/ software

Dogfood the Crap Out of It.

A lot of companies these days are worshiping at the altar of "Product" and while that is probably one of the better altars one could worship at, it does set up a new kind of problem.

If you have a product in the market already that you are tweaking and enhancing this can work, but in cases where you are trying to do something new, or different it's easy to focus on your current customers, and before you know it, your road map is full of customer requested features and customer data from focus groups set up by product managers trying to answer difficult questions.

Most of us spend most of our time working on something that is just this kind of incremental advance. Your customers here are often deeply immersed in the product; they are in it with you and it's pretty straightforward to have a conversation with them where you are imagining the future together.

On rare occasions we get to build something new, something where we have the potential to redefine an entire market. Here you are solving an unsolved problem, or radically changing something from the normal way. This is where your customers can't help you as much. You imagine a change to the world, but it's almost impossible to bring along a potential user without putting something that makes that new experience real for them. Until you see and touch different, your advice is often locked to your current frame of reference.

In 2006 the second smartest group of cell phone people on the planet still thought this was amazing:


They weren't wrong, they just didn't have the radically different world view that was about to become normal. Internally you need to be able to hold that vision for the future across as much of your team as possible, and you are going to want to do that until your product is really good enough to show off that vision to a potential customer. Dogfooding, even in short term rounds is one of the best ways to do that. If you can't get your own team to use it, how could you expect someone else to spend money on it?

I've seen a lot of examples where people got disconnected from what matters because they had a customer approved feature list, and focus group data showing that the features were usable. When customers actually started using it, there was nothing special or better about it than other products. In fact what stood out was the number of places where there wasn't a competitive feature rather than the features delivered.

Ultimately the reason for this was that in serving what customers had asked for, the team lost track of what made the product special and worth building in the first place. Most customers are change adverse, they want the same thing cheaper, or a little faster. Right up until the moment someone shows them a better way; if you are lucky enough to be working on something new, a product that has a chance to stand out, don't miss the opportunity to make it special instead of just retreading another product already in the market.