Ask any manufacturer what guides design and product development, and the answer should focus on the end user and how the product will operate in real-world applications.
“Really digging in to understand workflows and what users need is at the crux of developing products that drive businesses — and the industry — forward,” says Mathias Roehring, product manager for the recently released Trimble TSC7 Controller. “Our goal is to deliver products that meet our customers’ needs, which might not always be what they expect us to deliver.”
Prior to the release of the TSC7, the product underwent two years of conceptualization and two years of product development, gathering more customer feedback than in any previous product launch to date. In fact, Roehring interviewed more than 200 customers to gather their input.
These opinions and insights helped shape crucial design decisions. “My first assumption was that it would be a tablet,” Roehring says, “but customer insight proved me wrong.”
Such customer engagement efforts provide valuable input at each stage of product design and development. The customer beta tester program is one of the most important steps before going to market. Gathering this type of information is a two-way street that involves an investment of time and energy from product users. Participants in the program are asked to test new technology and use it extensively as part of their everyday, normal workflow, and Trimble provides this feedback directly to the engineering team. The time commitment for beta testers varies, but in the case of software, it can range from no time some weeks to anywhere from 20 to 50 hours in the month before a release.
One Beta Tester’s Journey
With an eye toward new ways to enhance workflows as he leads survey crews for Flatirons Inc., surveyor Scott Lyttle signed on to test the new TSC7 Controller with Trimble Access field software last year.
As a beta tester, he put Trimble’s latest solution through the paces in his daily work in a variety of jobs and settings, and provided feedback — both positive and negative — to the company’s development teams as they prepared to go to market.
Roehring notes that Lyttle’s commitment provided Trimble with feedback that helped his team make necessary product adjustments and improvements before launch.
“From a hardware perspective, Scott’s many insights on the TSC7’s bracket design were crucial,” he says. “We learned from him, and other testers, about ways we could enhance this feature, which is exactly what we are looking for from participants.”
“I enjoyed working through any issues that arose and giving feedback to the Trimble team,” says Lyttle. “Knowing that I was undertaking this testing for the development of a product, and the time and effort I was putting in was being listened to and acted upon by the company, made it worthwhile for me.
“Overall, I’m not only involved in influencing the future products I will use in my industry,” he adds, “but I feel like my voice, insight, and experiences are being listened to and used to create and shape future products.”
From the Design Team
Roehring and the design team explain some of the process that guided the design of the TSC7.
According to Boris Skopljak, market manager overseeing Trimble survey and mapping office software development, beta tester feedback allows product teams to launch products with confidence and a clear understanding of their benefits.
Before formalizing the beta testing program in 2014, each software release would introduce a lot of stress, Skopljak says. Once the software was made public, there was a high probability that customers might find a critical issue that would require a quick reaction and a software patch. Equally important, going through a beta phase would provide a period of getting and incorporating feedback in order to make sure that intended benefits of the new capabilities match customers’ expectations.
With a software testing program involving over 200 customers from diverse backgrounds from a number of different regions, he adds, “We are now very confident that what we deliver to market is going to provide value and benefit to our customers.
“We are interested in learning how a product can save users time, boost their confidence, or even allow them to bid for new jobs to increase efficiencies and revenue,” he says. “Beta testing also gives our team strong confidence when we present the software to a large audience. As a result, we can be bold about the statements we make regarding the benefits of a new release.”
Beta Testers Drive Big Changes
Beta tester feedback sometimes results in addressing software workflow steps and adding or removing options within a software command, but in some cases, participant feedback drives significant changes and additional features — not just tweaks. For example:
- One Trimble Business Center beta tester raised the issue of being unable to manage and work with surveying data from all of his survey equipment as he used a mixed fleet (not just Trimble instruments). This caused Trimble to add support for third-party instruments in Trimble Business Center.
- The North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) found that they were unable to successfully manage levelling data that contained some field errors and address these in Trimble Business Center. As a result, Trimble created some significant enhancements that not only benefited NCDOT, but also other users of Trimble Business Center levelling editing capabilities around the world.
- A participant in a beta group for the Trimble Business Center tunneling module gave strong feedback that streamlining was needed for working with point cloud data and reporting on the as-built information from point clouds, which resulted in inclusion of these in the product roadmap.
Weighing in on the SX10
To assemble a beta testing group prior to Trimble’s SX10 Scanning Total Station 2016 launch, Chris Trevillian, market manager, had team members strategically reach out to specific customers who had been positively impacted by other Trimble products. The company, he notes, also commonly recruits beta testers via its sales channels, as well as at industry events, including seminars, conferences and trade shows.
Trimble’s approach to selecting beta testers is a thoughtful, guided process aimed at giving customers the confidence that products are good enough to use in the field, he says. The goal is to search for the broadest, most varied range of customer personas within a tight group.
Whether in regards to a bug they discover in a product out in the field, a software feature request, or any other pertinent hardware detail, Trevillian explains that he always spells out how often testers should expect to communicate back and forth during the testing phase. Every email, phone call, face-to-face meeting and interaction for the beta tester is one more opportunity for Trimble to fine-tune its product before market release.
The group’s input made a real difference in multiple ways, Trevillian says. For example, Trimble didn’t originally have an optical path on the tribrach, and since there is no screen on-board the instrument, it made the initial setup over a known mark difficult with video plummet only.
“We watched this interaction with an experienced user who was our beta customer,” Trevillian says, “and knew immediately we needed a different option.”
Delivering What Users Want
Given the complexity of modern technology, there’s no denying that effective beta testing is crucial to the success of today’s cutting-edge products. Real-world customer feedback and insights on the various aspects of developing a new product, such as intuitiveness, design and comfort, can prove invaluable before market release.
Meanwhile, Trimble’s beta testers continue to embrace the program. “It’s been well received to date,” says Roehring. “Our customers are always appreciative that we open up, aim for transparency, involve them early on in the process, discuss their needs and try to deliver products that meet those needs.”