Business-to-employee products play an important role in improving the workflow, collaboration, and efficiency of businesses and organizations. However, developing business-to-employee products presents challenges for many companies and UX designers: Complex business processes combined with a desire for efficient, intuitive operation and, in some cases, difficult access to users who are locked into day-to-day operations. This also makes research recruiting not always easy, whereas user research is an essential part of efficient, targeted and low-risk product development. How can we adequately translate the specific requirements of all users: inside into an intuitive, efficient and pleasant user experience that is oriented towards actual workflows and processes? And: How can we lower the communication threshold and develop products that are even better tailored to users?
I, Vanessa Lang, Senior Experience Designer, at denkwerk, was looking for such a possibility and found it in IBM's "Sponsor User" framework. A Sponsor User is a representative of the target group who contributes his or her experience and expertise to the team and is thus actively involved in product development. To do this, the person must know the internal processes well and be able to contribute expertise. He or she should also be interested in a positive outcome of the product, have the time availability to contribute regularly, and have good communication skills to express his or her thoughts and opinions clearly and concisely.
Involving a Sponsor User makes the design process more human and more aligned with the needs and experiences of the user.
With the help of sponsor users, the design team can develop a more effective and useful product that meets the company's goals.
Concepts and ideas can be validated early on, reducing time and cost. Sponsor users can contribute their knowledge to product design early on and provide feedback on early design concepts. This can ensure that the product meets the needs of all users.
Sponsor users can improve product adoption by acting as ambassadors for the product within their operational team, as well as a constant liaison between users and the product development team.
I used and successfully implemented the method in the context of the product development of an internal tool for project management. Since the customer introduced new technical processes in order processing, it was necessary to redesign and develop the product from scratch. This required a reorientation of the product, starting from the information architecture to the process flows to the final designed user interface. The requirements and processes to be integrated were very specific and the users were heavily involved in the day-to-day business.
In my case, the sponsor user was chosen in close coordination with the user team management, which was looking for volunteers within the team. It was important to make sure that the selected Sponsor User represented the target group well and worked with the product on a regular basis. They should be an operational staff member who has first-hand knowledge of the user group's experiences and needs. A suitable sponsor user has been found in the largest user group. She works operationally on a daily basis and has been with the company for several years, which means she knows the technical processes very well.
To develop the internal product in a user-centric way, we used a combination of regular user research and collaboration with a sponsor user from the largest and most important user group.
It is important to note that Sponsor User complements regular User Research, but does not replace it.
Unlike a single sponsor user, user research can encompass all user groups and provide extensive, valuable insights. At the same time, having a sufficient sample of people allows for a variety of perspectives, experiences, and opinions to be considered, reducing bias.
In addition to rapid, early evaluation, thereby minimizing risk and cost, the lower communication threshold is also an advantage of working with sponsor users. The regular exchange and the existence of a fixed contact person make it easy to enter into an exchange – in order to jointly improve the product for the users.
A concept is developed by a sponsor user and can then be tested with all user groups in the broad mass, e.g. by means of usability testing or other research methods. All major, important decisions should always be tested by means of UX research.
The collaboration with the sponsor user took place at regular intervals, in our case every two weeks at the beginning of product development. We looked at concepts together, cross-checked them with regard to processes and workflows, clarified open questions, thought about solutions together and developed concepts. Likewise, our sponsor user shared observations and wishes from her operational team with us, so pain points were uncovered. From a more advanced stage of product development, the exchange took place as needed. After two years of working with my sponsor user, she was increasingly assigned strategic tasks by her superiors, independent of her work as a sponsor user. My experience of the last time was that she built up "too much" prior knowledge about planning within the company for a sponsor user, as her decisions and opinions were influenced. It is therefore now time to consider whether she should remain a Sponsor User or whether a change might make sense. In general, I can highly recommend to keep checking over time if the person continues to fit the requirements for a Sponsor User.
Involving a sponsor user in the product development of internal tools has brought numerous benefits for me: her expertise and experience enabled specific requirements to be better taken into account and the quality of the product to be improved. On the one hand, it was a great advantage to get insight into the internal perspective and actually lived processes. On the other hand, I found the low communication threshold very valuable as well as the possibility of an uncomplicated, regular exchange with a fixed, expert contact person without prior recruiting.
The feedback from users was also very positive: participation in product development led to greater acceptance and satisfaction, and our sponsor user became an ambassador for the product in her operational team.
However, in my view, the sponsor user should not replace regular user research, since a sufficient sample of users is needed to minimize cognitive biases and to obtain a comprehensive perspective. However, the exchange was excellent for regular input of knowledge around business processes and the concepts could be further tested in a larger sample.
In my view, integrating a sponsor user into product development is an effective way of adapting internal products to the needs of all employees and increasing their acceptance and efficiency.