Representation of a project management grid that includes sponsor users

Sponsor Users align us with their reality

Sponsor Users are real-world users that regularly contribute their domain expertise to your team, helping you stay in touch with users’ real-world needs throughout the project.

Stay in touch

Despite our best efforts, empathy has its limits. If you’re designing the cockpit of an airliner but you aren’t a pilot, you simply won’t know how it feels to land a plane. Without that first-hand experience, it’s easy to lose touch with our users’ reality and allow bias and personal preference to creep into our work.

Sponsor Users are real users or potential users that bring their experience and expertise to the team. They aren’t passive subjects––they’re active participants who work alongside you to deliver a great outcome. While they won’t complete replace for formal design research and usability studies, Sponsor Users will help you break the empathy barrier and stay in touch with real-world needs throughout your project.

Anatomy of a Sponsor User

A good Sponsor User is representative of your intended user, they’re invested in the outcome, and they have the availability to regularly work with you and your team.

1) Are they representative of your target user?

A good Sponsor User reflects the actual user you intend to serve. As enthusiasitic as your client, customer, or economic buyers may be to help you, they are often not the user who will ultimately derive personal value from your offering.

2) Are they personally invested in the outcome?

A good Sponsor User cares as much about your project’s outcome as you do. Look for candidates who have a particularly demanding use case––a Sponsor User that relies heavily on your offering to be successful will have a vested interest in your project’s success.

A word of caution: don’t mistake a demanding use case with an “extreme” use case. If you’re working on a Hill that concerns a family minivan, a race car driver is probably not a great candidate for a Sponsor User, no matter how interested they are to work with you.

3) Are they available to collaborate?

A good Sponsor User is open and willing to share their expertise and experience with your team.

While being a Sponsor User isn’t a full-time job, it is a commitment. Set expectations, but be respectful of their time and be flexible around their schedule. What’s important is that their insights and ideas are heard.

Working with Sponsor Users

If you’re on a product team, Sponsor User relationships are owned by Offering Management and Design, but it’s worth connecting with your Sales and Marketing teams to provide candidates. If you’re on a services team, your client will connect you with Sponsor User candidates in their organization, but the IBM team is responsible for communicating Sponsor User criteria to the client.

While Sponsor Users don’t replace formal design research and usability studies, every interaction you have with them will close the gap between your assumptions and their reality. Treat them as a part of the team. As collaborators, they’ll leave a significant mark on the project.

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Sponsor Users and Hills

Make sure to write Hills and have a sense of your target users before attempting to recruit Sponsor Users. As you refine your Hills and clarify your target users, you can begin to recruit Sponsor Users whose use case best fits a particular Hill. We recommend having at least one Sponsor User per Hill.

Observe through their eyes

Let Sponsor Users show you their world. Help them see with fresh eyes and enable them to share their insights with you. Share your insights back. You may discover a side of their story that you wouldn’t otherwise see.

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Reflect together

Listen carefully to your Sponsor Users’ input. Include them in your Playbacks and have them help refine your Hills. Like any other team member, they won’t always get what they want. But if they tell you that you’re not solving their problem or that you’re adding complexity to their lives, you’re probably going in the wrong direction.

Make collaboratively

As you make, let your Sponsor Users be your guide. Consult them frequently. Better yet, encourage them to contribute their own ideas by giving them the tools to express themselves and make alongside you.

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