In Defense of the Customer Advocate, We Need a Software Ombudsman Role

Over the summer I assisted on a whitepaper regarding "Second screen experiences" for major video game and entertainment properties. (Second screen really just refers to extending games and movie experiences to tablets and phones, etc). I found myself continually surprised over major property holders’ reticence to actually own this, rather than simply do "me too" features developed by outsourced dev houses. To put it another way, people with an almost George Lucas level of control over a particular entertainment property when it came to books or comics or other experiences with their storylines were perfectly happy for a third rate development firm to make their iPhone app or iPad version of their game.

When I asked why there wasn’t someone overseeing the efforts with the same level of "end to end" customer viewpoint that they maintained for their quality of writing or story continuity they looked surprised and said that customers really didn’t expect too much out of alternate experiences yet. They said customers’ expectations of games on tablets and phones were more cartoony and casual as opposed to high fidelity or were relegated to simply being a nice front for a web page or data view rather than a true added value to the experience. Not a single one of the IP owners I talked to had a "butt on the line" for the end-to-end quality of their game’s experience being awesome whether it was on Console, PC, web, or other device. They were designing for the lowest common denominator both of the technology and the customer expectation, without having someone truly own looking at both and trying to maximize the impact and value to the people buying the product.

I asked what if a customer could suspend their game on a console, then grab their tablet and continue where they left off on the bus. I was told no customer expected their tablet to be able to give them the same experience so why bother? I noted tablets now have quad core 64 bit processors, more RAM than the console, and separate GPU’s, why not at least try? Besides, who mandated it had to be the exact same experience? Reasonable customers would know there would have to be minor changes. I even pointed out the potential brand damage to an intellectual property if a third party app contradicted continuity or was so unpleasant or unstable it hurt the game. I was told that wasn’t a big deal either, since customers should have lower expectations of experiences outside the main one in terms of quality. None of these people had invested in a point of contact in the company to oversee the total and complete experience of all their offerings for their top shelf brands and experiences, other than perhaps their executives (who are great at the “Vision” level but notoriously bad at the execution level).

This isn’t new. Back in the early to mid 1990′s, one of the single most powerful divisions inside the Microsoft Corporation was Product Support Services (PSS). This was the group inside the company that supported all of Microsoft’s products either by phone, Compuserv forums, on site support for corporations, or even Fax (Really!). When a Microsoft product had reached its final milestone, which was typically called a Final Release Candidate, the build was handed over to PSS for something called "Sign Off."

Product Support Services was the customer representative. It was the first group within Microsoft that would deal with the full ramifications of releasing a product out to millions and tens of millions of customer configurations. As such, PSS had to monitor both how much it cost to support a product, and how well a product worked based on the assumptions that developers made about customer expectations. A year or so after a product was released, PSS would gather all the lessons learned and customer feedback gathered and present it to the product teams for incorporation into the next version. In this way, customer wants and needs were represented in real world scenarios, not just sales meetings where customers tended to ask for the sky and sales people might promise it. This process also meant that PSS could halt a product from shipping, even if development considered it finished. That was what the sign off process was all about. PSS oversaw the complete end to end use of a product both during development and after.

Final Release Candidate CD’s or disk images were provided to PSS, and teams all over the country would pound on the product and log bugs against it. All shipping software of significant function and complexity has bugs. PSS’ job was to measure the impact, potential pain to customers, and cost of supporting the product shipping with a known issue. If those factors ran too high, PSS would refuse to allow the product to be released until the issues were brought back into line with the quality bar. One of the reasons the final shipping build of Windows 95 was build "950 r6" was that the "final" build had to be revved six times before ship due to issues found during sign off and other last minute testing. There was an enormous amount of customer advocacy talent, support talent, and quality assurance talent in the PSS organization because almost everyone involved was a full time Microsoft employee. If PSS refused to sign off, the product didn’t ship.

PSS was the "butt on the line" for shipping quality software to Microsoft’s customers.

Not long after shipping Windows 95, the process changed due almost solely to Netscape. Netscape shipped "betas" on a continual basis, just propping them to the web when built. The Internet Explorer team was in direct competition with Netscape and constantly complained about having to be held up fixing bugs found during the sign off process and the slow method of releasing.  Soon they were granted exceptions and the release of "perpetual betas" became the pressure release valve to allow the shipping of "Internet" software to be more nimble and competitive. Slowly over the next few years, sign-off as a process became less and less, outsourcing was developed and all that customer focus and expertise was trimmed, cut, then basically eliminated relative to what it used to be. Software quality and customer satisfaction suffered, and more and more products were developed in a silo mentality. I truly believe the security issues in Microsoft software in the late 90’s and early 00’s were a partial result of these changes.

These two anecdotes might seem unrelated, but they are not. I bring it up because lately the vitriolic nature of some Internet comments regarding software or hardware is obscuring a larger problem. Fanboys will be fanboys, and there will unfortunately always be someone willing to type out an anonymous death threat over a designer changing the muzzle velocity of their favorite ammo in their favorite space gun. Those individuals number in the tens of thousands.

What we’re losing all across the software industry, from a services to software to content perspective, is the view of the customer. Or, to the extent it’s taken into account it’s the lowest common denominator of what someone surmises the expectations to be on the customer’s part based on sales.

That audience, outside the vitriolic one, is in the hundreds of millions. For most things, it isn’t a big deal. Call of Duty: Ghosts sold just fine. Both the Xbox One and the Playstation 4 will sell out of their allotments for Christmas. iPads and iPhones are in high demand.

