Anyone who has filled out a physical form at a bank or post office has probably wondered if the people who created the form ever tried using it themselves. Doing so would help catch obvious design flaws and rectify them. For instance, in India, there are names that run longer than the inadequate address fields commonly found in forms. These kinds of issues inconvenience people and force them to squeeze a lot of details into a tiny space—usually when they're already in a hurry or an anxious state of mind.
For the teams designing these forms, putting themselves in the users' shoes would help avoid such situations. This is just one example of how using one's own products and services can help improve them. In fact, it happens to be a popular practice in the tech industry. So what sci-fi-sounding name did the tech industry give it? Dogfooding.
Yes, you're right, dogfooding is not a very tech-sounding name at all. So why is it called that? Looking into the term's origin story points to an Alpo pet food ad that aired in the US decades ago. In it, the actor mentions that Alpo is what he feeds his own dogs. This is said to be the inspiration behind Microsoft executive Paul Maritz famously sending an email to Microsoft employees with the title "Eating our own dogfood", in 1988. As you can guess, the email emphasized the importance of Microsoft employees using their own products.
If you think 'dogfooding' is a term that leaves a bad taste in your mouth, you may not be alone. Perhaps it explains the rise of its sparkly rebrand: 'drinking your own champagne'. Anyway, whatever one's culinary preferences, the underlying concept is the same—it's a practice that bestows certain advantages to its adherents whether within or outside tech. In this blog, let's take a closer look at what those advantages are.
Let's begin by getting the most obvious advantages of dogfooding out of the way. The first one is the power to iron out the creases in products or services before launch. This is especially relevant in tech, where it allows developers to catch bugs early and allows companies to go to market with a relatively glitch-free product that's been polished by daily use within the company. The second, of course, is cost savings—using your own product means that you don't have to foot any bills for the application. So what are the less obvious advantages?
A lack of glitches and error-free code do not equate to a good product. Sometimes the rules you need to look out for are not generated by a programming language but by subconscious expectations. Across industries, user-friendliness is a factor that is increasing in importance. As products become more refined and sophisticated, the expectations from customers also increase.
In the English language, we use adjectives in a way that conforms to a certain hierarchy without us realizing it: opinion, size, age, shape, origin, color, and purpose, in that order. This is why we don't say 'French, green, big bowl' but 'big, green, French bowl' instead. The former is jarring to hear.
Customers today are so used to streamlined experiences that it has given rise to a similarly unspoken set of rules and a grammar of intuitiveness. Violating these expectations can lead to jarring UI/UX experiences and customer dissatisfaction. Unwelcome surprises result in bad reviews and negative word of mouth.
The takeaway here is that finishing the product-building checklist does not mean all the boxes in the customer expectation checklist have been ticked. They are two different checklists. What can help your business with the latter? Empathy certainly helps.
Having genuine empathy for your customer is something that is key when designing a product or service. Everyone knows this intellectually, of course, but very few businesses internalize it. Doing so would mean seeing the world through your customers' eyes, understanding their paint points, and imagining all the scenarios in which they would use your product. You must understand the challenges they are looking to overcome and what they're trying to solve. However, empathy for the customer is easy to preach but difficult to achieve.
Why is empathy difficult? People invariably feel a sense of detachment when they work on things that are meant for someone else. At an abstract level, employees are aware of the fundamental requirements of the product but they can't connect with its purpose at a deeper level. Developers in particular are experts in the creation of products but lack what ordinary customers have—expertise in the usage of those products. Not surprisingly, becoming your own user/customer is the best way to put the philosophy of empathy into practice.
When non-developer (replace 'developer' with 'engineer' or 'designer' according to your industry) employees use the company's products, they face some of the same stumbling blocks that customers face. This helps prevent developers from making products too powerful and feature-heavy at the cost of simplicity.
Becoming customer zero also transforms the way collaboration happens internally. Traditionally, different departments have the tendency to work as silos. Teams often know the answer to 'what' they are building, but don't always have a good understanding of the 'why'. This exacerbates certain flaws inherent in organizations, namely that tendency for departments to work in isolation. They end up optimizing for the metrics and targets relevant to their functions instead of working in harmony for the greater good of the product and, by extension, the customer.
When dogfooding is put into practice, however, it helps them connect the dots and understand the 'why'. This understanding cuts through the jargon and gets to the heart of the matter. The deep knowledge employees gain with continuous exposure through daily use translates into improved strategic alignment and consensus across departments. It brings together different teams cohesively to execute on a common vision. It allows everyone to be on the same page and to speak the same language.
Imagine this in action with, say, your sales teams. Wouldn't it be better if they weren't just parroting some information that was fed to them by the product or marketing teams but were sincerely speaking from the heart, drawing upon their deep experience with the product? A salesperson who is prepared with all the answers to queries your customers may ask is undoubtedly a more successful one.
This kind of thinking is why the food delivery business DoorDash encourages all its employees up to the C-suite level to make deliveries to customers. As told to Protocol, it helps DoorDash employees "stay close to our stakeholders, and our products, and our offerings and see how they can be improved day to day."
Dogfooding helps employees be truly invested in your product. You'll be surprised at the number of opportunities for innovation dogfooding can bring about. What's more, this will happen in a bottom-up manner, percolating from a diverse range of employees across functions with wildly different skill sets and strengths. This is contrary to the typical scenario, where innovation happens within the product management silo and decisions are pushed in a top-down manner. The top-down approach leads to more one-dimensional results, whereas the decentralized and multidisciplinary approach associated with dogfooding enriches the product in a more complete and holistic way.
Apart from quality and productivity, the benefits of dogfooding extend to even more intangible elements, such as your organization's culture. Pride is a powerful emotion that many business leaders would give anything to instill in their employees. Naturally, your employees' pride in your business increases when they use the company's products. Employees are more motivated when they receive frequent reminders of their impact.
With dogfooding, they experience their contribution to the world first-hand, all the time. For us at Zoho, we believe that dogfooding has been one of many factors that have served to inculcate employee loyalty, helping us enjoy one of the lowest churn rates across the industry.
With this sense of pride and ownership, however, employees also turn into your most vocal and honest critics. This is actually great news. Like anyone serious about improving their craft will tell you, constructive criticism is invaluable, and it's also hard to come by. Even the customers for whom we're designing the products and services cannot be trusted blindly.
Customer surveys may not always give you the right input. For example, they may be too busy to respond properly and may prioritize finishing the questionnaire over providing feedback that accurately represents their experience. But with employees truly invested and involved in the success of their products, you can count on a steady stream of healthy feedback that can transform your product from a lumpy rock into a finely polished diamond.
It's not easy to identify who practices dogfooding by looking at a company's products—but the converse is usually true. That being said, not all businesses can practice dogfooding. There are industries where it's simply not practical. It's also important to bear in mind that dogfooding cannot replace traditional methods for product quality assurance. Formalized user testing programs, for example, must remain in place. However, used right, dogfooding is a way to transform your business into a more agile one, deliver customer satisfaction in a superior way, and empower employees to be the driving force for your organization.
Read about how we dogfooded our way to creating a brand new end-to-end software solution for events here.