On the eve of SlimWare’s first public beta, I found myself pacing back and forth as a spectrum of lights filled the windows overlooking the Vegas strip below. With sweaty palms and a mind that was already racing, I was about to put it all on the line — not on table games; these stakes were much higher. I was at the infamous Black Hat technology conference, where we were launching our company’s first line of products. Some of the industry’s most talented—and critical—experts were going to be looking at my company’s software for the first time.
If I could go back in time, I would remind my sleep-deprived self that and the advice and criticism we were about to receive were exactly what we came for, good or bad. How we internalized and used the advice would determine the fate of our company.
And that’s the key to a beta test. The beta process forces entrepreneurs to accept that their product—the one they’ve spent countless hours, meetings and sleepless nights developing—isn’t perfect. More importantly, those imperfections, if not accounted for, addressed and fixed, can derail, delay or sink the company. That’s a cold reality that entrepreneurs may know, but still find difficult to accept. The process of seeking out useful, constructive criticism about your new product is never easy.
Traditionally, beta testing means reaching out to a community of non-employees and giving them advanced access to your product in return for feedback about what worked, what didn't, and where improvements could be made. This feedback helps identify bugs, weaknesses, and other issues in your product and its presentation before the main market launch, giving you time to make tweaks and changes. In reality, you may find yourself completely redesigning your product based on the way people interact with it and use it, or even revamping your strategy.
I won’t sugar coat it for you. There’s nothing Justin Timberlake "cool" about it, but, running a successful beta requires proper planning and forethought. The keys are to identify your target audience, figure out ways to engage as many of them as possible, get them to try your product or service, and then facilitate a dialogue with them so that you can understand every detail about the priceless feedback they provide.
At SlimWare Utilities, we use crowdsourcing in developing our PC cleaning and optimization software. In launching our suite of software products, we've been through dozens of beta tests and remain in constant contact with our community of contributors and users. The following are a few "lessons learned" over the years that have helped us, and I hope, will help you, maximize your beta test:
- Find the right community.
The key to a successful beta test is a community of knowledgeable, committed beta testers. Though many companies try to lure potential testers with gifts and benefits, that’s not always necessary. One good way to find beta testers is to reach out to other, more established software companies, blogs, or websites in your industry that offer complementary, though not competing, technologies. In our case, we’re interested in feedback from the "power users" in technology, so sites that tech-savvy PC enthusiasts like to visit, such as MajorGeeks.com, Alternativeto.net, or Beta News, are important avenues for us to offer "special access beta testing," in return for input from the users at those sites.
For your core audience, the chance to be among the first to try out a product, and then offer feedback that will help shape that product, can be an alluring opportunity.
- Trust your testers.
Once you've found your community, pay close attention to the feedback they provide—even if the comments seem off-base at first glance. When we came out with our first crowd-sourced application a few years ago, one of the earliest comments we received questioned the validity of crowd-sourcing—the heart of what we do! Our first reaction—how dare they!—gave way to a more reasoned approach, and prompted us to develop a product update we now highlight as an important differentiator.
It’s easy to get caught up in the benefit of a particular feature or update, but this can sometimes lead to missing a flaw or neglecting the bigger picture of how it impacts your user interface. What's more, it’s easy to get defensive and take the criticism personally. While this may be human nature, it doesn’t help the product. A successful beta test requires an open-minded entrepreneur who is willing to accept the fresh perspective that beta testers provide.
- Filter out the noise.
However, this doesn’t mean you should make every change your testers suggest. Testers are not employed by the company, nor do they have access to a company's master plan. As a result, they may offer suggestions that make sense, but conflict with your modus operandi.
While it’s critical to maximize each product and account for as many issues as possible, it’s even more important not to lose sight of your overall vision and master plan. For example, when feedback questioned our use of crowdsourcing, we didn't abandon that central pillar of our operations. Instead, we added a feature in our product that alleviated the concern and allowed us to remain true to our vision.
This is especially true when you’re trying to change the way people normally operate or think. Most beta testers compare a new technology to other, similar offerings on the market. They tend to suggest that certain features or functions should work more like what they’re used to, or whatever they already see on the market. However, what makes a product special is how it’s different. If your product is based on altering the way consumers are used to doing something, it’s important to help them make the transition comfortably, but it’s more important not to lose sight of the bigger picture, and your long-term goals.
- Maintain long-term relationships.
Though finding testers for your company's first beta can be a challenge, it’s a challenge that you should only have to go through once. A beta test is an opportunity to develop a strong relationship with a group of committed users who can provide feedback going forward. Stay in contact with them; encourage them to "like" your company’s Facebook page and respond to them when they provide comments or ask questions. Let them know about your company’s progress and milestones so that they feel involved and know how important they are to your success.
Most beta testers get involved because they have a passion for software and technology. In return, most only request that their feedback be acknowledged. Recognizing the value and importance of this community can help you create a cadre of enthusiasts committed to the development and long-term success of your product. For the most part, this recognition doesn’t require any incentive (though a free T-shirt to say thank you never hurts).
—Chris Cope is the CEO of SlimWare Utilities.
[Image: Flickr user Rubén Chase]