The Beta Principle vs Sweating the Details

I’ve been running through the process of “drinking the Kool Aid” when it comes to following the concept of the Beta Principle

In short, the idea of the beta principle is to get a product to market ASAFP and sweat the details later.

Now, in the realm of web, and software, I fully understand how this principle applies. What I’m wrapping my head around is how it applies to product development. Products like the iPhone have taken the Beta Principle to heart. It is a piece of hardware where, by itself, is very basic. A screen, a button, and a modicum of ports. When it comes right down to it, the iPhone can be ANY device out there. Its classic beta principle philosophy. If you don’t like the device it is today, get another app, or change the OS and it is something completely different but just as magical.

I find this premise extremely exciting as a Designer.

I’m curious how many others have been considering this from the perspective of Design and how you’re embracing/rejecting the notion.

I’m not sure how much of this could be applied to product design and development. The article cites a lot of software, all of the software cited was free, this is fairly common since the product being sold is the user. Open up your gmail account and open an email, note the ads. With the Iphone the device could be sold and upgraded constantly (free of charge) for each particular generation, thus the product wasn’t rushed but perhaps the software was. Nobody can really complain about free software, that’s what all of those EULA’s are for.

Remember the antennae fiasco the iphone 4 had? The internet seemed up in arms over that. How dare Apple release a less than perfect product into the marketplace.

I think that if you were to try a ‘beta’ type release, try pairing it with some sort of test group and you might get positive results. Think of it like mashing up beta and crowd sourcing.

HOWEVER You would also have to worry about trying to sell an underdeveloped/underdesigned product to a buyer and ultimately a customer. How do you pitch that? I know it doesn’t look finished… and it isn’t… but in two months we’ll have nailed it. Depending on the product that could have legal ramifications too. I guess if you were operating in an area you knew well and can make running changes on a production line (got the cash/time for new moulds) then at least logistically you know it’s possible.

Aesthetically if I purchased really nice TV, and then three or four weeks later the exact same model came out and looked better and was sold for the same price, I would use the return I’m entitled to.

Strictly speaking doing a beta product launch is an issue that would certainly have to be approached on a case by case basis. One could argue fashion/softgoods/footwear is constantly in beta mode.

IP: Strange, I’ve been dealing with getting my head around the same concept. For me, I found it via that book I posted about, the MouseDriver Chronicles. Also, the guy that did Automoblox had the same choice. Every project reaches a point where you have to ask yourself: ship or wait another year. When you have overhead, salaries etc. to pay, the shipping now is a very attractive idea. Here’s my thoughts:

negative: Remember the Corvair? It was tooled when test drivers complained to the engineers that it was too easy to loose control and flip. Someone said, “ship it”. Bad choice. When you are dealing with a safety hazard, I think it is always better to solve the problem now.

positive: We don’t understand the worst problem of our design. I bet that Apple tested enough iPhone 4s that they had no clue there was a problem with the antenna. It’s the ‘stupid’ public that is going to find the real deep problems in our designs and complain (especially with Gizmodo out there).

Another aspect of that is that you might have 1-2 things you can improve, but your clients will come back with another 6-7. It’s easier to solve all 9 problems at once that 1-2 now and 6-7 later. Save the development budget to dissect your problems 6 months after release.

Caveats: Mind you, when we are talking about problems, we are talking about nice-to-haves. The iPhone worked well, but could have worked BETTER. The Corvair didn’t work.

Recent observation: As a big gear head, I was excited to see Gran Turismo 5 hit the shelves last week. Yesterday, I read that Sony has released TWO updates!!! GT5 was under development for something like 4 years and they still have to release updates after a week on sale! It goes to show that nothing beats that real world testing.

I’m reading sarcasm in your tone here. If I am correct, I agree with you that it is silly that everyone got so amped up over this. At the end of the day, Apple has created a new paradigm of product that is more compelling than the fact that there’s a glitch. Perfection is impossible to achieve.

