Beta Products and the Human Guinea Pig

I recently tweeted about an article I came across which was centered around the beta principle: the idea of launching a product early knowing that it is not ‘completed’ but instead is pushed out early for people to effectively act as guinea pigs for the companies prototype.

For many software and web based applications, this is something we have come to expect, Google ‘labs’ and beta releases of everything from applications to Microsoft operating systems are generally launched as Beta trials before later being tweaked into an ostensibly more coherent product offering.

The idea of this extending into physical product offerings whereby a product is released that is knowingly imperfect seems at first a bizarre move from a business perspective. The thing is, we see this all the time.

We have the phrase ‘early-adopter’ which the smug ‘second release’ buyers see as the fools who leap onto the new technologies, putting up with all the foibles and bugs, paying over the odds for the privilege before they are sorted out by the company who may later drop their prices as competition kicks in and the wise consumer has more choice, a better product offering and a cheaper price once it hits the mainstream market.

Technology based products are the best examples of beta-consumerism with things like flat screen tv’s home theatre projectors and such like which we have seen the technology develop both in quality and usability and become cheaper, in a Moores law sort of way. In one guise or another, the early adopter has been putting up with inchoate ‘beta’ technology and literally helping the company direct it into an offering that fits the golden chalice of the mainstream consumer.

Perhaps the early adopters should be paid for the R&D work they do in carrying companies to their real target market?

My point is that now we have seen the acceptance of being the paying human guinea pig in software and hardware, is this really an acceptable principle to export to other areas of industrial design? A product that may not offer all the features it should but gets to market 6 months early or a product which simply does not look right but has been blasted right through the product development process in order to beat competitors to a launch date.

We’ve all seen as designers the way in which increased pressure has been placed on the speed of the product design cycle in most industries but what concessions will need to be made in order to take this to the next level? And, if we do decide that the business case for a beta product is commercially feasible, is it really the way we would like to see the industry heading? Is it just cheating?

How long before the early-adopting end user, commercially driven by a manufactured need of wanting ‘new innovative stuff’ kicks back at the lack of respect companies give them by charging to be their prototype evaluator?

Again… Just a thought.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Beta Products and the Human Guinea Pig

  1. Would you be interested in being featured as a guest blogger on PD&D. Email me when you have a chance, I enjoyed your work and think it would be a good fit.

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