August 10th, 2019

The benefits of using your own products

Recently, a ZacTax city asked if we'd take a quick look at their recent sales tax trends and provide some high-level feedback. There had been a few "hiccup" months this fiscal year and they wanted to know if we would recommend a full analysis or perhaps a forecast. Our general policy is to say "yes" whenever someone asks for something, and this was no exception. 

About 15 minutes in, we had a pretty good idea that the hiccups were just that: extremely rare events that were not indicative of their overall trajectory. While there might be larger trends to be more cautious of, we didn't see any reason to be concerned by the particular issues this city had dealt with.

ZacTax was built to scratch our own itch, and as the platform has grown we've been able to answer pretty much every question we had about our own sales tax data. But other than answering support questions here and there, we haven't done many deep dives into "new" or "unknown" data since we built it. This was a great opportunity to see our platform with fresh eyes, and we had a few important takeaways:

  • Although we were able to answer all the questions we needed to answer, some questions were harder to answer than they should have been.
  • Having built the platform, we knew exactly where to turn to find certain things. But not everything is as intuitive as it could be.
  • For one or two questions, we had to go straight to the database to get answers, which is obviously not something that can be done in userland.

It was an extremely refreshing experience, and it informed a lot about the upcoming refresh due later this fall. It also got us thinking about the concept of dogfooding and how valuable it can be for public managers.

Dogfooding, you say?

Proverbially speaking, eating one's own dogfood refers to using your own product(s). It's a common term in the software industry (and others) but it's not one I've ever heard used among public administrators. We credit dogfooding as a major reason why ZacTax was able to disrupt this industry: we were (and to our knowledge, still are) the only sales tax analysis platform whose developers actually had to use it for their day job.

Dogfooding is especially common in the software industry because good products often come from itch-scratching. The folks at Basecamp needed a simpler project management software to manage their client work; Slack started as an internal tool to collect knowledge and conversations. They built these products so that they could use them, and eventually others, too.

Can we dogfood in local government?

In local government, we think a little differently. First, we "build products" almost exclusively for other people; but more importantly, we often don't think about what we do as a product. Not surprisingly, we often don't look for ways to be our own customers.

Outside of a water bill, speeding ticket, or roof permit, how many times have you acted as a customer for your organization? And, perhaps more to the point, how many times have you consumed the products you produce as your customers consume them?

This is a key distinction. If you work in budget or finance, do you hold yourself to the same reporting standards that you put on the IT department? If you work in IT, do you have to to go through the same approvals to install new software that you enforce on the finance analyst? And dare I say it... if you work in planning, is it easier for you to get your pool permit than the average Joe or Jane?

If you haven't consumed the products you produce as your customers consume them, you're missing out on a great opportunity to find ways to make everyone's life easier. Ways to streamline; ways to make the shortcuts more apparent.

Your customers aren't immersed in your operations like you are; they don't know the ins and outs. It's important to empathize with their needs, lack of subject matter expertise, and general desire to just get what they need and move on with their lives. Make it a habit to look for opportunities to truly put yourself in your customers' shoes.