No, this post isn’t about man’s best friend or his favourite dishes. Eating your own dog food refers to a company using its own products. Believed to have originated at Microsoft in the 1980s, it’s a colloquialism I’ve always believed in at every place I’ve worked for. It’s not always easily achievable but you need to find a way to use your own product, if you truly want to understand it as consumers do.
It’s easy to get into a bubble and focus only on what you think your product is or what you hope your product will do. Sometimes programmers are assigned a task and they view it purely as a task to be accomplished. I worked at a company previously who was making a Facebook version of their popular web game. Some fellow coders told me how they had never tried the game yet because they didn’t use Facebook. That’s great but we’re making a Facebook game, so you better start using Facebook now. Often I hear arguments about how a feature ought to work, from people who have never themselves used the product and don’t realize that it doesn’t work as they planned it to. That’s why you’ve got to use your own product; you’ve got to be eating your own dog food.
Thus, I came to the conclusion that the designer of a new system must not only be the implementor and the first large-scale user; the designer should also write the first user manual. The separation of any of these four components would have hurt TeX significantly. If I had not participated fully in all these activities, literally hundreds of improvements would never have been made, because I would never have thought of them or perceived why they were important. – Donald E. Knuth, “The Errors Of TeX”
Making a product you believe in
Perhaps we’re very fortunate at Travel to Live because we’re making a product we really believe in. We hatched the whole idea when we were flying back from one of our many travels. This is a product that, by definition, is one we want to and do use. That’s why when I started planning my Vienna trip, I started planning it on Travel to Live.
You can gain a lot of insight by eating your own dog food. Regular bug testing won’t catch everything because you won’t think of every use case. By using the product naturally, you find those corner cases or you find the places your app breaks down and stops being fun. You think of new ideas for the future. Soon, your bug list has exploded, your wish list has created work for the next ten years, and your understanding of the product has deepened immensely.
It sounds like all upsides but it isn’t. It’s easy to become distracted or to lose focus. Every software developer knows that you can’t implement every dream feature or fix every bug. The first thing I learned when I started working at Electronic Arts is that the typical game ships with hundreds or thousands of bugs. Most of these errors are simple: the user will never see them. But it’s a reality every project manager needs to consider when prioritizing tasks and assigning work.
I’m on day 4 of my trip and I’ve already thought of months worth of work, all of which would derail us from our current plans. Right now, we want to focus on user acquisition and the early experience. As a power user of this site, the things that matter to me aren’t the things that matter to our target users. You can’t lose sight of that. You can’t allow bias to cloud your judgement and change your plans. I would absolutely love to implement a tagging feature right now, to make sorting my Ideas much easier, but it’s not a top priority. It’s going to have to wait a little longer.
The most important thing to do is fill out the bug reports and write down the new user stories. Don’t lose all this valuable data. Issues can be closed and rejected or simply scheduled for the future. You lose nothing by recording these valuable insights.
Eating your own dog food is important at all levels of the company
The most difficult thing is keeping all employees engaged. In a small startup, it’s not so difficult, because the company is made up of a tight group of passionate people. They wouldn’t be working on the project if they weren’t interested. It’s a different story in a larger company, meaning startups need to keep their culture as they grow. As companies grow, they hire people to do a task, not always because they are passionate about the product. It’s important to keep a culture of eating your own dog food in the company because employees may not do it without prompting.
Like many millennials, I believe everybody has something to contribute, at all levels. I believe everybody should feel included. You want the people at the lowest level of the company to be able to raise issues that might be important, issues which the highest levels might find important. If everybody is using the product, you maximize the number of different internal viewpoints on the product, which can only be a good thing. You don’t need to implement everything Joe in QA wants; however, he just might be using the product in a way you never imagined.
Time to eat more
I’ve been writing this article from Cafe Tirolerhof in Vienna, Austria. I’m on vacation but an entrepreneur is never truly on vacation. After all, I’m eating my own dog food every day I’m here. Follow my adventures on my personal blog or view my Vienna trip on Travel to Live! Coming soon: blog integration with your personal profile! Stay tuned for more details.