The other day I was viewing weather updates on www.theweathernetwork.com when I ran into a new feature "Percip Start Stop" for tracking rain by the hour. What surprised me was not the new feature but the above disclaimer. BETA stage. Soliciting User Feeback.
As a long-time gmail.com user (back when you had to get a invite just to get an account!) I'm used to being the QA department for companies. Google is known for being in "perpetual" BETA, as this Wharton K@W article: "Is Google Stuck in ‘Perpetual Beta’?" outlines. Ever try to figure out the exact "version" of gmail you're using?
However controlled BETAs help facilitate rapid deployment of new features. It's often a low-risk, high gain way of not waiting for a major release to see if there are new features users like and will use. For UXers this is a chance to update small changes without having to wait for major release (but I don't suggest changing the UX too radically too regularly... that's a good way to annoy users).
"Back in the day" we used to wait patiently for new version, like Windows 3.1, 95, 98, XP, Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8, etc, we expected to have to pay more for the newest release to get new features. Many users didn't upgrade and that's why we now have the Windows XP EOL issue as outlined in this Microsoft support article: "Windows XP support has ended". Yet I think he Web and Mobile revolutions have changed radically for the following reasons:
#1 - On a website you can generally *only* have access to the latest version. A website generally has usually one version and this makes it easier to maintain. There is no install for a website, so changes are implicit and virtually immediate. When it's it's UP it's OUT! Very different from former native apps which changes only occurred when users installed an update.
(For the record I think Gmail does usually have a linked to revert to the old theme or UI, at least for a little while.)
#2 - Users are always running latest version. Generally speaking users who buy mobile apps from AppStore/Google Play Store have free upgrades and do in fact upgrade often. Pretty much when the new iOS update is out within days everyone is upgrading.
(After Heartbleed Bug and other vulnerabilities it seems like some apps update every few weeks now. I always get these notifications on my iPhone.)
#3 - Users culturally embrace change. For the most part users are very open to changing UI. Therefore, because there generally isn't a uproar or backlash, this has given license for companies to regularly re-vamp their apps and websites, almost as often then as they re-org.
(UX Warning: However I've encountered issues with older users who spent years learning how to to use Hotmail.com, only to have one day all the button changed on them and not know how to use the site anymore.)
#4 -Cloud SaaS and pay-per-use. Since companies like SalesForce.com have turned software into a lot like leasing cars. If you don't care to own it then were happy to give you the latest and greatest car every few years (or in internet years, every few months).
#5 - Rapid pace of change. It's likely cliche, but really the pace of change is so quick that without a steady pace of updates many of our websites and apps would be obsolete. Every so often I read a UX book with a screen capture of a website from 5-10 years ago and laugh how outdated the IxD is.The only unfortunate part I see in perpetual BETA program is that sometimes I feel companies use this as license to release lesser tested software. In a true BETA I should be providing feedback on my experience, not submitting bug reports. +_+
(In full disclosure, I work for SAP and we have a very strict release process and I don't think it's changing any time soon. For the curious, it's called I2M (Idea-to-Market) and PDF executive summary is available online: Product Quality at SAP.)
However even SAP is quickly becoming a cloud company (see SAP buying SuccessFactors for 3.4 Billion back in Dec 2012). When you move to SaaS/on-line/Cloud offering, you are basically no longer owning the maintenance and upgrade of the platform. So when we upgrade the Cloud, we're doing it for everyone, and this allows us to roll-out these BETAs and hopefully provide things even quicker than ever!
Hope that helps...
p.s. For more jokes about Gmail spending so long in BETA you can read this blog: "Gmail leaves beta, launches "Back to Beta" Labs feature" in which Google actually added a way to put back the BETA disclaimer. ;) Jokes.
Sadly when I tried it on my gmail today I couldn't find the setting. I guess that joke got old quickly. Likely when they started to charge companies for an "enterprise" version.
It also does not escape me that ironically I'm blogging this on Blogger/Blogspot, which is also another Google product. :)