Beta Testing: Be First to Play


SAN JOSE, Calif. (TheStreet) -- Before new tech products debut on the market, they usually go through two rounds of testing, alpha and beta. If you're a small-business owner who's trying to stay on top of new technology or a gadget geek looking for the first peek at new products, it might be worth getting in on the action.

Alpha testing happens within the safe confines of a company's labs. Beta testing happens in the real world, in living rooms and offices, where potential customers play with a product and kvetch about its glitches, so that companies can tweak the thing before it hits store shelves.

"As networks expand beyond simple e-mail and Internet Explorer, how products interact with each other becomes more and more important," says Kendra Harrington, manager of human factors at Linksys, a small business and consumer products division of Cisco Systems (Stock Quote: CSCO) in San Jose, Calif. "We might find that something that works 99.9% of the time doesn't work with a particular service provider in a particular region."

Most hardware and software companies have some sort of beta testing program, but few go out of their way to tell you how to apply, how to improve your chances of being picked or why you'd want to be a beta tester in the first place. So we'll tell you.

How to find out about beta tests: Some companies post information about beta programs on their Web sites, but they tend to bury it. If you don't see information immediately, try typing the company's URL into its search field along with the word "beta." Linksys' beta signup program is at Research In Motion's (Stock Quote: RIMM) application for BlackBerry product testing is at Testing information for Time Warner's AOL unit (Stock Quote: TWX) is at

You should also try small firms that make products for larger companies. For example, if you visit the Web site of Panic, a company that makes software used in Apple (Stock Quote: AAPL) computers, you can find testing information for upcoming Mac software.

Many companies announce beta tests via e-mail newsletters and Twitter messages to target regular users. You could also befriend an engineer; companies often reach out to friends and family when they're looking for testers.

How to be picked: Some beta tests are open to the public, but many tests are open only to a chosen few. When the company is as large as Linksys, which has a beta pool of more than 7,000, the application process can be competitive. Sometimes a company is looking for particular demographics -- grandmothers in the Ozarks or skate rats from Brooklyn, for example. But often companies cast a wide net.

"We try to get folks at the extremes of expertise and in the middle," says Jamie Elgie, a product manager at Compton, Calif.-based Belkin International, which makes accessories for consumer electronics.

In general, companies look for people who will provide feedback, communicate with other users via online forums and actually use the product after the testing period. The more enthusiastic you sound in the essay section of the application form, the better.

What's in it for you: Signing up means you're making a time commitment. Tests last anywhere from a day to a few months, during which companies expect you to spend at least several minutes a day playing with the product and providing feedback.

"The user is often given a task, or a set of tasks, to try to accomplish," says Rodney Daughtrey, a user interface designer at ITA Software, a company in Cambridge, Mass., that makes software for the travel industry. "It's important not to help the user if he or she gets confused. When the design is deployed into the real world, there will be no one to help them, so not helping during the test attempts to simulate what will happen in the real world, and the designers can better see where users get confused, and what problems exist with the new design."

Beta testing can be beneficial if you're planning on eventually buying the product you're helping to fix. But sometimes companies don't tell their testers exactly what they will be using. And beta testers often have to sign non-disclosure agreements.

And don't apply for a beta test looking for supplemental income. Some companies will let you keep the product you're testing, but beta testing isn't always for keeps, and it's usually volunteer work. "There are some tests for which we'll provide a thank-you gift at the end," says Linksys's Harrington. "But most of the time it's the glory of doing it."

Think of it more as a chance to test drive a car nobody else has seen, to be thanked for complaining about its shortcoming and, most importantly, to effect a little change.

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