Why Google Needs a “User Advocate at Large”

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For many years I’ve been promoting the concept of an “ombudsman” to help act as an interface between Google and its user community. I won’t even bother listing the multitude of my related links here, they’re easy enough to find by — yeah, that’s right — Googling for them.

The idea has been to find a way for users — Google’s customers who are increasingly dependent on the firm’s services for an array of purposes (irrespective of whether or not they are “paying” users) — to have a genuine “seat at the table” when it comes to Google-related issues that affect them.

My ombudsmen concepts have consistently hit a figurative brick wall at the Googleplex. A concave outline of my skull top is probably nearly visible on the side of Building 43 by now.

Who speaks for Google’s ordinary users? That’s the perennial question as we approach Google’s 20th birthday, almost exactly two months from now.

Google’s communications division speaks mainly to the press. Google developer and design advocates help to make sure that relevant developer-related parties are heard by Google’s engineering teams. 

But beyond these specific scopes, there really aren’t user advocates per se at Google. In fact, a relevant Google search yields entries for Google design and developer advocates, and for user advocates at other firms. But there’s no obvious evidence of dedicated user advocate roles at Google itself.

Words matter. Precision of word choices matters. And in thinking about this recently, I’ve realized that my traditional use of the term “ombudsman” to address these concerns has been less than optimal.

Part of the reason for this is that the concept of “ombudsman” (which can be a male or female role, of course) carries with it a great deal of baggage. I realized this all along and attempted to explain that such roles were subject to definition within any given firm or other organization. 

But ombudsman is a rather formal term and is frequently associated with a person or persons who mainly deal with escalated consumer complaints, and so the term tends to carry an adversarial implication of sorts. The word really does not encompass the broader meanings of advocacy — and other associated communications between firms and users — that I’ve been thinking about over the years — but that I’ve not been adequately describing. I plead guilty.

“User advocacy” seems like a much more accurate term to approach the concepts that I’ve been so long discussing about Google and its everyday users.

Advocacy, not contentiousness. Participation, not confrontation. 

While it would certainly be possible to have user advocates focused on specific Google products and services, the multidisciplinary nature of Google suggests that an “at large” user advocate, or a group of such advocates working to foster user communications across a wide range of Google’s teams, might be more advantageous all around.

Google and Googlers create excellent services and products. But communications with users continues to be Google’s own Achilles’ heel, with many Google-related controversies based much more on misunderstandings than on anything else.

A genuine devotion to user advocacy, fostered by Googlers dedicated to this important task, could be great for Google’s users and for Google itself.

–Lauren–