November

25

What Does Beta Mean?

2300468831_aa2a8071be_mPlease Note: This item is cross-posted from the Strutta blog (my day job). I felt that it was relevant enough to post here as well, as it documents some of the process of launching and marketing a software product, from my perspective.

Last night we received a question from a Strutta user via the contact form. He asked, “When are we going to be not beta? Why is there beta anyway?”

As soon as I read it, I knew that this was the kind of question that warranted its own blog post, so we can define “beta” from our perspective, and shed a bit of light on the process of launching a software product like Strutta.

The short answer is, we have beta so we can launch a product, let folks start using it and start getting their feedback- even though we know that the product can already be made better.

When we launched Strutta back in April, we worked some long days and nights to ensure that when we put the site live, all of the available features had been tested and were working correctly. As soon as we had pushed the site live (okay, perhaps after a few hours of much needed rest) we started fixing known issues and working on the features we couldn’t wait to add.

From the standpoint of our entire team, the most important thing we were waiting to know was how the site would be used, how many people interacted with it, and what kind of feedback we received.

If you’ve been following our blog, you know that a few months back we shifted our development strategy in a big way in response to some of that feedback. We noticed several patterns forming at once: User interaction was low while page views were high, and people kept asking us if they could use our software on /their/ site. An idea, as they say, was born.

We’ve already told the story about the changes happening to Strutta.com, so let’s skip ahead for now and address it later in the post by listing a few items that you can expect from the new version of Strutta. In the meantime, I think the process that we took to launch our product is worth taking a closer look at.

From the Alpha to the Omega

When we first got started developing the product that would become Strutta, we had dozens of meetings to discuss game play, rules, site usability and features. We employed no fewer than three third party web and game designers to consult with the build, and our own development process and meetings helped shape the product and feature-set that we called our “Alpha.”

The day that we finished our Alpha release was the day we celebrated, toasted our work and shaved the beards that much of our staff had grown. But within hours of that micro-celebration, we were already inviting in an initial test group of users to see what we had created. In this case, we physically invited a number of our friends in the Vancouver tech community to our office to come and evaluate what we had built. They may be our friends, but they didn’t hold back with the questions and feedback, and we were listening. Based on their reactions, we got back to work tweaking the site and building out vital features, and before long we were ready for a public beta.

Beta Means We Care

Now, let’s be honest. “Beta” is an overused term in the web space, and it’s fair to say that it’s the software equivalent of a sign that reads “Please be patient during our renovations. Sorry for the inconvenience.” Not that we mean to make excuses for a less-than-perfect product, but there is certainly a benefit to releasing a product to market and start getting feedback sooner rather than later. In our case, that was especially true, as the feedback we received led us to the point we are at now. That’s why I like to think that the little “Beta” tag you see on so many sites means “We care about your feedback. Keep it coming.”

This seems like a good time to mention some of the features that are part of this new version of Strutta, and add a few notes about the changes to our launch plan this time around.

For our impending “re-launch,” we’ve done things a bit
differently. Rather than publish a “mostly ready” product and adjust the
feedback after the fact, we teamed up with a number of launch partners,
asked them how they’d like their contests operated, and made sure that
the development of our core product was aligned with their wants and
needs. Feedback will still be a vital part of the process though, and
that’s why it will be ongoing, and made public for all to see.

New Strutta Features:

  • The ability to host a contest at your own domain, or on a free “microsite,” such as YourContest.Strutta.com or CoolContest.YourDomain.com.
  • Options to run contests with UGC (user generated content), popular vote or judged.
  • Prizes! Since companies will have access to completely customized sites powered by Strutta, they’ll be creating some great contests with some great prizes; for voters and media creators alike.
  • A “Get Satisfaction” feedback widget that publicly tracks all of your feedback and our responses to it.

There are a number of ways to bring a software product from the idea stage to launch, and even though the word beta itself might be overused (often out of context), offering your product to select members of the public for early feedback is one idea that should never go away.

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