Beta Users

The foundation of great products is early user feedback

You can’t always please everyone. I am reminded of that on a regular basis when it comes to this newsletter. While I generally write about topics in software engineering and leadership, I try to introduce other ideas that are important to me such as diversity & inclusion, community building, and food photos from around the globe. This makes some people upset.

One very recent incident involved an event I recently hosted. It was a talk on Clubhouse, the audio-only social network that is taking the world by storm. Apparently this offended diehard Android users among my readership, even though I did not make any announcements in the newsletter. I was simply testing the platform for an impromptu AWS conversation about startups last week. Now I am a terrible person for excluding people not privileged enough to have an invite nor in possession of an iOS device. (If you do have iOS, I have ten invites I am happy to share).

I take the criticism in stride though. I even welcome it. I do my best not to take it personally and to view all comments without judgement. In truth though, it can be hard when the feedback comes from people that seem unhinged, are trolling, or have ulterior motives, like the one star review I received on my talk at the YOW! Conference last December from one attendee because I happen to work at AWS. He did preface that it was too bad though, because I seemed like a “good bloke” 😂 .

Looking at feedback uncritically is important because there is underlying truth to data. With the full view of data, you can make critical adjustments that over time allow you to incrementally improve your service or product. When I talked about building MVP’s (minimal viable product) before, the ability to iterate and deliver new features quickly is highly dependent on access to people willing to try the product even in its immature state.

Where do you find these users? It depends on the maturity of your company or organization. A long-standing enterprise has plenty of existing customers and plenty of resources to buy new users if needed. An early stage startup does not have the benefit of a customer base or resources. Finding those first beta users requires rolling up your sleeves and putting in the work.

When I was launching my first tech startup in the HR workforce analytics space, I took the direct approach. I already knew the right people because of my previous work with PeopleSoft users and HR Information Systems leaders. So I first reached out to the people that I already knew in my network. They in turn directed me to others in their networks that might be helpful. Lastly, I searched for the ideal people to reach out on LinkedIn to setup a time to chat.

My process to find my first beta users therefore involved:

  1. Find people in my network. Since they already know and trust me, these are easier conversations to start and they are usually more willingness to help.
  2. Ask for referrals. Those in your network that cannot help, because of busyness or not being the right fit, will often point you to someone else that can help.
  3. Reach out directly to people. I used LinkedIn to find and connect to people that might be willing to answer a few questions (note that other tools / apps might be better for finding your type of users).

The product I was creating was rather complex, so setting up direct conversations made the most sense. In other cases, it might be better to setup a simple website and run some paid search media or launch social media campaigns to drive clicks to your new website with a simply form to collect user information and some offer to entice visitors to complete the form like a download or an entry in a contest. Or maybe you direct them to download an app or browser extension.

Once you have gathered some beta users, you need to keep them interested and engaged. Most users will immediately drop out however, which is what I experienced with my startup. Of the 40 heads of HR information systems that I was able to connect with, only 20 stayed long enough to try the product. Focus your attention therefore on those that remain and want to help, rather than chasing those that are not responsive to multiple rounds of follow up.

The best engagement strategy is exclusivity. People want to feel special and that they are part of something unique or highly innovative. I would mail gift cards with handwritten letters of appreciation as a thank you to my first users. To continue to pique their interest over time, I would send out an exclusive newsletter with insightful information relevant to their interests that highlighted HR technology trends. Ten years later, I started this newsletter on the very same premise when I was launching the new SaaS Q&A product called Stack Overflow for Teams.

The last consideration when it comes to beta users is that you have to collect useful feedback. This is highly dependent on the usefulness of the questions you ask. Your beta users are busy with their work. The only questions you should ask are ones where the answers are going to have a material affect on your product direction. My initial user interviews were five questions, all highly targeted, and could be easily completed in 10 to 15 minutes with a short demo to walk through the key features. Afterwards, feedback was collected over online surveys that took under two minutes to complete.

If you run the beta process smoothly, a good portion of those first beta users will become your first customers. Your beta users are already committed. They had a hand in shaping the product and because it serves a need that was important enough to address. When you start with the customer in mind and then work backwards into building the solution, it is hard to go wrong.

What has been your experience in gathering user or customer feedback? What mechanism and tools did you use to optimize the feedback process?

Mark Birch, Editor & Founder of DEV.BIZ.OPS

Speaking of beta users, I am looking for some folks to try a tool I have been working on. The premise is to increase reach and engagement for social posts. At the moment, the focus is on LinkedIn and identifying the most popular hashtags to use for posts.

If you post content on LinkedIn, send me a note that you are interested in helping out. Then download the Chrome browser extension to begin trying it out. If you do try it out and you send me feedback with screenshots of you using the tool, then I will send you an eBook copy of my recent book “Community-in-a-Box”.

Lastly I launched a talk series called “Cloud Coffee Hour with AWS Startups” on Clubhouse. This is a 90 minute, free-wheeling conversation covering all sorts of topics in the intersection of startups and AWS from architecture to fund raising to programs & services.

Below is the upcoming schedule of events and links directly to this week’s events which will be every Tuesday and Thursday early evening / late afternoon EST time. I will be launching EMEA and APAC timezones shows very soon, so sign up for the newsletter so you have the latest updates.

Hope you can make it (and do ping me if you need an invite to Clubhouse)!

Mar 2nd at 4 PM EST
Diving deep into AWS Amplify and building quickly

Mar 4th at 6 PM EST
Talk with Adrian Cockcroft on Failing Over

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Thoughts on developers, digital transformation, enterprise agility, community building & software engineering culture. Author 👉

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