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Finding the Beta: What Rock Climbing can Teach us about Product Development

Ethan Sherbondy
June 30, 2022
Ethan Sherbondy
Finding the Beta: What Rock Climbing can Teach us about Product Development

A lot of people ask us about the meaning of the name “Betafi.” The party line on the matter is simple enough: our ambition is to help people building software products to pass the chasm from a “Beta”-grade experience, a glimmering newborn idea or raw concept, to a Hi-”Fi”, delightful experience.

As a fanatical amateur rock climber, I must admit that it has also played some role in the naming of Betafi. In climbing slang, “beta” is often used to refer to knowledge about a valid path to successfully complete a climb. If somebody asks you for “the beta,” they’re asking you to find out how you approached a certain route.

Early stages of product development can feel like an up-hill climb

During the early stages of product discovery and development, standing on the ground, you may think you see the path clearly. Maybe you dream up a beautiful 5-10yr plan for your product or company in broad strokes. Then you get on the wall and realize that some moves which seemed simple from afar are actually quite difficult. That you aren’t quite strong enough quite yet to do a certain sequence. So you fall a few times, get back up, brush yourself off, hit the gym, and try again the next day.

In product development, “hitting the gym,” often means going back and talking to your users: finding those little nuggets of insight that you missed the first time around. Why they care more priority-wise about feature X than Y. Why a new feature they asked for a few months back isn’t quite resonating in its scrappy MVP form-factor.

Patience is key

Rock climbing helps to teach you patience, and in long-term product development you’re going to need it in spades. We ourselves are going through that uncomfortable “Beta to Hi-Fi” journey with our own product right now (the struggle is real), and dogfooding is certainly instrumental there, along with the continuous feedback of our early pilot users. I often wish we were moving 10x faster, but each day we are still climbing (mostly figuratively, despite my best efforts to inflict my hobbies on others). As a team, we are building the product muscle and gradually learning the necessary technique.

Don't flex too much, be "strategically lazy"

One core thing a lot of people struggle with when they first get into climbing is learning to just “hang” with your arms fully extended as often as possible throughout a climb. Beginners tend to “clench up” and activate their arm muscles the whole time on the route. Constantly “flexing” can be really tiring and make it difficult to get to the top. The trick is to learn how to “rest” while you’re part-way up the wall, to give your muscles a little break by relaxing them before taking that next step in the sequence.

So it goes in product development. There is a common trap many engineers and designers initially fall into around wanting to flex their technical or visual prowess on all of the things, sometimes to the level of re-inventing the wheel. But a big part of the marathon of product development is to always keep your users at the core of everything you build.

It really boils down to knowing when to be “strategically lazy,” when to let your arms hang in-between making big moves. In product design, this may mean relying on a reusable component library rather than rebuilding or redesigning every basic UI control from scratch.  Or, tossing out some novel off-the-wall (sorry, not sorry) interaction design ideas for something more conventional, familiar, and broadly understood by the user to get the job done.

Adopting a new product is a daunting climb for the users too

For our users, we always have to keep in the back of our minds that adopting a new product is also a daunting climbing exercise of its own. There are only so many new interactions and concepts a person can learn at once while first exploring a product, so if we “flex” too much too soon, we might lose them partway through the onboarding journey. We might both fall off the wall!

Whenever something like that happens, it’s important to dust yourself off, to go back and talk to your customers, and to find the paint points and rough edges that are jutting out of the product. As we keep iterating, we can reduce the sequence of unnecessary movements that waste energy. We can fill in the gaps and bring clarity to the parts that were fuzzy while squinting up from the ground.

Embrace the messy middle to get to the top

Betafi is all about embracing the Messy Middle. We’re building a metaphorical toolkit of research carabiners, grippy time-stamped notes, quick-insights to support product teams globally to get up that daunting wall to Product-Market Fit. So, let’s find the beta and build products that delight our users.

We would love to hear your Beta-fi stories, write to us at: hello@betafi.co.

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