It’s a Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s a User Champion

Thoughts On A Hybrid Role Written by: Kevin Fenton

Like a superhero created when the contents of two beakers accidentally combine, a powerful hybrid has emerged in the software development world: the user champion.

In this origin story, the beakers would be labeled “agile” and “user experience (UX)” because the user champion borrows some of the best ideas from both disciplines. From agile, it takes the idea of the product owner (or in this case, product champion). From UX, it takes a conviction in the value of user feedback.

This role of user champion may be the distinctive product of a distinctive design process—our shop focuses on highly knowledgeable, highly engaged business users—but it seems to have broader application.

As you might expect, the hybrid reflects its components.

The product owner  

Kenneth S. Rubin, in The Essential Scrum, defines the product owner as “the empowered central point of product leadership.”

She is responsible for ensuring that “good economic decisions are continuously being made,” joining the development team and the scrum master in planning, helping shape the vision of the product, planning its next release and grooming its backlog, defining acceptance criteria, and collaborating with both the development team and key stakeholders to advance the project.  

According to Rubin—and according to anyone who’s ever attempted to move a Post-It from doing to done—agile product ownership requires some serious skills. She must be a flexible visionary, a practical expert, a skilled negotiator and motivator, a far-sighted decision-maker, and a committed, accountable, all-in leader.

No wonder product owner is one of the hardest roles to successfully fill in the agile process. So where might you find such a person? Hold that thought.

User feedback   

Currently, the user is not so much a role as a resource. For example, when uxmatters.com defines key roles, they include UX researcher but not the people whose opinions are being sought.

But what if the users played a bigger role in UX design? After all, the discipline is named after them.   

Obviously, this might not work for consumer sites, where the users have no connection with your company other than participation in some focus groups and buying orange juice or widgets from your site once a month.   

But we’ve found that business users—employees, distribution partners, franchisees—can take an elevated role in the design of digital products. These products are usually apps, because apps are suited to focused, mobile uses, but they can also be web sites and other digital tools.  

What a user champion is

Like all users, the user champion’s value lies partly in the time spent using the product. But just as important, especially in a business setting, they are valuable for their experience with and within the process you are trying to improve. They know how spec a window, inspect a kitchen, configure a painting system, or whatever else your app seeks to automate. That is why we invite these people to become a part of our design and development team.

What separates the input of the user from the ownership of the user champion? How would the user champion fill her time? How would this role be different from what all users contribute to the process, beyond simply giving feedback?

Time commitment, executive agency, and ongoing visibility set the user champion apart from the user who is occasionally asked for feedback.  

It’s important to understand the time commitment, because the people you want as a user champion are probably already in demand. We’ve found that, depending on the size of the project, it’s less than a job but more than a task: It’s essentially being asked to head a project and the exact bandwidth required will vary with the project.

It’s also important to understand that the user champion is a distinctive role requiring distinctive skills. It’s both a front-line function, fueled by the insights you get from daily customer interaction, and an executive function, demanding judgment, political skills, and strategic thinking.

It’s not an easy role to fill but we’ve found that managers who’ve come up from the field often have the mix of front-line credibility and C-suite judgment.

When you find that person, hold on to them. When it comes to building a powerful and popular tool, they really do have superpowers.

What a user champion does

First, user champions need to be able to consolidate and vet feedback from other users. Not all feedback is created equal. Strong user champions have the experience and judgment to discern which comments are more equal than others, to separate the insights from the whining.

Because they are leaders, they can convene a user forum when needed. Because they are strategic thinkers, the user champion can also align individual wishes with department best practices and corporate priorities.

We typically do not have our user champion conduct interviews—we want the designers to hear feedback first hand—but we will often have them sit in on the interviews or go through the summaries with the design team.  

Second, they advocate for users and lobby upper management with usability concerns. This means understanding how decisions are made within a company, identifying what needs to be done and when, knowing how to incorporate stakeholder input without compromising the essential solution, and making a persuasive business case at every step of the way.

Third, they train on the new solution when it is developed and otherwise facilitate its adoption. No one has more credibility with the eventual users than these super users. From conducting webinars to generating word of mouth, from consulting on the messaging most likely to drive adoption to troubleshooting obstacles, they are the ones who can make your launch a success on the grassroots level.   

Where a user champion can be found

The user champion we describe here is a pretty rare bird, but they do exist. In the case of sales apps, we’ve had the best luck with people who started in the field and then rose to a mid-level sales management position—such as a branch manager. Such people usually have the right mix of in-the-field knowledge and executive skills such as lobbying, vetting, and training. They are usually skilled in communicating both down to the front line and up to the C-suite (or, more often the V-suite, since VPs often create the budgets.)  

Of course, you also have to convince management of the value of this role. After all, you are often asking them to assign a high-performing front-line manager significant new responsibilities. The value of the user champion is ultimately rooted in the value of solution: Are you addressing an important problem?

If you are—if, for example, you are creating a solution which could be used everyday by many people—you can build a very strong ROI based on multipliers such as number of users, number of uses, and the value and/or duration of the interaction. For example, this webapp will be used by 900 franchisees on every shift (260 shifts/year) and could boost productivity by x%.  Or, this dedicated tablet app will be used by 1,100 sales reps whose average sale is x dollars and whose average call time is y.

From this, you can extrapolate the effect of making calls more efficient and more effective.  That kind of calculation can yield you the kind of number that justifies dedicating a valuable contributor to the team.     

Given the quality of the user input you will receive, it’s worth making the argument.

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Kevin Fenton

Kevin Fenton

Kevin Fenton is the Creative Director at Design Center Inc. a Minneapolis-St Paul firm which designs mobile apps, VR experiences, and other digital tools which align with client processes. Kevin has published in design magazines such as Emigre and Eye (London) and the anthology Looking Closer II: Critical Writing on Graphic Design; he has been featured on KARE 11 nightly news on advertising to youth, lectured at the University of Minnesota on Starting A Story, and served as a mentor in the Visual Narrative MFA program at the School of Visual Arts (NYC). He holds a JD and an MFA from the University of Minnesota and a BA from Beloit College. He edits the Design Center Inc blog. Much of his writing on UX is improved by discussions with his colleagues at Design Center.
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