Building a Better Beta

By Michelle Boule | Every day companies are coming out with new tools to reach their users on the Web. Many companies have learned that rolling out products before they are completely formed—in beta or even in alpha mode—can save them development time and money. By giving their customers an early look at a product, companies are empowering customers to use the tool in new ways and are providing them with an opportunity to ask the company for functionality that product developers may never have considered.

Companies in Beta
Meebo, a robust, widely used instant-messaging (IM) service is still in an alpha phase. Meebo allows users to sign into more than one IM account with more than one IM provider at the same time, so all of a user's accounts appear together on the same screen. For people in restrictive IT environments, there are no downloads when using Meebo.

Google, the hero and bane of many, has been extremely successful using beta products. Some of its beta products are Gmail, Google Video, Froogle, and Google Catalogs. Almost everything Google develops comes out in a beta version before the "real" version appears.

LibraryThing enables users to access their catalogs from their mobile phones.LibraryThing is a service near and dear to the hearts of many librarians who have long wanted a catalog of their very own. LibraryThing, a beta product that celebrated its one-year anniversary on August 29th, holds more than 4 million cataloged books and has 70,000-plus users.

Flickr is in gamma mode, and with all of its functionality, one has to wonder if it is ever going to be "fully" launched. Flickr began as a photo-sharing site, but it has become a community.

Defining Beta
All of these companies and their software have something in common. They are successful. They have followers. Their customers are loyal. Customers are given the chance to test products and make suggestions. They are let in, sometimes from the ground up, and that gives people a sense of empowerment and ownership. Going beta has become less of what you roll out and more of just what you do—a mind set. You could even call it a belief system.

How can libraries build beta products and services and develop their own followings?

Libraries Building in Beta
The MIT Libraries have released a whole set of beta products for their users. LibX–MIT Edition is the MIT take on the library Firefox extension. It allows users to search Google Scholar, MIT's Barton Catalog, the online holding via SFX, and more. They also have a similar product that uses an MIT-specific Greasemonkey script to look up things on Amazon in the libraries' catalog. MIT Libraries' Dewey Research Advisor for Business and Economics

As a non-business librarian, I am especially impressed with their Dewey Research Advisor for Business and Economics; it's something I would like to have at my library. Using it, in an "Ask Jeeves" style, the user, for instance, can query: "Where can I find company reports?" The widget then returns starting points for research.

Those working on these beta projects at MIT Libraries also list new beta products they are planning to launch later this year. This is a wonderful example of being transparent with your users.

Casey Bisson has been building a WordPress-based OPAC for Plymouth State University's Lamson Library. Casey's WPopac looks like a blog with item entries, but it has some added features that make it more innovative and accessible than traditional catalogs. It is simple in design, aesthetically pleasing, easy to understand, and retrieves items relevant to the search.Lamson Library's (Plymouth State University) WPopacThe WPopac also has all the added extras from WordPress, like RSS feeds, comments, and spam filters.

Building beta in your library does not have to revolve around new technologies. The endeavor can also take the form of new programs or initiatives. Many libraries have created Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) nights for teens. These nights usually include a dance off, food, and a way for the students to talk about how much they liked the experience. Building loyalty with your users requires a way for them to provide feedback about your beta service.

Staff members at The Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County (PLCMC) have created a teen space—the Library Loft—a place for teen users to engage in teen-oriented offerings, like gaming nights, and/or to participate in a program that provides students with the opportunity to learn how to create claymation movies in a blue-screen studio.

The amount and variety of programs offered through this fun and user-centered approach is amazing. These are the kinds of programs that any library could plan with the right "beta attitude." You must be willing to try, fail, and try again. PLCMC did not suddenly have this level of innovative service for teens overnight.

Like the successful companies, PLCMC offers many ways for the teens that use the library's space to give feedback. PLCMC has an advisory council (made up of teens) and multiple MySpace accounts. PLCMC's teen space, the Library Loft. The focus of the Library Loft is not necessarily the library, but it is about putting things teens want and use in one space. PLCMC has built a place, virtually and physically, in which teens can be empowered, feel ownership, and believe in its worth.

Building a Better Beta
I am not advocating for libraries to conduct half-formed programs with little thought or planning. Building beta is more about flexibility and allowing the participants—not the creators—to redefine the meaning of the service. Planning beta is about allowing for failure, success, and change.

Providing services in beta also means that we must trust our users as they trust us. Transparency must go both ways. We must be honest and transparent, so that users can provide constructive and useful feedback.

How would our libraries look if we treated everything as a beta product? Would we be more willing to try new things if we knew that bugs could be fixed in the next installment? Will our transparency inspire trust in our users and make them believe in us?
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