Blogs open doors for developers

Business software developers are learning what gamemakers have long known: Using Web logs and online tools to gather feedback can help strengthen products--and pull in customers.

David Becker Staff Writer, CNET News.com
David Becker
covers games and gadgets.
David Becker
6 min read
Secrecy has long been a hallmark of the software development process: Let too many people know too much about what you're working on too early, and somebody might steal your ideas.

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But a growing array of big-name software developers are finding they can make better software if they leave the doors open, by sharing information with potential customers from the start and incorporating their feedback into development decisions. While developers of games software have used this method for years, business software makers are now also catching on.

Web logs (commonly known as "blogs"), message boards and other online forums are becoming increasingly important vehicles for developers to attract customers--and development talent--well before an application even enters the beta stage.

Mitch Kapor, founder of software pioneer Lotus and creator of its breakthrough 1-2-3 spreadsheet program, started a development blog early on in his quest to build a smarter personal information manager. He said the blog has been a vital conduit for him to communicate with users about the project and to solicit their ideas.

"Some of the world's smartest software people are interested in this project and communicating with me," Kapor said. "The more open feedback there is, the better we can incorporate those ideas into the product."

Kapor uses the blog to update potential users of the manager on development progress and his ideas. Readers are invited to share their views via e-mail, private and public chats and other means.

"It was a conscious plan of communicating to people about what we're doing," he said. "It's part of a long-term process of building a user community. Every process has its advantages and its disadvantages, but if you have an open process, you can get much better feedback, and you get stimulated by new ideas."

Blogging has also become an important part of the development process for Dan Bricklin as he works on the SMBmeta specification, his idea for a giant online business directory that would open the Web more to small and medium-sized businesses. Bricklin, co-inventor of VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program, said his blog and other public communication conduits extend the possibilities for user feedback beyond beta testing, the traditional approach in which developers send early versions of a program to a select group of testers.

"I remember trying really hard to find beta testers by saving all the business cards I collected," said blogging pioneer Bricklin. "We had to find people, call them and beg them to be beta testers and mail them the software. We had to call them every week to see how they were doing.

"A Web log is a simple, inexpensive tool to get communication going and do it so much more efficiently," Bricklin continued. "It's unbelievable how much wider an area you get feedback from. What Web logs do is let there be more serendipity of ideas. I'm already finding bugs and looking at ways to do a better job based on what people have shared with me after reading the blog."

While business software makers are starting to pick up on the value of early public feedback, games developers have known about it for some time. Traditional offline games still adhere to a typical pattern of prerelease secrecy and limited betas, but developers of multiplayer online games have learned to court potential customers early.

It takes a community
The social nature of online games makes it essential to build a user community early on, said Scott McDaniel, vice president of marketing for Sony Online Entertainment, publisher of leading online game "EverQuest."

"It's hard to get a community going if you don't make that a priority from the beginning," McDaniel said. "You want to make sure people have the information they need to get excited and evangelize the game...We do a lot of advertising and promotion, but we found that the No. 1 reason people sign up for 'EverQuest' is word of mouth--a friend told them to try it."

"Star Wars Galaxies," the upcoming online role-playing game to be published by Sony Online Entertainment, has had a Web site full of active user forums for almost two years--well before the earliest stages of beta testing. Developers use the site to update fans on the progress of the game, to conduct open chat sessions with readers and to solicit feedback through discussion groups and other forums.

McDaniel said early feedback from fans has played a significant role in shaping the development of "Galaxies." "We started off asking really basic questions. The answers led us in directions we hadn't thought of," McDaniel said.

Rade Stojsavljevic, senior development director for Westwood Studios, which creates games for leading publisher Electronic Arts, said the development team for "Earth & Beyond," the studio's new intergalactic role-playing game, began soliciting feedback well before there was any test software to send around.

"We spent a lot of time in there when the community was really small, soliciting feedback from players," he said. "We hired a full-time community manager early on--her job was to filter feedback to the development team."

Early feedback resulted in major structural changes in the game, Stojsavljevic said. The initial concept for the game didn't include "avatars," or display appearances, to represent individual characters--players instead were supposed to focus on customizing their spaceships.

"Our idea was that you wouldn't spend any time thinking about who was in your spaceship," he said. "The thing we didn't realize in the beginning is that it's hard to get attached to a piece of metal. The user groups were very clear and unanimous and made a really good point about that. After that, we spent a lot of time developing an avatar system."

Filtering the chat
Inviting the world into your software project includes some liabilities. It can be a lot of work to sieve through discussion group postings, e-mail messages and other submissions to cull worthy ideas. Westwood has five full-time community development specialists for "Earth & Beyond," who spend much of their time sifting through user input.

"You can easily get a mess," Stojsavljevic said. "I think it's critical to have someone there to dig, find out which ideas the most people are talking about and funnel those to the right people on the development team. At the height of the development cycle on this game, we had 150 people working on it. It's just impossible to have everybody know what's going on overall."

Developers also need to be able to pull the plug on unproductive or exhausted discussion threads. Otherwise, projects can bog down in a paralysis of ideas.

"You have to be prepared to make some clear statement--we're doing this, we're not doing that, or this issue has been settled, and here's the reason why," Lotus founder Kapor said. "If you don't take stands and communicate them, the discussion never ends. And you need to do that in a way that respects the community. If its feels authoritarian, that doesn't build a good dynamic."

It also helps if the developer has a thick skin--to withstand correspondents who express their ideas in harsh language--and enough self-awareness to be able to admit they might be wrong.

"Being a software developer, you need a combination of ego and humility," Bricklin said. "There are so many bugs and dead ends, you need the ego to keep going. But you need the humility to learn and make changes."

With the right attitude and attention, however, public participation can make a software project a success before it leaves the developer's cubicle.

"If you do this right, you've got early adopters, you've got evangelists, you've got a lot of early support," Kapor said. "The train has left the station and is gathering steam before you do a final release."