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Product Development – Prerelease planning

During a product development cycle, getting inputs from users is of great importance. It is not so easy for a development team to get inputs so easily. One way is to find focus groups or do other usability studies where groups of users from the desired customer groups are quizzed about their needs and their workflows, and based on that, user workflow design is made. However, such studies are many times one-time only, and it is hard to do such usability studies on a continuous basis to get frequent guidance to the development team. One option for works fairly well in such scenarios is to get a pre-release / beta program where people from the target customer base interact with the team on a regular basis. They would do this under a NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement) where the fear of details of the product being revealed to the public are far reduced.
A pre-release program needs to be planned thoroughly, ideally when the project planning is happening. Some of the factors that needed to be planned as a part of this are:
1. At what stage should the pre-release program start ? Right at the start of requirements detailing, where pre-release participants can review snapshots of how the workflow would look like and provide details ? If this can be achieved, then it would make sense to do this through the development cycle. The team can get quick feedback of user reaction to proposed designs.
2. What is the number of participants that should be part of this program ? This is a question for the product team, but given that only a percentage of people signed up for a pre-release program actually provide useful feedback over a period of time, the team should plan to sign up more people than required.
3. What are the features that should be exposed to users through a pre-release program ? Features should be selected that are new, features where there are extensive usability issues, and features where there is a lot of doubt about the proposed implementation.
4. How should the users be exposed to features ? The normal process is that in the initial stages, pre-release users would be exposed to mockups that detail the workflow of the features, and as time goes by and builds start getting made with the features being implemented, the pre-release users would also start getting exposed to these builds and features and can test them with their own perspective and provide useful feedback.
5. Actual process for taking feedback: Typically when pre-release users get going, they can generate a significant amount of feedback over the cycle of the product development cycle, in terms of feedback on features, new feature requests, and bugs. All of them need to have their own channels for capturing such feedback; with people on the product team being deployed for monitoring the feedback, a separate process for making sure that bugs logged by users move into the bug tracking software used by the product team and the pre-release users are able to view the progress of these bugs.
6. How many ratings of the product: It is always useful to get users to rate the product along with allowing the pre-release users to provide open-ended feedback of the features in the product. If you do this a number of times in the cycle, it provides the product team with a view of which features most appeal to the users; it also give the product management team a list of features that can be taken for the next version.
There would be many other advantages as well, please provide these via comments when you know of other advantages of a robust pre-release system. For example, getting the pre-release system in place allows testing of the product across a broad range of devices and operating systems.

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