Thursday, June 13, 2013

Beware of Dogfooding in Association Management

Just a fun video that everyone has already seen, but it's totally worth a re-watch.

One of the things we struggle with in associations is the development of new programs and services.  I can't tell you how many times I have seen programs developed in committees, with painstaking attention to detail and marketing, vigorous debates around pricing, long contracts drawn up establishing royalty relationships and then well timed wide launches at conferences or events with a full court communications press annnnnnnnnnd........crickets.

It's the non-dues revenue nightmare that has gotten more than one of us in trouble over the years.  Inevitably, the cycle begins:

  • Denial: "We just need a better marketing effort."
  • Anger: "What do they want from us!??  They tell us they want things like this and we give it to them and they don't participate!  Jerks!" 
  • Bargaining: "What if we adjust the pricing? What if we added features? What if....?!?!?"
  • Depression: "How could we have gotten this so wrong?  I mean, we did a survey and everything!"
  • Acceptance: "Fine, cancel the ads. Get the committee back together, we'll just have to come up with something else."

The fact is, we use dogfooding way too much in our development process and we need to think about those processes differently.

Here is a great article from Fast Company about how proper dogfooding might have saved Facebook Home.  The way I understand it, the term "dogfooding" is just slang for a certain way of approaching development processes.  It's the idea that you must personally learn and practice with programs and platforms so when you are developing new features, or completely new offerings, you have an innate sense of what your users (a.k.a., members) want.  You are, in a sense, making sure you are regularly eating your own dogfood.

That really makes a lot of sense. The problem is, that strategy only works up to a point. It's been demonstrated in research done by ASAE that board members, engaged volunteers, and even staff, are by their very nature disconnected from the normal member experience. (We can argue about whether or not that is an optimal situation to even HAVE disengaged members, but that is a subject for another post.) The fact is, the people who are usually in charge of development of new programs and services often have skewed perceptions of value, usability and even desirability.

The lesson to take from this is yes, you should have a deep level of familiarity with your own offerings and your members environment.  During the brainstorming and development process dogfooding can help you work out major bugs, see major flaws and get the product or service in shape for further testing.  But then you have to bring in outsiders to really give you an honest critique of the program.  ESPECIALLY if you are in love with the idea.  If you are already an enthusiastic fan, you have clearly lost your ability to be objective.

If features are queen, usability is king.  If you already know how to use it, you have to find people who don't in order to gain a balanced perspective.

Facebook Home failed.  Good for them for trying but really...splat.  If they had used the idea of dogfooding correctly, maybe they could have avoided the traps they fell into.  Maybe we can too.

Happy chowing all!


  1. Awesome post, Shelly. I have always had an inherent bias toward the systematic development process but given the "speed" with which associations work ... the opportunity is long gone by time assessment, planning, and release has been completed. Everything we ever did that worked well was a suggestion from the masses to where we weren't eating the dog food but they--the co-originators and eventual users--actually were. My boss misunderstood this to think we should experiment with everything that came up--"throw it all on the wall, and see what sticks" but the last thing we'd ever do is turn to the board or a committee to design new services that we'd actually want to have widespread use and real value.

  2. Thanks Kevin! Nice of you to stop by :D


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