Become Your Own Customer

Dogfooding is a shorthand way of saying “eat your own dog food,” which means “use the product you are building.” This is a product development practice that offers many benefits. If your product is valuable to yourself or your team, you have solved an internal problem. Additionally, you will be more likely to find problems in your software before regular customers do. Your team will become more familiar with the features and benefits of what you are building. Thus, dogfooding will turn your product development team into a marketing and sales team. As a final benefit, dogfooding will create a product development environment conducive to collaboration among team members. The best ideas will win, because your team will want the best ideas to make it into the product they are using every day.

Solve a Problem

When I first built Critic, it was to address a definite need. I had a single customer in mind for the initial product. They needed a simple way to collect user feedback paired with technical information stored from application logs. Therefore I set out to build a simple platform to collect actionable customer feedback. I was proud to have quickly developed something that met my product goal. However, that initial win was soon met with embarrassment. I had a customer feedback product that couldn’t accept feedback from my customers!

I definitely wanted to receive feedback on my product, but I didn’t consider that aspect of the product until I had already released. As I’ve mentioned in earlier articles, I focused on releasing a product that validated my idea, not something perfect. Naturally, I decided the best way to address this feedback capability was to use Critic, the very product I wanted feedback on. Now, if you’re a Critic user, you will see a “Give Feedback” link near the top right of every page in the Critic web portal.

Critic feedback form displayed within the Critic web portal

Work Out Product Problems Internally

Discovering problems before your customers do is a major benefit of dogfooding. When you’re building something that you must rely on, you are more likely to find bugs, usability issues, and other problems. That was absolutely the case with Critic’s JavaScript Library. As the creator of Critic, I could have easily built an integration solution that only worked for me. However, adding a feedback form to the Critic web portal gave me an opportunity to do work I knew was needed. Critic’s customers will want a simple way to add Critic feedback reports to their own software, so why not test out integration with my own product?

As part of developing the JavaScript library, I encountered issues with uploading multiple files through JavaScript. Had I not added a Critic feedback form to my own product, an early customer would ultimately take on that undue burden. Thankfully, by dogfooding Critic, I ensured that future customers will not encounter problems with attachments in their feedback forms. I benefited from the value of implementing this feature I needed in my product. Now, customers will benefit from a drastically reduced learning curve in building their own integrations.

Discover New Opportunities and Benefits

In a past life, I created an app distribution service. It was a barebones internal tool that was part of our continuous deployment pipeline. It was great for our team’s needs, saving hours of work each day. Developers no longer had to “side-load” apps several times a day by connecting phones to a computer. Instead, developers would tap a hyperlink to download and install an app outside of the app store. I never considered the possibility of providing a similar service to other companies, until a developer approached me about it. “Would it be possible to white label this for Customer X to use at their company?” Well, certainly, for the right price! This opened up a new contract opportunity because someone that understood the company’s business also understood the utility of the service we had built.

Similarly, dogfooding Critic helped me discover a new way to use report metadata. Metadata is intended to be a “whatever you’d like it to be” feature. It accepts arbitrary JSON data you wish to include in customer feedback reports. However, I had not spent much time to considering all of the potential use cases. By making an example feedback form for the Critic JavaScript Library, I saw a new use case. What if you want customer feedback reports to include a 1-5 star rating of the user’s experience? Metadata gave me a way to store a star rating without building out an entirely new feature. Not only did I find a new way to use my own product, but I hopefully helped potential users think differently about what Critic can do.

Promote Internal Familiarity with Your Product

By dogfooding, your internal users will become more familiar with product features and benefits. It’s one thing to build a product and quite another to use it. Relying on your product to do your job produces very different emotions from team members than product ideation sessions. Once team members are full-fledged customers of your product, they will see the product differently. User experience improvements will elevate in priority, because those improvements will save them time. If your product truly provides value to its users, every member of your team will be able to elucidate its value after using your product. They will rattle off benefits to sales leads, even if the team members aren’t salespeople. They will consider your product—they use it every day, after all—when discussing problems and potential solutions with their peers. Therefore, dogfooding can improve product development, marketing, and sales for your organization.

Dogfooding for Validation

Additionally, dogfooding gives you some early market validation signals. If your team is unwilling to use the software they are building, why would anyone else? Once your team relies on the software they’re building to do their job every day, certainly you have a market. Perhaps it’s a market size equivalent to the size of your team, but there are likely other people in the world who have the same needs. So start with making a product that is useful for you and your team. After you have that—even if it’s a very early release—you have a product worth sharing with your target market.

Promote Team Collaboration by Dogfooding

As I mentioned earlier, dogfooding results in a different level of consideration from your team members. Product ideation meetings, white-boarding, and roadmapping sessions are oftentimes similar to a lecture. The product owner sits at the head of the table and discusses what they want. Everyone else takes notes, nods in agreement, and disperses. This means that the product owner must be the smartest person in the room, because no one else has any motivation to bring new ideas to the table.

But what if your team members had a vested interest in the success of your product? As users that rely on the software to do their jobs, they do. Dogfooding encourages them to build the best product possible, especially one that makes their own lives easier. Certainly, your team likely wants to build a great product already. However, their definition of “great” will change drastically when they directly benefit from positive changes in the product. As internal customers dogfooding the product, they will come to the table with their own ideas and feature suggestions. Product ideation meetings will begin looking less like a lecture and more like a team project. The team’s intimate familiarity with all aspects of the product will result in a stronger product that meets your goals and objectives more quickly.

Want Us to Try Something?

If you’re not dogfooding already, I’ll gladly try your product and provide some feedback. No strings attached. At Inventiv, we’re interested in hearing what our readers and customers are working on. Your ideas help us determine what we should build next to support product teams like yours. Tell us about your product!