I agree that there’s a point where doing something too fast compromises quality. There’s also a point where naval gazing ruins the product. Trying to be everything for everyone. AKA Feature creep. It seems to happen all the time. A product is launched with more features and “benefits” then anyone can possibly handle. Then, at the end of the day, the product is mediocre at EVERYTHING.

I’ll use the iPhone as an example again. The product comes out and it is a phone. But it can morph into whatever you want it to be. The user gets to choose what its next feature is going to be, not the Marketing Department.

You also mentioned combining crowdsourcing with Beta. Scott Wilson’s iPod watch is probably the latest best example for this. Scott Wilson’s iPod Nano Watch Breaks Kickstarter Records, Raises Near

For a fully functional corporation that has the cashflow and manpower to tweak the knobs of each product before it goes out the door. I don’t think that makes it right, but they can. I believe The Beta Principle is far more applicable to the entrepreneurial mindset.


I think many people confuse beta with “unfinished”. I definitely don’t advocate the idea of pushing a tooled product to the market that is lacking in finished quality.

You can create a well designed consumer electronics product in 3 - 6 months that is a very solid proof of concept. I guess what I’m really getting at here is the Beta Principle for tooled products is about feature sets. Choose your market demographic carefully, and then tune your messaging to be very specific to that market. Resist the urge to listen to everyone around you saying…“oh, if it could only do this too”. Chasing every niche to try and sell to EVERYONE.

Get the product to do what it does very well. Market to the top 15% of the people who will adopt early and let them tell everyone else how amazing it is.

Quality is table stakes.

For a solution, we can steal a page from the playbook of modern Internet and technology companies that have pioneered the practice of “launching in beta.” As you probably know, most of Google’s products are launched in beta (with bugs and all) for the world to adopt. The “Labs” icon in the top right hand corner of Gmail is a treasure trove of quickly executed ideas that Google is testing. Some are clearly half-baked, but all are available.

A treasure trove (47) of software concept developed by thousands of programmers at the world’s most profitable company. I have a problem with thinking of this as “off the cuff”. It is more loose than something IBM would have released, but it is consistant with the corporate culture of Google, and millions of dollars of investment and man hours.

Hardgoods that are distributed to customers have to be replaced if a “beta” flaw is discovered. Be it a quick kickstarter project, or a massive decade long development. Even the best minds operating at the highest stakes in the industrial design game try and figure it all out past the beta stage and miss some details.

The crew aboard a Boeing 787 Dreamliner flight test aircraft made an emergency landing yesterday after smoke filled the cabin. The incident occurred aboard aircraft ZA002 (pictured above before its first flight) on a test flight from Yuma, Arizona.

An electrical fire in the aft section caused smoke in the cabin and the crew opted to make a precautionary landing in Laredo, Texas rather than continuing on to the planned destination of Harlingen, Texas. The fire affected electrical power and according to the Seattle Times both primary flight displays in the cockpit as well as the auto throttles were inoperable.

With physical products you get the best inputs and develop the best product you can as fast as you can. It will always evolve into version 1.1 or version 2.0, however the idea of releasing physical product with the knowledge that it is incomplete is not commercially sustainable.

Remember that software companies aren’t bringing their beta product to market. They are inviting a limited amount of testers to participate in a free version. It really is equivalent to a physical goods manufacturer sending out prototypes to selected individuals. It has always been done, but naturally on a smaller scale.

And isn’t the iPhone copy/paste analogy flawed? If they were going by the beta principle, wouldn’t they have released the feature even though it wasn’t perfect? The connection to the product as a whole is kinda irrelevant, since they learned exactly nothing by not including the feature.

I think it comes down to a more basic relationship. Beta = free. Before going on sale.

Purchase equals expectation, pay 500$ for a phone, you expect the transmission and reception to to work on par with the price.

I have been beta testing Rhino3D version 5 for what seems like a year now. Same with Flamingo Nxt, as they are free, I tolerate the rare quirks. No payment = no hard expectations, fair trade.

I am open to beta testing an Audi for free, also any Panerai watches or Jet-Lev jetpacks.

If Boeing offers free flights on 787 to destinations far away, I am willing to consider on a case by case basis.


Yes there was a lot of sarcasm in the apple antennae shenanigans.

