Over the course of seven years as an Alpha (employee) tester and six years as a Beta Program Manager, I had become accustomed to being involved with beta tests for projects that had specific goals and schedules, which generally kept testers engaged for the project’s duration. Our participation rates had been hovering around 60-70% on average for most of these projects.
Then I was asked to recruit a population of testers to participate in an ongoing project with no specific goals and no end date. The idea was to expose some of our most elite, experienced testers to infrequent, behind-the-scenes changes and occasionally, a few new features much earlier than we would normally expose outside of internal alpha testing. In short, this wasn’t going to be a glamorous, action-packed project. So, how was I going to keep testers engaged?
Hoping that many of these experienced testers would share some of my “inner nerd” characteristics, I decided to put a Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. theme to my project. First things first: like they do in the show, I had to come up with a way to make that acronym work, hence the “Software Hardware Interactions, External Liaison Division” was born.
I put up a customized image that blended S.H.I.E.L.D. with our product on the home page where agents logged in. Yes “agents”. They weren’t going to be called testers in this project. Homework, assignments, and tasks were referred to as “missions” and trouble tickets were named “Mission Reports”. All communications carried the theme from the start. Obviously, a few other spy references were thrown in along the way (“your mission, if you choose to accept it,” “this message will self destruct,” etc.). Bottom line: I hammed it up and played the part to the fullest. And you know what? It paid off.
Testers (I mean, agents) responded very positively, even getting into the role-playing within discussion threads. The playful banter and comments kept things light. When there were many weeks with no mission to fulfill, we told them to take some time off, perhaps in Tahiti because we had heard it’s a magical place. Oh, and having participation rates over 95% for each assigned mission didn’t look too bad either.
But we didn’t stop there. When it was time to reward our agents, we issued the S.U.I.T. Survey (because acronyms are all the rage in secret spy organizations), asking what size t-shirt they would like. The Standard Uniform Issue T-shirt we sent them was dark grey with the same customized S.H.I.E.L.D. emblem in black, so they could stealthily stay within their NDA even when they intermingled with the civilian populace. Several agents mentioned that they felt special when they wore it out in public, like they had a secret and were going to get caught at any moment!
It may all seem silly on the surface, but beta testing can all too often be dull and relatively routine over the course of time, even for the most experienced testers. Even if your product is the most exciting thing on the planet, it doesn’t hurt to step it up a couple of notches to let your testers know that you care enough to put in the extra effort. It sets a tone that lets them know you’re not just going through the motions and that you really appreciate the time they’re investing.
One note of warning, be careful or you might accidentally get caught up and have a little fun yourself. When I announced that it was my time to leave my role at that company, a discussion thread popped up with some very appreciative comments about my time and service over the years. You could almost say it was a proper “spy’s goodbye”.
Jerry Molitor is an experienced beta program manager, customer success professional, and Centercode user. He spent 15 years with TiVo making sure the voice of the customer was represented in product development. He’s currently with Caavo, where he’s helping to develop the next generation of home entertainment devices.