How to feed your users dog food

October 31, 2007

For all software that I write, I am an immense fan of the “Eat your own dog food” dogma. It tells that you should be willing to run your own software on your own systems. It’s the perfect way of finding out if this new dog food that you invented really is as good as you think it is. As long as you do not want to eat your own dog food, then there is probably something wrong with it.

Applying this rule to Phorum development, it means that I always try to keep up with the bleeding edge development tree for my live forum web site. This is of course not for the faint of heart and I do not recommend anybody to start doing this, unless:

  • You are an experienced Phorum developer;
  • You do not panic when things go “boom!“;
  • You have a user base which is prepared for the worst.

Especially the users are an important factor here, since forums involve both a lot of users and a lot of user functionality. If the users are not prepared well for the fact that occasional bugs can occur, they might get angry with you and leave. To keep this from happening, here are a few things that you can do:

  • Let your users know that they are used as lab rats.
    Before I switched my forums from some old Phorum 3 version to the active 5.2 development tree, I explained to my users that they would become an important part of Phorum development, because they would always be using the most up-to-date Phorum system in the world. Therefore they would be the first ones to run into development bugs.
  • Let your users know that being a lab rat is cool.
    Users will not only be the first ones to run into bugs, they will also be the ones to run into brand new features. Since development is spread over time, these new features will not arrive all at once. We all know that in the end it is more fun to slowly eat a bag of candy than to eat a full bag in one go. The users will also be the ones to be using new features, long before they become available through the stable software releases.
  • Always inform about upgrades that you have done.
    I always let my users know when I upgrade some part of the system. If the upgrade involves a visible change I tell them what changes for them. In my experience, users tend to report more bugs if they can respond to an upgrade notification. I often have received bug reports as response to an upgrade notification, which did not at all relate to the specific upgrade.
  • Always respond to bug reports.
    Do not let your users linger after they reported a bug to you. Users that report bugs are valuable and you should treat them as such. Try to solve bugs on short notice and report back about the progress. If you cannot solve a bug immediately, be sure to let the users know that you are working on it.

A lot of this info might seem rather obvious. I have seen projects however, where user care was not really high on the agenda, causing all kinds of user frustration. I hope this info might be useful to others who want to involve their user base in their software development process.

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