A while back, Jason Calcanis talked about hiring an Ombudsman for Mahalo.
That is actually a smart idea, but in its way it doesn’t go far enough. An independent watchdog who oversees and plays watchdog over a company is a good thing, but these companies need more than a watchdog.
They need advocates. People INSIDE the company who are involved with the customers and involved with the day to day operations of the company where they can influence decisions as they happen, not just criticize and rally for improvements after the fact.
I’m seeing the need for this on Facebook; note that I’m not picking on Facebook because it’s screwed up, because for the most part, I think it’s doing pretty well — but there are rough edges, and many of them seem to me to be situations that could be avoided if the company was better connected to and listening to its users. Getting pro-active instead of reactive, and the problem with an ombudsman is that it is external and by definition reactive.
Now, this isn’t exactly new from me, back when I left Apple, I brought up the idea that Apple could really use a Customer Ombudsman:
Chuqui 3.0.1 Beta: Jobs I wish I could have taken at Apple (Apple Post-mortem, part 2 of some number….):
4) Customer Ombudsman (aka Chief Privacy Office, aka the Royal Avatar of the Customer). This is actually another job I talked to a number of folks about. Some understood what I was trying to do and agreed it was a necesssary thing, nobody could ever quite figure out who it should report to or how to bell this particular cat. Is this in Marketing? Legal? Applecare? Engineering? Probably Applecare, but I always suggested Legal, because Applecare is the primary support provider for Apple, and reporting into that structure creates a potential conflict of interest for a true Ombudsman.
The more I explore the social networking space, the more I think people like this are crucial for the good operation of the social network. They really aren’t Ombusdmen, though, because they need to be internal to the company (more on that in a bit), and you can’t simply take customer support and bonk them on the head with the advocate wand — this is a different function. It really is, in a way, an evangelist position, but one where you have someone evangelizing the customer into the company, not going the other direction.
And this person needs the ear of upper management, and this person (or group) needs to be involved in decisions about the products just like a database architect or a UI designer is — only their job is to help the other parts of the company understand how the customer fits into the equation and how proposed changes (to code, to UI, to policy, to whatever) will impact them and how they’ll react.
Today, the customer is a key part of the system being designed, not just a user of it, and yet these companies haven’t really integrated customers into the design process closely enough.
A couple of recent examples:
First, Danah, via Scoble:
Danah Boyd writes that sheâ€™s she is â€œutterly confused by the ways in which the tech industry fetishizes Facebookâ€.
She asks some good questions and makes some good points. Lets go through them. My answers in italics.
1. â€œIn an effort to curb spam, they killed off legitimate uses of mass messaging, silencing those well-intentioned users that adored them.â€ Totally true. Itâ€™s ridiculous that I canâ€™t add more than 5,000 contacts. Even worse is the scalability of the platform they designed. Many of the apps Iâ€™ve been using lately simply donâ€™t work if you have more than a couple hundred of contacts.
Or this situation noted in TechCrunch:
One such way to use Christianâ€™s code was to incorporate it into a program that takes status updates and pushes them out to multiple status handlers such as Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Adium, and Quicksilver. Another use could be to take information from a music player, instant messaging program, or blogging platform and automatically make Facebook status updates from any activity (such as newly played songs, away messages, or post headlines). After publishing the code, Christian indeed found that several other developers used his code to create programs around the idea of â€œfederated statusâ€.
This past Thursday, however, Christian received an email from a Facebook engineer that requested he take down the code from his blog. While recognizing that Christian was simply trying to provide something useful, the engineer insisted that the code was, and had always been, against Facebookâ€™s terms of service (see â€œUser Conductâ€ section, bullet #3). As a way of explanation, he suggested that allowing people to automate against Facebook from outside of the site would create a â€œslippery slopeâ€. The engineer backed up his request by insinuating that he would disable Christianâ€™s Facebook account and/or take legal action if he refused to remove the code.
After Christian stood by his post, Facebook demonstrated on September 4th that it wasnâ€™t bluffing and shut down his account.
The first one? A change, probably a necessary and legitimate one, but one that wasn’t well-understood how it’d affect users, and at best, not well documented out to them.
The second? A perfectly legitimate use of Facebook, or it should be, but it was disallowed because of the old “slippery slope” argument. That’s one I know well, because I used it a lot in my days running communities and mail lists — and one I finally realized was a cop out, because part of being the mom is using judgement and setting reasonable limits, not just throwing up brick walls at the easy places. The reality is, Christian’s code is useful and Facebook should have realized it benefitted its users and allowed (if not adopted) it, even if it meant rewriting rules or clarifying existing ones.
Instead, in both cases, we basically got a “because I am the mom, and I said so” reaction. Decisions were made based on rules, not situations, and for the convenience/ease of the company, not the users. It’s these kind of things that slowly kill user enthusiasm and gives them reason to no longer cheerlead or innovate around a product or platform.
Here’s a third one, one I was involved in.
