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Alpha testers and beta testers are collaborators, too

February 3, 2011

The Nonprofit Management Resource (NPMR) project went through a round of alpha testing a little while ago, and is now gearing up for beta testing.  I’ve been reflecting on how the alpha testers provide important input, and how they have been collaborators to the extent that we’ve invited that.

One thing that our team simply cannot know is how the NPMR user interface looks to those who have never seen it before.  We have to ask other people whether we’ve made everything entirely clear – who is providing this service, what our mission is, how to use it, how to contact us for help, what the limitations are on what we can deliver.  Naturally, all these things seem self-evident to us, but the alpha testers have been great at pinpointing exactly where the information is confusing or missing.  In one case, an alpha tester emailed us apologetically, saying that she couldn’t give any helpful feedback, because she wasn’t able to get any results when she ran a search.  I immediately wrote back to let her know that this was news to us, and important news at that!  With this input, we were able to locate the problem, and work with the developer to remedy it.  Others were able to get results for their searches, but found that they were getting links to information about “going green,” regardless of what key words they were using.  Voila! Another glitch in the code identified and fixed!  Thank you, alpha testers!

Now that we’re getting ready for beta testing, we’re having interesting conversations about what sort of cross-section of people we need.  Experts in nonprofit management, librarians, and information architects are all great providers of feedback, but right now the ideal beta testers are nonprofit leaders who aren’t necessarily interested in or comfortable with web searches.  They don’t already know where all the good online nonprofit resources are, and they don’t necessarily relish an opportunity to learn how to use a new web tool.  They are busy with back office administration or with implementing programs, and they just need to get a reliable answer to an urgent question.  Those are the people we want to serve, and in order to do that, we need to learn how to meet them where they are.  We need to know what they don’t know, and what they want to know, and how they would go looking for it.

It’s one of those twists of fate – that the ideal beta testers/collaborators for us at this stage are people who are already very busy and not inherently excited about new web tools!  However, we will be inviting them to invest a little time to work with us, so that our end result looks and feels much more like what they need.  Our team can’t achieve that by running thought experiments in our own minds. We have to invite the people we want to serve into the development process.

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