Betaworks Kicks Off Its ‘Openbeta’ Initiative To Turn Early Product Testers Into Design Partners

There’s something very thrilling about getting to play with something before everyone else does (that’s at least partially why I fell in love with tech journalism), but opportunities for that sort of early access can be hard to come by unless you’ve got an in. The folks at New York-based accelerator/app foundry betaworks are looking to change that, though. It announced a new initiative called Openbeta that will let average users play with their work-in-progress products.

The idea is simple. In exchange for early access, Openbeta users provide their benefactors with feedback about their experiences. The old adage about “design by committee” comes to mind here, but betaworks’ Nick Chirls assured me that the last thing they want is user-requested feature bloat infecting their projects.

“We’re looking to really solve the needs of the users,” he said. “But this is not meant to say that every single feature request is going into the product.” Instead, betaworks plans to lean on some eager testers to act as “design partners” that will help shape the product in its early stages. betaworks is no stranger to exposing nascent products to early scrutiny — Chirls pointed out that previous Openbeta sessions have connected products like Chartbeat with the New York Times (an investor in betaworks), which led to changes that ultimately wound up in the finished product.

Of course, if we’re talking about betaworks and public feedback, Digg is the most recent, most prominent example. As you’ll recall, betaworks acquired the ailing social news site in July 2012, gave it some major plastic surgery over the course of six weeks, and pushed the redesigned beast back online. From there, user feedback prompted the team to tweak and modify the new-old site even further. All that noodling around seems to have worked: as of January, Digg’s userbase had doubled since it had been taken over by betaworks, so the general fondness for accepting and building off of users’ responses is understandable.

Just like the products that are due to be publicly evaluated, this expansion of the Openbeta initiative is still in its early stages. There’s no firm word yet on the mechanics of the program. Users can throw their hats into the ring by signing up here, but nitty-gritty details like tester group sizes are still up in the air. For now, the Openbeta model is only meant for products and projects that betaworks is working on directly (and Chirls assured me that there were plenty in the pipeline) but that may not be the case forever. The betaworks team has apparently also thought about extending Openbeta to its portfolio companies, as well.