Dogfooding — Why companies should use their own products

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Dogfooding? I know that it sounds like something perverse that someone who is a little too attached to their canine friend might get up to (or is that just my slightly warped imagination) but apparently it’s a term for when a company use their own products. It’s an odd term and the exact origins of it appear to be unclear. Personally I like to believe the story that it came about from the president of Kal Kan Pet Food apparently eating a can of their dog food at every shareholders’ meeting! Sadly I don’t think that the current CEO continues this noble tradition. It’s certainly a better term than the somewhat pretentious, “drinking our own champagne” or the rather dull “eating our own cooking”.

Dogfooding has been popularised by companies such as Microsoft and Hewlett Packard, who encourage their staff to always use their own products whenever possible. I’m going to outline why dogfooding is generally a good idea, but also highlight some of the potential dangers. Before I do so, I’d like to tell you a little bit about my own experience of dogfooding (very much of the using your own products kind, not the kind that in anyway involves dogs).

A few years ago I used to work as a UX designer for Thomson, a package holiday provider in the UK. As part of my job I would continually look for ways to improve the user experience on the site. How can we make it easier for users to find holidays? How can we make it easier for users to book holidays? All those good things that lead to happy users, and ultimately better sales. Like a lot of companies Thomson offered employees a discount scheme on their own products. This meant that people in the company invariably ended up going on quite a lot of Thomson holidays and using the customer website to do so.

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Thomson encourages employees to use the customer website to book their holidays

After about a year with the company I too looked to book a Thomson holiday for my family. I wanted somewhere not too hot (at the time my son was about 2 years old — toddlers don’t generally deal well with heat), not too far away, and with enough in the area to keep us busy (we’re not really a stay at the beach kind of family). I opened up my web browser, navigated to the Thomson website and a very funny thing happened. Suddenly I was using the site for real. I wasn’t going through some persona driven scenario, or carrying out a cognitive walkthrough, no, I was using the site as a real user would (well sort of, more about this later). In doing so I learnt and realised things that I hadn’t really appreciated in the last 12 or so months of evaluating the site. I noticed search filters that would be really useful, like a family friendly filter. I noticed important holiday information that was missing. I noticed how frustrating it was to have to walk through most of the checkout in order to find out which holiday options were available. In short, the experience opened my eyes to how real users experience the site, because I was experiencing the site for the first time as a real user.

“Yeah, before you abuse, criticize and accuse
Walk a mile in my shoes”
Joe South (lyrics from “Walk a mile in my shoes”)

Empathy is really important when it comes to designing and delivering great user experiences. Understanding the user’s perspective; walking a mile in their shoes. Encouraging everyone within a company to use their own products (sorry, the novelty of the term ‘dogfooding’ has now worn off I’m afraid) is a great way to help build empathy for users. It allows everyone to walk in the user’s shoes. Maybe not for a mile, but at least a little way.

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Dogfooding is a great way to get people to walk a little way in the user’s shoes

Using the company’s own products also helps to build product knowledge and experience within the company. After all, you learn so much more from actively doing and experiencing something than just reading about it, or being told. It’s why travel agents that have been to a particular holiday destination are much more effective at selling it than those who haven’t. It can also help to spark ideas for new products, not to mention identify ways to improve existing ones. Like the examples I highlighted from the Thomson website, when people use something for real they will often think of improvements which they otherwise wouldn’t have thought of.

Encouraging everyone in a company to use the company’s products also means that you’ve got a ready user base within the company. You’ve got a way to quickly and relatively easily get feedback and insights from users. For example, trialling new designs, or finding out which features are most important. As you’ll see, this information needs to be taken not so much with a pinch of salt, as a large rock of salt, but it’s certainly better to have some insights, than none at all.

The final reason why it’s a good idea to encourage everyone in a company to use the company’s own products is because it can help to build enthusiasm, dare I say even love for those products within the company. Of course if you’re asking people to use a terrible product then it can have the opposite effect. Forcing people to use a product that is clearly crap is going to breed resentment. However, even this can help to galvanise people into trying to improve things, if only so that their own experience isn’t so terrible. Just be wary of people seeing a product through rose-tinted glasses. After all, we all know parents who believe that their bug ugly children are really cute children of the year contenders.

“All that glisters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told.”
William Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice)

On the face of it encouraging everyone in the company to be users of the company’s own products is a great way to build a feedback and learning loop. However, and this is a big HOWEVER, it’s certainly no substitute for real user feedback and learnings. In fact sometimes it can be more of a help, than a hindrance. Why? Because you, and everyone else within your company are not really users. You all know too much. You’re tainted I’m afraid, and no matter how much you scrub, how many showers you have and how much deodorant you apply, you’ll always be tainted with the sweet smell of being an employee. And as an employee you know more about a product, you know more about a product domain and you know more about the company that develops that product than 99.9% of your users. And this information influences your behaviour, it influences your mental model and it influences your perceptions, even if you don’t consciously think that it does.

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Always remember that you are not your users, only a pale imitation of the real thing

You can see therefore that heavily relying on your own internal users, or indeed your own use for feedback can be dangerous because it’s all too easy to build up a false picture. It’s all too easy to over egg issues that are not issues, to miss issues that really are issues and to ultimately build an internally facing product, rather than one that really resonates with real users. So by all means indulge in a healthy big of dogfooding, it’s generally a very good thing, just pay attention to the aforementioned health warnings. Oh and if you are going to eat your own dogfood, I recommend the beef in jelly. It’s yummy…

If you like this article then please recommend and share it. You can find lots more articles like this on my blog: UX for the Masses

Robot dog with Japanese food by Hiroaki Maeda
White Converse All Stars Chuck Taylor Low Tops by Pagemaker787
A group of Elvis Presley Tribute Artists by Paul Smith / Martin Fox

Former techy turned UX Jedi. Checkout out my blog (UX for the Masses) for more about me.

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