every social network needs Customer Advocates on staff.

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 is confused by Facebook’s fans « Scobleizer:


Danah Boyd writes that she’s she is “utterly confused by the ways in which the tech industry fetishizes Facebook”.
She asks some good questions and makes some good points. Lets go through them. My answers in italics.
1. “In an effort to curb spam, they killed off legitimate uses of mass messaging, silencing those well-intentioned users that adored them.” Totally true. It’s ridiculous that I can’t add more than 5,000 contacts. Even worse is the scalability of the platform they designed. Many of the apps I’ve been using lately simply don’t work if you have more than a couple hundred of contacts.

(via Jason)

Or this situation noted in TechCrunch:

Facebook: Opening Up, But on Its Own Terms:


One such way to use Christian’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 “federated status”.

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 Facebook’s terms of service (see “User Conduct” 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 “slippery slope”. The engineer backed up his request by insinuating that he would disable Christian’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 wasn’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…)

chuq

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…

ongoing · Facebook Error:


Facebook apparently shut ’em down. It strikes me as always wrong, as couldn’t-possibly-be-right, to take an action which decreases the quality of the user experience with your product.

 

 

Posted in Community Management

Even more on Mark Bell

Ian left a comment about Mark Bell I wanted to pull out into its own posting:

Two for Elbowing: More on Mark Bell:


Something really smells about the NHL suspending Bell out of the blue, after he played in the league for a year, and after the terms of his plea bargain were set (i.e. agreeing to start his prison stay after the NHL season).

It’s clearly intended as some sort of statement to other players, but I don’t know what that statement is, exactly. It smacks of grandstanding,

I had the same reaction: I couldn’t believe that the punishment by the NHL wasn’t agreed upon as everything else was being worked out, because it makes no sense for Bell to set up his prison so he can play the season — only to have the NHL suspend him. Either the NHL is being a twit here, or Bell’s agent blew it big time in coordinating the details.

Now, if Bell only misses a few games, it’s a symbolic slap on the wrist, and that’s not so bad, but right now, this isn’t making the NHL look good — letting him play an entire season before suspending him is stupid; either he has a problem and they should have gotten him into the program a year ago, or he doesn’t, and this makes no sense other than some kind of grandstanding stunt.

Now, having said that, I can understand the league waiting until the court action is done to punish Bell — that’s due process — but this wasn’t presented as a punishment, this was presented as being put into a substance abuse program. Suspending him a few games for a braincramp that makes the league look bad? fine. Putting him into an abuse program when it’s not warranted? Makes the league look bad.

And there’s no indication there is an abuse problem here, just the results of a mistake and a long court case.

I’m not exactly Mark Bell’s biggest fan here — but what the league is doing is at best badly communicated to the real world, and that’s making the league look punitive and arbitrary.

Here’s hoping this — at the least — gets clearly explained and put behind everyone….

Posted in Sports - Hockey

my thoughts on the Roenick signing

A few thoughts on the Roenick signing by the Sharks, from the guy who’s been standing here for the last few months saying “Jeremy. go home. it’s over”.

It is, but there are aspects of this deal I find intriguing. Roenick is playing for minimal money, so this doesn’t really cost the Sharks anything. He has things to prove (that it’s not over, for one), so I expect he’s going to work his butt off to earn that money. He has a significant milestone close, so that’s going to add to the motivation, but is also close enough that it won’t hang over his head or the team’s head long — and if it isn’t working out, once he passes it, makes it easier for everyone to call it if needed.

So the risk here is low. The important thing is to set the proper expectations. Given the low money value – that’s easy if you think it through.

If there was one thing missing from the team last year, it was an attitude of consistent grittiness, of not being pushed around. There were times when the Sharks were unstoppable, and there were times the team got too passive.

One thing Roenick is not: passive.

So the way to view this deal is see the contributions as off-ice. As a setter and teacher of attitudes, a locker room influence. Anything Roenick does ON the ice is a bonus; his primary job, in my mind, is teaching the kids how to play more like he does, to help draw out their potential.

At some level, I’m not expecting much out of this deal. He’s effectively replacing Mark Smith, and while I don’t think this is an upgrade off of Smith, it’s now downgrade, and he in-locker-room aspects can help this team. He’s also the kind of guy the local reporters are going to love to have around, and heck, that can’t hurt.

So I’ll give him a thumbs up for now, and we’ll see what happens. And, you know? it’s good to see him get a shot at his milestone. Let’s see how he returns the investment the Sharks are making in him.

(and I see the hand of Mike Ricci in this; since they played together last season).

Posted in Sports - Hockey

More on Mark Bell

The Spin:


Truly, it matters not whether Mark Bell skates for the Maple Leafs anytime soon.

At least not to me. It certainly matters to Bell and probably to John Ferguson, who’d like to see this part of the San Jose deal pay some dividends.

