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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Soliciting features from your pre-release / beta testers to get them more involved ..

An active set of pre-release participants can be very useful for a product team. Typically why does a team use a pre-release program ? Following are some of the reasons:
- Pre-release participants provide external validation of the features of the application, verifying whether the features that have been built into the product are deemed useful for potential customers. When a team builds a feature, they do so on the basis of market research or other inputs, and then through a process of design and working with the user interface team, they design a solution that is supposed to meet the needs of customers. You can show the workflow to research user bases early, but the validation is only when people get their hands on the product and test it out. And this is extremely valuable, since this sort of validation comes in early enough that there can be changes made in the product to incorporate such feedback.
- Many of these pre-release participants would have been there for multiple versions of the product, and as a result, they have a good knowledge of the product with the advantage that they also have knowledge of actual customer workflows, and hence can quickly suggest some great ways of improving the features. It is upto the product team to take such improvements or not, but I have seen cases where this kind of interaction with the pre-release participant helped the product team learn about some workflows that they were not aware of before. This kind of knowledge is invaluable and the product team should ensure that such participants remain committed to contributing to the pre-release program.
- If you consider the case of video products or imaging products or products that are used for writing to CD/DVD, there are a huge range of devices out there. It is practically impossible for a product team to obtain as well as test these range of devices but when you have a large number of pre-release participants, you can be sure that the total number of devices that you are able to test with is more than what you could obtain on your own, and this gives increased confidence on the part of the product team in the product. As another example, we had a case whereby the product was importing video clips, and there are a large number of video formats that can be used. In one specific format, the embedding of audio with the video clip was crashing the application, and this was not happening with other formats. We would never have found this issue, it was reported by a pre-release participant.

With all these, what else can you do with a pre-release participant. I had earlier mentioned that you need to engage with these valuable testers, and engage with them early. I have seen teams using these participants earlier in the program, even working with them during the feature requirement and feature workflow design process, and even making modifications or tweaks based on the inputs that were received. As a result, there were valuable improvements in the features as well as ensuring that the pre-release participants became very involved with the product. A spin off was that many of them became more active in the user forums and helped some of the more simple customer issues.

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