But I watch a major product launch or announce go badly and everyone asks "what were they thinking?" or I see dozens of reviews that state "it’s almost perfect except for this one glaring omission that seems so obvious" or I hear someone point out "This particular feature would add so much and detract nothing and we’ve been asking for it for years" and I realize that we have lost/are losing an essential skill in the software industry: Customer advocacy. We’ve moved it from being a role to being a checkmark box on a long list.

I get that features have to be prioritized and I understand resource triangles better than most. But why should it take a mountain of bad press, social media, or forum posts to note a major product change is a terrible idea in regards to how people actually use your product? It’s gone beyond the simple Redmond Reality Distortion field, Youtube’s recent comment changes are the biggest indicator. Decisions are being made based on what the user base will bear with trying to monetize or compete, not as much on what the user base wants in order to keep choosing your product.

And there’s no reason the two things cannot work together.

We need to establish (are re-establish) the concept of the Ombudsman. People whose job it is to own the end to end experience in both development and release, and serve as the point of feedback publicly when something goes horrible pear shaped on Steam or a new policy or Terms of Use change is announced on Twitter that angers everyone. People who have real veto power when it is needed and can balance the worse angels of the development culture. People who actually get paid to pay attention to what customers like and want and need as opposed to biasing every decision on "We need to make this change because our competitor made it and we need to be the thought leader here. Try and implement it so that customers like it."

We sometimes lose sight that *customers* are the ones who use our products and are important, even when the offerings are (for now) free.

If you don’t believe in strong customer advocacy and making that an actual discipline and separate section of your process then you run the risk of not just failure of your product, but obsolescence of your brand. Usability studies and surveys can only tell you so much.

To use a sportsball metaphor: When competing if you aren’t truly listening to customers you can’t swing for the fences because you will have no idea where the pitch is coming from.

inb4 strawmen:

“But customers will ask for everything!”

Some might, a good Ombudsman will balance this out.

“Apple doesn’t care what customers think, and they sell pretty well!”

Apple works in fits and starts. It’s now on a minor decline as it has gone from epiphany regarding phones and tablets to stagnation. Think about all those lean years before the iPod and iPhone. I’d argue if they would listen just a tad more they could even out their peak and valley cycle and make even more money. One need only look to Vista or Windows 8 to see what happens when you take the platform bully pulpit too far. To think that couldn’t happen to Apple ignores a lot of Apple products that were just as bad.

Besides which, why *wouldn’t* you want to be seen to be listening to your customers instead of dictating to them? I’ve never understood how Apple somehow got away with making their customers feel dumb for things they wanted (like when they said people didn’t need customized SMS tones. Whahuh?) It’s like “I’ll let you purchase my product but I get to slap you one time first.”

“Is this really that big a problem?”

Yes and no. It’s certainly not a crisis. It’s just something I feel like the industry is truly missing out on lately and it represents incredible opportunity for companies, especially big established ones, that move to it or commit to it publicly. It’s low hanging fruit. Customers *love* accountability but better than that they love not making mistakes in the first place. Think about Microsoft’s Xbox One announce then the backpedal. What if they’d had a customer experience advocate who could have prevented the worst of those choices they had to walk back before they wasted time developing them? Someone who was paid for that as their expertise and role instead of relying on a heavily overworked team somewhere in marketing to hope they can get around to it?

Or, when the backpedaling does have to happen, it comes from one voice all at once with a clear message and clear expectation rather than dozens of executives using events over months of time slowly walking back each bad thing.

Community managers are trying to fulfill this role, but many companies simply do not understand Community management is more than just using Twitter or forums. It’s time someone high profile makes a public commitment to having someone like this on staff and actually listens to them. Someone beholden to customers not agendas.

  • Andrew Hull

    I had always wondered if this was a real position, and always wanted to be in such a role at a tech company. Do you think it a problem, though, that people in that position also become victims of their respective organization’s Reality Distortion Field, and how might something like that be staved off?

  • Black_Six

    I agree with this wholeheartedly. The project I work on ostensibly has this role, but the feedback never really makes it into the design and development cycle. It results in the customer feeling they’re being ignored and not giving feedback anymore.

  • Zack Stein

    It’s funny you should write this article. I know you have a lot of friends still at Microsoft, so you’re not going to go at them full throttle. However, they are the biggest example of what you are talking about. And I’ve seen it coming for some time. There’s a detached arrogance coming from Microsoft in regards to their Xbox platform. They let the success of the previous generation go to their heads. Meanwhile, even though Playstation had, arguably, the better games of the last generation, they couldn’t ever catch up to the 360 sales numbers. Sony had grown arrogant in the PS2 generation (the same way Microsoft grew arrogant in the 360 generation). Sony charged too much for their PS3 out of the gate, and gave it features no one wanted. You now see Microsoft doing the same thing. meanwhile the PS4 is a sleek, fantastic gaming machine at a cheaper price. And Microsoft is jamming a cluttered console down everyone’s throats. I’m willing to bet Sony reclaims their throne this generation. It appears they’ve listened, whereas Microsoft has not. Sony has many high quality in-house studios. They’re committed to the craft, the art. Microsoft wants you to pay $500 for the privilege of having Microsoft run your living room.

    Eh, I’m rambling. But you get my point. Glad you’re sober, Stepto. You could benefit as well by responding to a post or two from time to time. I kind of gave up on you for a while because I found arrogance in your site. You post, and you let people comment, but you don’t ever make it a discussion. Why should people bother then? Just a question – something to think about.

  • MirkManEA

    “I’ll let you buy my product, but I get to slap you one time, first,” is a hilarious, apt way to put it. Personally with some of the products I’ve come up with, it’s more fear of rejection that keeps a creative from reaching out to their customer. On the other side, when you’re a rock star inventing sweet awesome new things, it’s easy to just assume that everything that comes out of you will smell like roses and be golden. Product ombudsman, yes!