What really matters in this case are two things.

First, that the victim – remember, there’s a victim here? – gets reasonable restitution for his injuries apparently suffered when Bell rear-ended him a year ago. Imagine what it was like for that fellow watching Bell play all last year. Imagine if it was your brother or your dad.

The second important matter is that Bell really gets help, which hopefully he is doing. But this isn’t something that’s just going to go away, and it isn’t something that is going to be fine just because Bell says it is. Clearly, drinking is a problem Bell has been battling since he was in junior hockey, and that was a long, long time ago.

It’s not clear whether he’s an alcoholic. But he quite obviously struggles with the bottle.

So if it means he has to sit out all year to become a healthier person, I’m good with that.

This was discussed on XM a bit yesterday, and the indication there was that this was part of the process following the conviction, and that Bell has evidently been clean for a year, so he’s only expected to miss a few games at the longest. A punitive action, I guess, but to be honest, he’s already played an entire season. For the NHL to suspend him NOW seems to be sending a message that, well, what? that they feel like they have to do something for show?

we’re well over a year from the event — the NHL isn’t exactly being pro-active here. Makes it hard for me to stand up and congratulate the NHL for dealing with this issue.

Oh, and the victim? Turns out he was unlicensed and uninsured. Driving illegally on a number of accounts. From local reports stonewalled discussions of restitution and filed a civil suit, which to me looks like a money grab attempt.

Now, that doesn’t for a second minimize what Bell did or excuse his actions — but this “victim” isn’t exactly an innocent, either. I don’t have any sympathy for Bell, although his mistake seems to have been an series of stupid but not malicious brain farts. Unlicensed drivers here in the Bay Area are a huge problem that cause hell for those of us who do follow the rules and the law — and they’re a class of people around here that also causes a disproportionate percentage of the accidents as well.

Makes it very hard for me to find much sympathy for the victim here, either.

Posted in Sports - Hockey

You Know You’re Old When:

How to Change the World: You Know You’re Old When::

Last night a cute blonde girl bought me a drink. However, she knew me because she’s my kids’ summer camp counselor. This incident got me thinking about how you know you’re old—today is my 53rd birthday. So I decided to start a list: You know you’re old when…

Happy Birthday to Guy! (happybirthdaytoyouhappybirthdaytoyoublahblahIhatethissong….)

I hate to use the term “old”, although there are days when I definitely feel it fits… I prefer “middle aged”, at least most days..

The first time I remember feeling, um, middle aged was when the last player in the NHL older than I was retired, so that the entire league was younger than me. That was, by the way, Sergei Makarov.

A big “middle aged” moment was when I was walking in the mall and passed a mother and her daughter walking the other way, and I realized I found the mother a lot more attractive. Another aspect of this: you redefine your idea of “girl” as you get older (I think “girl”, as opposed to “woman”, is a term for any female too young to consider dating, if you were in fact available to date) — and when you hit the point that you can buy a “girl” a beer legally, you’re definitely middle-aged.

And on a less fun moment, a big “you’re middle-aged” reality check is when you start having peers die of things other than accidents or alcohol….

I heard Eddy Money talk about this a while back, and his “you’re old” moment — he said he was on tour, and was trying desperately to stay up late enough to keep his drummer from hitting on his daughter… no word on whether he succeeded….

Posted in About Chuq

A time machine, dusty and proud…

One of the projects I’ve started this weekend is to clear out some clutter and clean up the “server room”, the room where we used to house the servers when we ran servers here in the house and had the internet piped in to serve them (today, we “merely” have a consumer DSL line to our usage, which is a heck of a lot cheaper since we don’t need the fast outbound speed or static IP addresses….)

One reason I’m doing this — I wanted to get my writing files out and accessible again. I’ve picked up my first freelance gig (which is nice), and out of happenstance had a nice long talk with a friend I haven’t talked to in a long time, and it might turn into another writing gig. I’ve been spending some time the last few days researching some ideas for that, and we’ll see whether they like them.

It was fun, and a bit weird, to get my writing out of the boxes and into a file cabinet. Some of it I knew was in there, like my novel-in-stasis and my published short fiction and unsold fiction bits — but also my old writing, the reviews in Amazing Stories (when it was a TSR publication), my writing for Macintosh Horizons, but also some of the tech writing I did when I was at Sun, including, which I’d completely forgotten, the README for NFS release 2.0.

Now, that’s an answer to a trivia question nobody’s going to ask…

Also, when I left Apple, I brought home about eight boxes of “stuff”; when I went to StrongMail, I only took in a couple of boxes of books and a few things, and those came back when I left, so I’ve had a bunch of things just sort of hanging around, and a lot of technical books inaccessible. It’s time to start cleaning that up and either putting the books in shelves, or donating or tossing them, depending on how useful they are.

