Microsoft’s Dona Sarkar on Co-Creation and Leading a Thriving Beta Program

Technology is developed to serve people, but those people – customers – haven’t always had their own seat at the product development table.

That’s what makes the work of people like Dona Sarkar so compelling. As the leader of the Windows Insider Program – Microsoft’s 17 million user beta program – Dona’s focus on co-creation is empowering Microsoft’s customers to build the new generation of technology.

In our interview with Dona, she shares how Microsoft integrated co-creation into their product development approach, as well as inspirational yet pragmatic tips for running a successful beta program.

You have arguably the coolest job at one of the largest tech companies in the world. Can you give a brief intro of your role?

Dona: I currently lead the Windows Insider Program at Microsoft. It’s a community of nearly 17 million “Insiders” across every country in the world. These are customers who have decided that they don’t want to receive Microsoft products once they’re already built – they want a hand in creating them.

It’s me and my team’s job to be the conduit between Microsoft and our Insider community. This means representing the needs of the Insiders to Microsoft and vice versa. It’s an amazing job because we get to deal with the most fascinating people and the most fascinating technology, all day, every day.

Many of our customers have also started to adopt a co-creation framework. Can you explain how it was rolled out at Microsoft?

Dona: Co-creation is definitely the way to go, but it requires a complete shift in company culture, strategy, and operations. That’s in stark contrast with the way most companies previously developed products: corralling a bunch of engineers and product people, making products and testing them in house, then shipping them off around the world. Microsoft did that; everybody did that.

But then we came to recognize how many technographic combinations there are within our customer base. All the different apps, different usages, different types of customers and customer needs. If we were to test for all of these combinations, it would be a greater number than the stars in the sky. And if we attempted to do that testing ourselves? We’d never manage to ship ever again. We found a solution to these challenges of scale by adopting a co-creation framework.

With the release of Windows 10, we shifted from a 3-year product cycle to a 1-year cycle. That marked an opportune time to try this new approach. We already had approximately 50,000 beta community members who had given us quite a bit of feedback in previous programs. So when we made the public announcement to open up the development of Windows 10, which would give interested parties access to the binaries in real time, we expected maybe 100,000 would register.

To our pleasant surprise, we saw one million Insiders register within the first week. Fast forward to present day, we’re getting approximately 8,000 sign-ups every day. The community is nearly 17 million users strong.

Let’s backtrack a little bit to the idea of ‘open development.’ Can you elaborate on what that means in the context of the Microsoft beta program?

Dona: When we say ‘development in the open,’ we really mean it. Any of our competitors can install our pre-release builds – anytime, anywhere. We have nothing to hide. At the end of the day, the more people are using our products and giving us feedback, the better our products will be.

Microsoft’s Dona Sarkar on Co-Creation (Plus 3 Tips for Leading a Thriving Beta Program)

At the end of the day, the more people are using our products and giving us feedback, the better our products will be.

Dona: Since Windows 7, we’ve been shipping out new builds every week. This enables us to test early and often, as early as the concept phase. Even before our engineers have written the code, we put concept photos in front of our users and ask which ones they prefer and why. That’s part of what makes co-creating so great–people are more likely to use a product that they had a hand in developing.

That’s a grand vision and mission, but it sounds like a lot of work. What are your secrets for getting this off the ground?

Dona: There are a few key ingredients that go into running a successful beta program.

First and foremost, you need a core shared mission. A shared mission helps everyone understand why they’re in the program. If people don’t believe in the mission, they shouldn’t be there.

We want to co-create Windows with the millions because they represent the billions of users that are out there. That’s our mission. You need that clear vision that everyone in your community shares.

The second ingredient is a central place for two-way communication. A website for blasting out announcements doesn’t cut it; testers need a place where they can communicate with you. A program and a community are not the same thing. You can only call your program a community when there’s free communication between your team and your testers.

We want to co-create Windows with the millions because they represent the billions of users that are out there.

Thirdly, you need a very clear call to action, as in “What’s the next thing you should do?” For example, “Install this build and give us feedback to help make it better for yourself and your community.”

Once you have all three, you have the foundation for a thriving beta program community.

Thanks for these valuable insights, Dona. We’ll catch up next week with more tips on community engagement.

You can read the second part of our interview with Dona, where she shares her strategies for maintaining tester enthusiasm within a beta community. But you don’t have to stop there. Bring your customers into your product development practices by downloading the ebook, Customer Validation in 20 Minutes, and get started today.

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