Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Beta: The 'Under Construction' of the Aughts

Does anyone remember this icon?

It was the image you placed on your website back in the '90s to signify that you weren't quite done with the page, and that the viewer should pardon any poor table alignments, or groovy background images that didn't tile correctly, or perhaps your accidental wrapping of the entire site text in an unfortunate blink tag.

The usage of these icons faded away once web designers clued up a little, and realized that the best web pages were continually evolving- and that you did no one a favor (most of all, yourself) by pointing out the deficiencies of your creation.

Fast forward to the present, and we have the concept of 'Beta.' Slapping a Beta tag on your otherwise open and functional site signifies that you're not quite done with your app, and that the user should pardon wonky CSS, or a Flash movie that doesn't quite play right, or the bad Ajax that makes your text blink every time the user moves their mouse.

Today, I sat in a room of interactive professionals helping to conceive of a next generation user experience around media consumption, and I challenged them to live without the Beta crutch. If we're going to have a Beta, let it be a real one- with a closed, limited group of beta testers, who are tasked with running the site through its paces and reporting on any last minute tweaks and fixes that need to be made.

I think Beta goes both ways- it can be an excuse for limited or half-baked functions, but I bet it sometimes appears when the site owners want the aroma of a fast-paced, innovative release cycle, rather than a cautious, test-until-it-works old school model.

My advice to would be Beta launchers: If it's just a launch where you didn't get everything in there that you wanted, call that version 1 and pick up version 2 where you left off.

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