Google has mastered the power of the Beta release. They have equated the term "Beta" with the idea of exclusivity so strongly that to be invited by Google to become a Beta tester of a service is the ultimate sign you are a technology insider. Other online services themselves have Beta testers – and in each case it is a focal feedback point for developers of new products or services to learn about the flaws and weaknesses in their products before launching, as well as building buzz prior to releasing. But aside from this valuable feedback, there is another reason Beta testing is so important — not only for online services, but also for other many other industries … the window of suckiness (the time a anything can exist in the marketplace while temporarily sucking) is decreasing.
For example, between five and ten years ago a Hollywood release could depend on a big opening weekend to recoup the majority of the production costs – before word really got out that the movie was crap. Now people find out almost instantly through online reviews, SMS and word of mouth from friends and family. The window is disappearing. Similarly, blogs and consumer generated media are allowing individuals to have a far more vocal voice about their opinions on what’s good and what’s bad on practically every product or service out there. This is not a post about the power of blogs to spread negative information. Rather, I think it illustrates just how powerful the online world has become in helping influential thoughts spread from person to person faster. Opinions travel farther now in less time, regardless of whether they are good or bad.
So with this vanishing window of suckiness, is it ever ok to release something unfinished and ask for feedback? Does the beta version have to be good? Not necessarily, but what I believe this means is that honesty is becoming even more important as a key part of any release. If you are going to ask for feedback on something that is not quite finished, tell your customers that’s what you are doing. Don’t be afraid to promise improvement, or share your knowledge that there are some kinks still to be worked out. The only way to deal with the window of suckiness is to be open with your target audience about it’s existence — and your dedication to closing the window as soon as possible.