While user forums are commonplace in most beta programs, many project managers struggle to discover the true value that they provide. At the most basic level, forums provide a way for testers to interact with each other. There are three reasons this is important.
1. Forums Increase Participation
Many users are social by nature, and thus are eager to contribute to the conversation associated with your beta. To do so, they’ll need to use the product, which will result in additional feedback of other types (bugs, feature requests, etc.).
2. Forums Reduce Leaks
While not as common as they may seem, leaks are a critical fear of many beta managers. Most of the time the act of leaking is not malicious, but rather just an unintended side effect of the excitement harbored by your testers. Providing private user forums combats this urge by allowing testers to express their excitement, while maintaining control.
3. Forums Reduce Time Investment
Generally your testers are eager to help in any way they can, much more so than regular customers. Providing private user forums allows them to assist each other, resolving issues without requiring you to invest additional time.
Why forums are challenging
Unlike most other forms of beta feedback, discussion forums offer a very unstructured form of feedback. Even worse, it’s not uncommon for the wrong types of feedback (bugs, feature requests, etc) to flow through forums first, rather than their proper channels.
On top of that, forums are extremely difficult to quantify – as the conversations are often scattered, are generally littered with “me too” posts, and follow no specific analytic format (e.g. endless open text).
How you can make the most of forums
1. Be Involved
Make sure you and your team are actively involved in participating in and moderating your forums. This shows your testers that you’re interested in what they’re saying, which will further increase their participation. While “trolling” and “flaming” are generally uncommon in beta tests, the idea of a watchful moderator further limits these negative factors.
2. Steer the Feedback
If you see testers discussing bugs or requesting features in forums that have not been otherwise reported, steer them towards the proper feedback channels so that important feedback gets to your teams.
3. Run Mini-Focus Groups
Forums are a great way to brainstorm specific topics and ideas your testers. As new ideas come up, use forums to run informal focus groups about different features or experiences that might not be covered in your surveys.
4. Visualize Your Conversation
While large amounts of textual data are challenging to use from an analytical perspective, there are tools that can help offer at least a basic overview of what your testers are expressing through your forums. For example, word clouds are a great way to visualize trends in your forums.
In the end, forums give your social testers a way to be social, and you a way to see what buzz your product might create after it is launched. If used correctly, they can be a valuable tool for your beta program.