Is your team eating dog food yet?
The year is 1973 and you are watching your favorite television Western, “Bonanza”. Just after America’s favorite TV dad, and beloved cowboy tips his hat, it cuts to a commercial break. There’s your star in a leisure suit next to his pooch explaining that ALPO dog food is what he feeds his dogs, so you should too. This sentiment can be found in many forms of advertising and boils down to this: I’m an expert in this field, and I choose to use this product.
If you were to flip this reasoning, it could be said that if you use a product enough, you can become the expert. We don’t know for sure if this was the exact origin, but this common use of testimonial advertising was used as an example by leaders in the early tech scene of how to become an expert. Since then it’s been applied to the term “Dogfooding.”
Dogfooding is the practice of becoming the user of the product you are making. If you are eating your own dog food, you presumably will make sure it tastes great. Obviously this metaphor has some problems, but the tech industry has been using it since Bonanza was still one of the most popular TV shows.
It’s been said that engineers at both Microsoft and Apple aggressively used the dogfooding approach early on to improve the experience of their products. A great example is a company wide memo from Apple Computer President Mike Scott on 2/1/1980 that read:
Mike Scott wanted their employees to use the product they were making because it meant there was more testing, and quicker turnaround on feedback.
Not every product has this luxury, but at Noun Project we too solved a problem our employees can use. We created the visual asset manager Lingo. Ever since it was a very early prototype, we’ve all had it installed on our computers. This allowed the entire team to constantly put our idea to the test, and explore what it would be capable of.
This type of testing leads to some unexpected insights. Such as scale. We found that the more we used the product it was harder to use. This lead the way for features like searching, and more detailed information architecture. We also found that we wanted to use it with a growing list of software, which pushed us to include many different file cuts after adding just a single version.
Being your biggest customer has it’s problems though. If you eat the dogfood, are you making it taste good for your puppy, or for yourself? This makes you have to consider the question - Are my needs really the same as my users? There is a great scene in the HBO show “Silicon Valley” that showcases what happens when you realize that building a product for yourself doesn’t always mean it will work for the people you are selling to.
To solve this problem, we need to stop thinking about dogfooding as eating the dog
In other words, become the puppy, don’t just eat his food.