Tips for a Successful Alpha Release: Focus on the Entire Solution, not Just the Software

BY Diego Pereira ON FEBRUARY 19, 2015

Customers’ feedback on products is crucial for success. Engaging honest prospects /customers in the early stages (Alpha Testing & Release) of the Product Lifecycle is critically important to ensuring your products start on the right foot (so to speak). Especially, since at some point you’ll ask customers to pay for the service, right?

1) A product is more than software

Most products, especially software, include a variety of auxiliary services that impact customers’ user experiences, and ultimately their usage of and satisfaction with the solution. This is especially true for SaaS products (like our RD Station, a marketing automation product).

Products begin in the ideation phase, where product managers (and other stakeholders) identify problems and needs products will address. A lucky few products make it “to market” where they appear on web sites, enter sales funnels, become “closed” sales and customers pay for them to help improve their businesses.

Product Management, Sales, Marketing, Customer Ops (and many other departments) must work together closely to ensure product releases are managed efficiently, on schedule, and with limited impact to customers.

It goes without saying the any companies that offer SaaS solutions  use Alpha and Beta Releases to conduct usability tests and obtain user feedback before commercially launching the products or promoting the added value. A common mistake that many product managers make is testing just the software and not the entire user experience.

[Tweet “A common #prodmgmt mistake is testing just the software and not the entire user experience.”]

 

Although testing software functionality may be quick and easy, conducting thorough usability tests is required to ensure the software performs as intended by the designers and delivers a positive user experience, without impacting other areas of the solution.

One particular product management best practice is the development of MVPs (Minimum Viable Products) where products have just enough features to allow companies to release them to be used by early adopters who are willing to user or pay for them and provide feedback.

2) Understanding the factors that impact the success of a release

The Alpha Release affords you the opportunity to test SaaS solutions prior to the full launch and to improve upon these solutions if necessary. You should develop a list of criteria to determine the success of a feature.

During the Alpha Release, you may observe the ways in which the feature meets or does not meet each criterion. If users are capable of completing certain tasks using the SaaS solution, it’s an indication that the feature is successful and is ready to launch. Below are some useful tests to be run and questions to be asked during an Alpha Release.

Customer Success

In an Alpha Release, there are ideally few changes to the interface of the product, making new features easy for users to employ. The new features must meld well with the established user routine in order to enhance user experience. It’s also important to educate users as to how to best use these features in order to get the most out of them. The Alpha Release is therefore an opportune time to find the best ways to educate and assist users.

For example, when we launched a new analytics tool for RD Station, we used the Alpha Release to test variations of the Monthly Report Template and analyze the results in order to determine which variation was best. We did this by allowing users to test the feature during the Alpha Release.

We also hosted educational Hangouts with our users. This helped us to better understand what our users are looking to learn, allowing us to prepare for future release webinars. We were also able to use the information gathered to create relevant educational articles.

We also put in place a solid Customer Success team to assist our clients. Before training this team for a new feature, we used data gathered from our Alpha Release tests to determine the feature’s greatest weaknesses and opportunities for customer success. We were then able to apply this information in team training sessions.

Marketing

Preparations for Marketing can go far beyond updating the features and pricing page of your new feature. The Alpha Release is an ideal opportunity to determine which feature characteristics are most appealing to customers. Subsequently, it’s also an ideal time to test sales strategies.

During the Alpha Release, the marketing team should be communicating the ways in which the feature contributes to user success. They should also update the content marketing and communication strategy following the Alpha Release.

Sales

Selling is a science; its outcomes are predictable. A sales team needs to develop a sales strategy early on in the product development process. Although you will initially only release your new feature to current clients, you can gain precious insight on how to sell the product to potential new clients in the future.

Try to practise an updated sales speech for this new feature before the launch. Update the sales team on the problems discovered during the Alpha Release and offer them sales support materials.

During the Alpha Release, you may decide whether it will be feasible to update your product pricing to reflect the inclusion of the new feature. You might also decide which product plans will have access to the new feature. These determinations will be made based upon your findings as to how valuable the new feature is to users. You should also collect user opinions to help in your decision-making.

Support

The support team is the most viable channel of communication between you and your users. The support team should alert you when technical problems or conceptual issues arise. The Alpha Release is also an opportunity for you to find and fix such problems.

If during the Alpha Release you find that certain interface problems cannot be fixed, you should alert your support team so that they may offer assistance to users when the time comes.

Software

During the Alpha Release, you will gain much insight as to how to improve your software prior to the full release. Along with establishing possible improvements to usability and operations, you can use the Alpha Release as an opportunity to learn how to better engage with your clients.

It’s not always easy for users to adapt to a new feature; you’ll need to assist and educate them so that they can use the new feature effectively. You’ll also need to develop a strategic blueprint in order to communicate the benefits of each new feature to your current and potential users. This strategy should be developed prior to the feature launch. The Alpha Release gives you the opportunity to test the best engagement strategies.

3) Clients love to help you, and for free!

In the end, clients will enjoy collaborating with you in order to contribute to the development of the product.  After all, your product is beneficial to them; they use it daily, and they’re rooting for you to make it better. They’ll appreciate the exclusive chance to help you to develop a new feature which will, as a result, contribute to their success. They’ll also tell friends, coworkers and acquaintances about your product and about your receptiveness to their feedback.

Running an Alpha Release, if done right, can help you improve not just your product, but your entire process around building better products.

About

Diego Pereira

Diego Pereira is a Mechanical and Industrial Engineer from Brazil and has spent the last 8 years working in multiple Software (products and projects) development teams bringing some Lean expertise to those teams. He now works in sunny Florianópolis-Brazil as Product Manager for the beloved RD Station team.

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