Unwitting Beta Testers

We all know the type. Always complaining about obscure, unreproducible issues that only affect them. They single handedly manage to consume as many helpdesk resources as a medium sized enterprise. Their bloody minded determination to get their point across is matched only by the zeal with which they try to get their ideas into your next release.

The pain in the ass customer. Every business has one (or if you make it big… many). They can’t seem to grasp that there are bugs in software. That the bug they report is unimportant. That there are hundreds of thousands of other users out there who don’t have this issue. They cannot fathom that fixing a bug isn’t as simple as finding a random developer and a few clicks of the mouse later – hey presto, bug fixed, build complete, release deployed!

So what an you do with these people? The answer is : make them beta testers! Obviously these people have some sort of repressed desire to participate in the software development lifecycle, so why not indulge these fantasies? It’s quite possible that they possess more drive and enthusiasm than your internal QA team, so why not utilize it!

PHASE I – Validation

Validating their feelings of self importance by replying to them and telling them that a crack team of developers has been dispatched to hunt down and squash their bug will evoke feelings of satisfaction and importance in the subject. In this initial phase, we are engaging the subject and making them feel as if the entire workings of the company have been temporarily suspended in order to deal with their issue. This sows the seed of indebtedness in their mind (which we will take advantage of in the later phases).

PHASE II – Engage

In this phase, we will engage the subject further and start to get them to do proper work for us. The pre-requisite fo this stage is that the aforementioned crack team of developers has fixed the bug (or that the summer intern has hacked together a quickfix; whatever the case may be). Letting the subject know that having spared no resource in resolving this issue, we have a special build made entirely for him. This will increase even more the feelings of importance and the belief that he now just a short step away from becoming a consultant for the company.

You need to supply him with a beta build, and notify him that it’s hot off the server specifically with his fixes. We need him to verify that it works. He’ll promptly go and install it, it’ll work, and he’ll be happily using a beta version. All the while, you now have a beta tester in the wild (and you can bet that he’ll report back any new bugs issues etc).

PHASE III – Rinse and repeat.

Obviously one unwitting beta tester isn’t going to be enough of a beta platform for you, so you can pick any number of them. They’ll praise you for your speedy fixes, they’ll think that they’re special little snowflakes and that your entire company is beholden to their every whim. This delusion is key to your aims – having a bunch of people performing beta testing for you, and you having more time to perform your QA before release. When release day comes around our unwitting beta tester is overwhelmed with a smug feeling of satisfaction that the software he is downloading became possible solely because of him.

OK, so this may be a page out of the sociopathic handbook of software development, but there are some worthy lessons. First of all, use your willing customers. Aside from the fact that your support ratings will sky rocket simply because you actually get in touch with customers, allowing a select bunch of customers access to a beta will make them feel warm and fuzzy inside, and also allow you to see how the software behaves in the wild. While the customers may be happy with a beta, you shouldn’t give them any old build, and you shouldn’t just give them a beta in the vague hope that it miraculously fixes their issues.

Of course this all depends on what type of software and what type of customers you have. The outcomes of deploying a beta to a 20,000 user production environment is left as an exercise for the reader….