sweden, but has been spread around the world. An Ombudsman is someone who independently works for the public’s interest.

“An ombudsman or public advocate is usually appointed by the government or by parliament, but with a significant degree of independence, who is charged with representing the interests of the public…”
- Wikipedia

Are Massdrop and SoundCloud essentially appointing UX Ombudsmen: customers who are representing the user base to better the user experience? Someone who…

  • champions the voice of the user base
  • ascertains that the customer’s viewpoint is always at the heart of product development
  • is a source of insights and ideas

In Tim Brown’s opus on Design Thinking: “Change By Design”, he recommends that designers should seek out extreme users in their creative process.

“Extreme users are often the key to inspirational insights. These are the specialists, the aficionados, the outright fanatics who experience the world in unexpected ways. They force us to project our thinking to the edges of our existing customer base and expose issues that would otherwise be disguised. Seek out extreme users and think of them as a creative asset.”

As Mr. Brown recommends, try to recruit one or more of these “extreme users”. They could be an invaluable source of ideas in bettering the experience of your products. Maybe even one of them could be your next “UX Ombudsman”?