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Volunteers as Beta Testers

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Nov 4, 2015
by Susan J. Ellis

Volunteers are in the unique position of what I call "insider/outsiders." Most employees approach their jobs from a specific professional perspective and may be too close to their work to see the whole forest for their species of trees. Volunteers, on the other hand, bring a wide range of educational and occupational backgrounds (including differences in age and other demographics). Collectively, they have a much broader point of view. They still think like members of the public but have also made a commitment to your organization, so you can count on their input as based on wanting the best for you and for those you serve. This ability makes them ideal "beta testers."

Our organizations are always moving forward on new projects, expanding services in different ways, possibly renovating or building new facilities, responding to additional legal requirements, and more. Even cutbacks bring change. The staff responsible for planning and implementing such activities are immersed in the process, as professionals. In other words, they are applying their expertise and training to the intellectual challenges of the new task. The problem is that the greatest impact of the changes is on your clients or consumers, not on the staff. By the time those service users give feedback, it may be too late (or expensive) to fix bad decisions. Doesn't it make more sense to pilot test options much earlier in the process? 

vounteer's ideas

The solution? Ask current volunteers for their opinions and ideas during the planning and then to beta test the experience as plans are implemented. They will be stand-ins or surrogates for real clients later on. Here are just a few situations in which this could be invaluable:

  • Renovations, building from scratch, choosing new facilities:  What issues do volunteers raise about the plans or new site? How easy or intuitive is it to move around and find where to go? Is anyone worrying about the distance from the parking lot or drop-off point to where someone enters the building? Are restrooms conveniently located? Where do they hang their coats or put snow boots? It's not that architects or paid staff don't care about such things, nor that they haven't been considered before. But because volunteers are not focused on service delivery, they are more likely to notice things a visitor or client might care about.
     
    • If you often have visitors with a physical disability or who come with small children, make sure you recruit volunteers who have personal experience with those issues to review your plans.

 

  • Navigating your Web site: As noted, volunteers already know a lot about you, yet they remain part of the public at large. So why not ask them to find things on your Web site and report how long it took? What questions do they have that were not answered on your site (or not found)? Does your site feel friendly or official and bureaucratic? Is it written in graduate school language or is it too simple? Is it clear what someone should do if they want to learn more?
     
    • Are there parts of the site that guide the user through any steps to complete a form, application, purchase, or other activity? Do the volunteers find those easy to understand and follow?
       
    • As an added test, if your site provides "contact us" forms submitted electronically from the site, ask volunteers (even just a few) to complete them and report back on how long it took to get a response!
       
    • If you have volunteers who answer the phone for your organization, ask them what are the most common questions they receive. Then, make sure the answers to those questions are on the Web site.

 

  • Filling in new forms: The creators of a form know exactly what they mean with every question or they would not have written them that way. But does the person completing the form understand and, more importantly, give useful answers?  In full disclosure, at my old job at the Philadelphia Family Court, we didn't want prospective volunteers to feel that advanced education was a per-requisite to getting involved with kids on probation.  So, in an attempt to encourage open-ended responses rather than "school, degree, date," we included this: "Please describe your educational background."  At least once a month someone responded, "Awful!" I learned my lesson!
     
  • Pre-testing an exhibit, open house, or other event that will be open to the public: Rather than simply invite volunteers to take part in an event open to the public (which is certainly important to do), up the ante by specifically asking them to "experience" the venue, exhibit layout, and other elements before outsiders do. This lets you check crowd control, the usefulness of (or missing) signage, and learn what questions a participant may have that you didn't expect.

Whether you invite all volunteers to serve as such beta testers or select specific ones for each project based on their relevant perspectives, volunteers will love these requests! It's a change of pace with a purpose.  It treats them as part of the team, with a different role than that of the paid staff. Yet they can provide feedback information that is extremely useful. 

Further, if you engage volunteers during the early stages of something new, and act on valid suggestions they make, they will feel a sense of ownership and commitment to the activity or building. This will make them even more valuable as community ambassadors and as guides to your clients when they ultimately make use of the services.

 

Susan J. Ellis is president of Energize, Inc., a training, consulting, and publishing firm that specializes in volunteerism. She founded the Philadelphia-based company in 1977 and since that time has assisted clients throughout the world (23 countries) to create or strengthen their volunteer corps. She has an international reputation as a passionate advocate for the power of volunteers and those who lead them. Visit www.energizeinc.com to learn more!