I certainly think there is a fine line that must be walked when any project gets started. To a certain extent that’s why I like deadlines, it gives you a defined period to find the solution. I also hate deadlines because when you do get involved in an idea having it cut short can be a real problem, especially if you don’t know if you’ll get to revisit the idea. I was talking to a guy who just left Nike, he told the Free was being developed for 7 years before it was actually released. Some of this is relative, I don’t know that I personally could pursue a single project for 7 years, but look at what they accomplished. Nike now has a great line of shoes based on the Free concept. I’m digressing.

I think maybe Scott Wilson should have jumped right in and had some RP molds made, or little wooden moc ups CNC’d. That would cost significantly less than the money he needed to open toolings for his watch and he probably could have made a beta product. Get 10 of them made and see how different people react to them. Then combine their feedback and sort of crowd source it when it comes to stylings, materials and colors (areas where running changes can sometimes be made). There are already NANO watch ideas out there, from the frontpage of Core 77 if you look at the giftguide banner and follow this link:

I think if you want to do beta stuff it’s possible but you have to realize there will be real limitations to it that make it very costly. Other than electronics it’s hard to find a platform or medium that can adapt quickly to changes. In order to adapt quickly it’s either going to be expensive or very limited (or both). Or it won’t be the final product, it’ll just be a really nice model, but that could be enough for a small test group.

I was a little unsure about where the beta idea could go with physical products until I read the post quoted above. Perhaps you need a new word, because I think when most people hear “beta” they think of software that is version 0.2, and all the bugs that come with it. They think of flying on the 787 Dreamliner and having a “bug” pop up and cause they plane to catch on fire, or something less dramatic like a cell phone consistently dropping calls. In software bugs aren’t really a big deal; you can just uninstall or wait for an update, after which it’s as if the bugs never existed. With physical goods it ain’t that easy, as others have said.

BUT, I think what IP_wirelessly is getting at is NOT releasing a physical object with potential bugs that will be found by users. It’s releasing a fully functional product with uses and/or receptions that you are unsure about (and could honestly never be sure about until the product is “in the wild”). So, pretty much what IP said.

I’m certainly no expert, but I am curious about what others think of this. A company could do prototype tooling for 3 versions instead of 1 (different feature sets, aesthetic directions, ergonomic approaches) and have a limited release, after which the company will learn from the use and reception by the public and make a much more informed decision when they go to full production tooling. It seems like something that could work for the right brand (not every brand), perhaps one that could pitch these experiments as “limited editions?”

Yes, seurban, you’ve hit the nail on the head. And I agree that Beta doesn’t really translate well to hard products.

Using rapid proto and low volume manufacturing techniques that allow you to get a product into peoples hands very quickly. Most start-up investments I am familiar with are looking for significant money (millions) to get the product to the finish line based only on a concept or business plan.

I see the idea of the Beta Principle applying to a product in the context of building a company. Spend 100K now to get to functional prototype using Angel Funding, show off the functional prototype, tied with a solid brand message, and viable business numbers, and then go out and get investors to double down on their investment (e.g. fund another engineering spin, tooling, etc. etc.). You now have a very solid story to attract a higher calibre C-Level team due to a cohesive story in conjunction with a business plan based on much more resolute numbers.

ip - Have you come across the term ‘Lean Startup’ philosophy? Building a Lean Startup

Very popular in the tech space and talks a lot about getting a product out there asap to test whether there’s a market for it, and then pivot the business model if necessary to suit.

Obviously it’s a different story with hardware and physical objects. But it’s interesting to see where the process of a designer fits in with the lean start-up mindset. I think you’ll find it interesting, there’s a lot of people hyping it up at the moment…

Reminds me of Don Norman’s recent slate of design research, and how most recent billion dollar innovations (Google, Facebook, Groupon etc) have come from hunch’s and intuition as opposed to well thought out user research.

No, I hadn’t seen this. Thanks very much for the link. I am coming across more gems like this the more I dig into this.

I actually see Design Firms having a huge advantage heading into this “Rapid Product” phase the world seems to be hurtling headlong into.