Facebook notes has a feature where you can import your blog via your RSS feed. I decided that was a neat idea, so I wired it up; only since I have multiple blogs, with more stuff coming, and things like my Flickr photos and other places where I have a virtual presence, I’ve created a Yahoo pipe which aggregates all of that stuff into a single feed. I wired that up to Notes and it went off and did whatever it does.
A couple of days later, I noticed it wasn’t importing, so I checked, and it told me there wasn’t a feed wired up. Weird, I must have screwed up, I thought. So I wired it up again.
A few hours later, I get the bitch note, threatening to terminate my account if I don’t stop abusing the notes feature. they also put up a note on my home page warning me the same. And they disable the Notes feed again.
Well, THAT’s interesting. I only did what they told me I could. So I grumped a bit and fired off a note to the support group. A couple of days later (I’ll give them credit, it WAS labor day weekend — no complaint about response time), I got a note back from Lyle. The gist of it was “we limit behavior we feel is abusive or annoying. we won’t tell you details of what that means. We can’t stop the system from doing this. And thanks for your understanding…”
There are so many things wrong here it’s not funny. Here are the highlights:
1) I’m told I can do something. When I try it, it sets off an alarm and what I’m doing is disabled, but they do it silently. So I think I screwed up — once I actually notice the problem.
2) So I try it again, and they threaten to ban me.
3) the problem? when I initializer the feed, it pulls in all of the new items. Which, since it’s a new feed, means all of the items. Which, in this case, evidently was enough to trigger their alarm. Note that there is no way for me to say “only import items from this point” or “only import the last ten items” or something. I HAVE NO WAY to not set off this alarm with this feed; the user has no options to avoid this.
4) and according to Lyle, Facebook has no way (and pretty clearly, no interest) in whitelisting a feed around the alarm. Why can’t someone take a look at it and say “oh, okay, we’ll clear the flag for this and see what happens”; instead, It got the double-barrel of “if you trip the alarm, you’re doing something bad’, and “so don’t do it”. Even though I was only doing what they told me I could do.
What I took away from this was that Facebook is a company without a strong customer focus. They may THINK they have one, but they don’t. For instance, and this is a trivial one, if you have a new feed and you’re going to trigger an alarm if it imports more than, say, 15 items to start, why not ONLY IMPORT 15 items? Why threaten someoen with a ban when you could instead use a rate limiting feature instead of a ban alert? They actually don’t give me the tools I could us to solve this problem myself, they don’t give support tools to fix the problem for a false positive, and they don’t actually build the system right in the first place, because they could avoid this simply by saying “well, we only allow THIS activity, so let’s make the system only accept that”.
These are all rough edges to the design of the system, but they’re all rough edges that indicate that they aren’t thinking like users or spending much time as users.
The customer focus is missing. And yes, spam preventions and abuse issues are important — but so is allowing the customer to use the system, and that latter aspect just doesn’t seem as high a priority in their designs. There are so many ways they could have turned this into a positive — does it really matter if my notes get imported over 48 hours instead of right away? Not really. Or if only the last ten get imported? Not really. but those options don’t exist. I used the system they way they told me to, with the options avaialble, and got faceslapped for it. Not a huge deal, but not a great way to evangelize customers, either. Ditto with how they handled Christian’s case above.
And that would be the role of a Customer Advocate: to think like the customer, to represent and lobby for the customer, to evangelize the customer within the company. That’s very different than Customer service or support, or from being an Ombudsman. Someone who’s job is to know the customers well enough to say “hey, why not rate limit Note importation isntead of throwing ban threats? Save the bitch notes for abuse if it happens over a period of time”; or someone in management willing to look at what Christian was trying to do and saying “you know, that ought to be allowed, let’s make it happen”.
Only it didn’t. And that’s because a key cog in these social systems is the user, and the user doesn’t have representation within the company except in reactive ways, or in very limited ways through focus groups.
Who speaks FOR the customer inside of Facebook? As far as I can tell, nobody. And that’s a need that all social networks are going to have. that AND an outside ombudsman to keep them all honest, including the users.
(and I’ll bet, as people read this, there will be people from Facebook getting really honked and saying to their screens “yes, we do too!” — and my response is, as an unofficial, unappointed, temporary Ombusdman, that you think you do, but from the point of view of the user, the systems and processes put in place aren’t very user friendly. They’re company-easy, and that’s a bad philosophy for a system that depends on users to make it function…)
Update: well, here’s another instance of Facebook making life harder for its users, for no real purpose other than convenience of Facebook. Or following the rules. Or something like that…
I’d be more sympathetic to Facebook if these things really were abusive to the system. In fact, they merely act kinda like things that might be abusive under some circumstances, but aren’t abusive themselves. That kind of logic just amuses me, in a depressing way…
Facebook apparently shut â€™em down. It strikes me as always wrong, as couldnâ€™t-possibly-be-right, to take an action which decreases the quality of the user experience with your product.