The “server room” is, of course, a dumping ground for everything in the “I need to deal with this someday” for both of us; Laurie still has a bunch of boxes from when she left Adobe, and all of her cookbooks are in there (15 boxes) waiting for me to finish the living room to get them back in the shelves, as well as much of my native art that has been waiting for the remodel to have a place for display again… Now that the living room is headed towards paint-ready, I’m pullling that all out again and getting it  up on the walls again. I may even be able to walk in the server room again soon.

And browse through those Sun technical support bulletins. Ah, the days of SunOS 3 — anyone else remember when Sun ran 68000 chips?

Posted in About Chuq

One of those “what were they thinking?” moments…

So I’ve been more offline than on, working on the remodel in the front half of the house. I’ve got all of the door trim in (finally), and I was hoping to finish off the entryway walls today, so I could start on the baseboard.

I took off the faceplate from the lightswitch that runs the porch light, so I could put a box expander on it after adding the tongue and groove that’s going up — only to find there was no box. They simply cut a notch in the drywall, stuffed the switch in it, and then used drywall screws to hold it down, then screwed the plate to the drywall.

This is, how do we say it? Not up to code. no, frankly, it’s a bloody stupid idea on any number of levels.

So now I have to go buy a box, cut open the wall, retrofit the box in, and fix this properly.

In remodelling the house over the years, pretty much every project has run into one of these “what were they thinking?” moments, where you realize the previous owner was pretty good most of the time, but then started improvising or cutting corners, and now you get to figure out how to fix it.

Things like — realizing he used exhaust pipe to duct the forced air and air conditioning instead of using ducting. So when we replaced the air conditioner, we also got to re-duct most of the house.

Stuff like that.

my one goal — my PRIMARY goal — in my remodel work is that whoever buys the house off of us, whenever we decide to sell, and starts remodelling it to their needs doesn’t say things about me like I say things about him…

It is amazing what a little trim does to finish off a room, though. Especially since we’ve been living with it half-done for two years (gah). I see the light at the end of the tunnel; next week I should have the front entry, the living room, hallway and master bath all ready for paint, and then it’s making final decisions on the dining room and getting those changes in.

THAT is going to be interesting, because it involves opening up a wall into the weight room (and library), and pulling the existing door and replacing it with a larger set of bifolds (I think); and unfortunately, I don’t know what I’ll find when I open it up, other than, well, trouble — because it was done by one of the tenants after the owner retired and moved out, when they started running a stereo repair shop in their garage and hacked things up to allow them to lock away that part of the house away from the living spaces (while leaving access to the bathroom — ever see a house with, I kid you not, an airlock in it? we had one). Those were the same people who used a piece of stereo zip wire to ground an electrical outlet, so I’m not holding out much hope…

Especially since when we tore off the old base moulding to get ready for the new flooring in the front of the house, we noticed that part of the wall was built ON THE CARPETING. they just laid the base of the wall over the carper. That’s how we know we have a larger door opening in that wall; we just need to figure out how best to bring it back…

Something tells me I”m going to be taking a few names in vain soon.

well, off to Lowes for more STUFF. if there’s one given to remodelling, there’s always a part you need that you don’t have…

Posted in About Chuq

I’ll do pictures soon…

Posting has been light again, mostly because I’m focussing more on the remodel work. I just finished trimming out the front door, and I’m getting close to finishing off the entry way. I still need to do the base moulding, but we’re getting suprisingly close to “paint ready” in the living room and entry. still need to trim out the hallway and bathroom and do the dining room, which is a significant amount of  work, but I could be paint ready for everything but the dining room by the end of next week; maybe further than that. we’ll see. Happy with the progress and quality, so what the heck.

one phone interview so far this week, and one more in an hour or so. Things continue to bubble, nothing boiling.

And Laurie and I have started planning our post-Labor-day vacation. All that’s decided is that it’ll include a couple of days in Portland and then the northern oregon coast (Astoria and Newport definitely, everything else is tentative. If someone wants to say hi while we’re in town, drop me email and we’ll try to work out the schedule.

Portland is probably going to focus on a photo trip to the zoo, and up the Gorge, since we haven’t done that for a while (and especially not in a while when it hasn’t been miserable and November… ). I want to spend some time doing photo work and birding around Fort Stevens, and some birding around Yaquina head in Newport. Beyond that, we may just — gasp — sit on a beach or something. (us? nah).

I’m trying to decide if I want to put in for a day in Cannon Beach or not as part of it. We’ve mostly decided to do more exploring and less driving, so we’ve cut out the southern coast, and once again Fort Bragg and the Mendocino coast has been relegated to “it’s close enough we’ll go there when we take a long weekend”, which, of course, we never do… (grin)

Oh, and the hockey talk continues over on Two for Elbowing, for those that forgot that blog exists…

Posted in About Chuq