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A Better Way to Beta

A Better Way to Beta

A smarter development process limits risk and waste, while building communities of loyal customers.

The room is on fire, then drenched in rain. The dreams of people sleeping are visible for all to see, and branches and butterflies emerge mid-air. If it sounds like an alternate reality, that’s because it is. These are just a few examples of the innovative works of art in immersive media on display at the Festival of the Impossible.

At the Minnesota Street Project gallery, the Adobe-sponsored Festival of the Impossible featured how art, technology, culture, and community can come together to push past existing boundaries. We gave artists access to developing technology to explore new mediums as they created and showcased works across augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), 2D, 3D, and performance art.

While the artists found new avenues of expression, we had the opportunity to learn from their creative processes, gain new insights into next steps for product development, and better understand how artists seek to apply the technology tools they have.

This is just one example of how product development is changing. Instead of longer release cycles with full-featured products from the get-go, teams now focus on rapid iterations of product releases and add in features as they go. With cloud subscriptions and internet downloads, software developers are relieved from the physical shipping process that hindered a faster sales cycle. Cloud software also removes the upgrade barrier, so you don’t have to convince users to buy and physically install a new software package.

But getting enterprise customers to adopt early software versions en masse is still difficult. And getting a critical mass of users to provide feedback is necessary to develop the software in the most customer-friendly ways. That’s where having a community of users to tap into becomes an important advantage.

Community engagement in the product development process

Beginning January 2018, we began partnering with leading artists to explore immersive media’s potential for creative expression — focusing especially on AR. Every three months we feature how a few select artists are challenging assumptions, exploring edges, and creating inspiring examples of what’s possible.

Image source: Instagram / mankind2018.

“Embedding the artists’ expertise and the program’s findings into the product development process continues to produce key insights into the future tools Adobe is building,” says George Zisiadis, who leads the immersive media research residency at Adobe.

The technology that powered a number of the art installations at the Festival of the Impossible is an early iteration of what Adobe has dubbed Project Aero — a future AR tool recently announced at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference.

The same philosophy has been guiding our involvement at other venues too.

At the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California, for example, the Adobe Research team installed Project Wetbrush, a combination of software and pressure-sensitive tablets designed to mimic the textures and colors of real-life oil painting. Although a top goal for the project’s principal scientist, Nathan Carr, is to give visitors a glimpse into the future of mixed reality creative tools, he is also enjoying the invaluable data the community’s use is providing here and now.

“As visitors play with Wetbrush, they provide us real user feedback with user interface suggestions, new feature requests, and bug reports,” says Nathan. That data also includes actual stroke data that will be used to train AI agents to synthesize realistic strokes that a human would create.

Similarly, we put cutting-edge 3D-painting tools into the hands of kids at the de Youngsters Art Party at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.

“We learned a lot by watching what the kids tried to do with the tech — duplicating, manipulating, having the technology intelligently understand their gestures and strokes,” says Erik Natzke, the project’s principal artist-in-residence at Adobe. “These are all things we can come back to as our research and development continues.”

A new era for customer feedback

Bringing early product ideas to community groups is not a new concept — it has roots in the world’s fairs that enjoyed popularity in a previous era. But what is new is the idea of gathering feedback from that interaction, rather than simply showcasing the future.

Not long ago, usability labs and alpha and beta products were the primary feedback mechanisms for software developers. But the process has its limitations — developers need to invest a lot of resources in an idea before they know how well it will actually meet the needs of a broad general audience. It could be months or even years before companies realize a product doesn’t work as expected or isn’t what customers want.

Developing rapid product iterations, on the other hand, requires developers to collaborate earlier with entire customer communities on a regular basis. As a result of the feedback, development teams can identify the most important concepts and features of a product and pour their resources into the features that are proven to generate real value.

In other words, when embraced fully, rapid iterations can remove the risk and waste from product development — and take businesses into a new age of collaboration and co-creation with their customers.

More frequent updates, instant feedback

Aside from gathering feedback from a large number and diverse set of product users, rapid iterations also require the ability to get those frequent updates into the hands of the users. Elaine Chao of the Adobe XD team had to think about new avenues to put forth ideas for customers to validate or invalidate them.

“In the XD team, we wanted to make sure that we can release frequent updates to customers so we can test out whether or not our theories are effective on an ongoing basis,” she says. “We were able to create a system and invest in infrastructure that would allow us to release monthly.”

And with more frequent updates comes the need for more frequent feedback. The team uses a third-party system called UserVoice to make it easy for customers to sound-off in real time on product releases. The system allows any customer to submit feature requests, and to upvote the requests submitted by others.

“UserVoice is a great resource for us because anyone can upvote,” Elaine says. “It’s not just big corporations that we talk to. Anyone who uses our product has access and can upvote for what they want out of the product. Now, years into this process, people have really told us what they want. We’ve been able to not only engage with people, but to really deliver on their requests.”

Ultimately, frequently updated releases and near-constant customer feedback gives Elaine’s team a continuous loop of innovation and improvement that is in line with customer needs and expectations.

Of course, this kind of constant innovation requires more than just an accelerated release schedule and a customer feedback app. Moving outside the safe zone of alpha and beta testing means that product development teams have to fully invest in a new workflow and get used to a certain degree of vulnerability.

Recalling her team’s first foray into a process of rapid iterations, Elaine says, “It was unprecedented at that time — previously you didn’t release a 1.0 until you had a complete product you thought you were absolutely sure of. It took a long time before it was available to a large audience. But because we were building a product from the ground up, we had the opportunity to get early and continuous feedback from a large group of users all along the way.”

Naturally, being this open to customers can also mean the occasional negative experience, but that vulnerability empowers a stronger ability to adapt and innovate.

“We realize that we are not perfect,” Elaine says. “We have this constant sense that we’re trying to learn more about our process and about our customer. That constant state of learning is inherent to what we do. But I think that sense of curiosity, and that sense of being connected to the customer, drive a more successful product development process — and ultimately more success — for the future.”

For additional thoughts about how new workflows impact innovation, read more articles in our Working Smarter collection.

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