Something has been on my mind that I wanted to talk about. Lately, coming out of many product development groups (mine included), there has been a bunch of talk about ‘Community Technology Previews’ or CTPs. What’s the deal with this? Throughout the software development industry there has been a trend towards greater transparency both organizationally and with product development specifically. I like this trend as I think it, if done well, benefits everyone.
What’s a CTP? Well, a CTP is essentially a snapshot package of the product very early in the development cycle (sometimes with all the ‘not-so-nice’ features of a product at this stage) that is put together so that customer feedback can be gathered to help drive the eventual feature set of the product. This delivery mechanism has benefits for both ‘the company’ and its customers – stay with me here…it’s not just a way for software devs to inflict pain on their poor users. For the company, it allows them to garner feedback early in the process (when changes are cheaper) and, hopefully, create a product that is ‘Right-On’ in terms of customer needs. While this should be beneficial to the customer anyway, the CTP process also allows customers to see where ‘the company’ is headed in terms of technology – so they can plan ahead.
A CTP should consist of something that actually works (however, that definition varies depending on who you ask I hear) and enough information / documentation to allow the customer to thoroughly evaluate the product. I like to include screencasts that show/explain the main features – a screencast is basically the virtual equivalent to sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in front of a computer and demoing. I feel this is easier to follow (than, say, pdf documentation) and provides a personal feel – allowing the evaluator to, maybe, garner the motivations behind the features. The screencast process also has the additional benefit of making the developer (who should be the one doing the screencast) actually go through the process from start to finish and explain it ‘so your Grandma could understand’. Its amazing what we code-heads take for granted. (This may be a topic for another day.)
CTPs that I have put out are generally a package that includes:
1. All the third-party installers you need to get going (this is really important – you need to give the evaluator everything they need to get up and running – they shouldn’t hurt before they even get started, if you can’t do this, at least try and give links – make it as easy as you can, 5 little minutes for you could be the difference between irrepairably straining the patience of your audience).
2. An install guide (give step by step instructions! Nobody has ever used this stuff before – its a CTP).
3. The actual bits (as in 1s & 0s) that you need to use the new technology.
4. A number of screencasts that take you through the technology from the motivation(s) for the product & introduction, to the ‘more advanced’ features. Its a good idea, especially for totally new (its probably new to someone – right? ) products to talk a little about the motivations for the product and the problems it hopes to solve – this gives the evaluator the context to really evaluate the product.
I generally give a liberal dose of screencast content, maybe 6 sessions of 10-15 minutes each. You might be thinking — ahh, I don’t have time to wade through that stuff, I’m a busy person. OK, then I guess you need to ask yourself two questions. Do I have a stake in the eventual success of the product – i.e. will I be using it someday on one of MY projects? Should I be helping/guiding/managing to make sure the features meet my needs & will help me if I/my customers do use it? If you think you might be a stakeholder at some point you should evaluate the technology and give feedback. Is it ‘speak now or forever hold your peace’? I doubt it – but I’m sure you can guess its helpful, in the development cycle, to get feedback as early as possible. Everyone’s busy – everyone knows this. In fact – one of the best things about screencasts, especially for the super-busy, is that you can go through them at your own pace – whenever. It’s not like anyone is saying – hey, everyone, stop what you a’re doing and come to X-location for three days away from your family for the CTP.