Lowering the Barrier

Making programming (everything) more accessible

24 May 2022

Becoming a Plain Old User

Working on a product you yourself use is a blessing and a curse.

If you yourself use the product, you care about what you’re building. When you don’t care or care indirectly about what you’re building, it’s hard to put in effort or feel good about the effort you do put in. Caring gives you the stamina to make something great.

The downside is that you’re too close. Details that most people don’t even notice drive you up a tree. Meanwhile, knowing how the system works lets you slide around annoyances that stop everyone else in their tracks. Your perspective’s off.

I first noticed this phenomenon at Spotify. The times I most enjoyed listening to music with the app came when I was on vacation. If the app recommended me music I liked, I could listen to it! If not, I didn’t have to listen to it! At work, making a recommendation that people didn’t listen to meant you weren’t doing as good a job as you could.

Seeing the distance between the way things could be and the way things are is always painful. Growing up means being able to look squarely at that gap without succumbing to apathy or mania.

So, how do you pull it off? How do you use your product as if you don’t also build your product?

It sounds hokey, but giving yourself space to choose to use whatever it is you build feels key. When I was out of the office, I opened up Spotify because I wanted to listen to music. Not because I had to judge the output of a recommender.

If what you’re building is any good, wouldn’t you choose to use it by default? It’s not that simple. When you’re building, you want to go out of your way to eat your own dogfood. If you don’t, you won’t find and fix the flaws in your product. If you use nothing but your product, you won’t know the strengths of alternatives. You’ll be stuck in a cave staring at your masterpiece.

You’re also under pressure to play the ambassador. If you won’t use your product, why should anyone else? Another key to using your product like a normal user is to do it privately. You don’t have to tweet or share what you do, especially not under work accounts.

Moving to a different space helps immensely. No detail is too minor in this regard. Go to a different location. Go to a different room in your house. If you build software, use it on a personal device. Don’t have work accounts, work software, work notifications on that device. If you notice problems (you most certainly will), don’t login to work accounts to write them down. Do that on your personal device on a separate account. You can always share it later with people!

This all of course means you have to dedicate time to using your product like anyone else would. It feels almost decadent to do that! Shouldn’t you be working on your product instead of just using it? Not always. The time you do take to approach your work as an outsider will pay off in focusing on the right things. And in joy.