Tumblr – Under Construction, Under Constant Construction

In the early stages of Personal Computing, software was a product, it would be developed, tested, packaged and sold to users. Once software was created it would quickly become a software artifact with no ongoing support as it was difficult to maintain connections with individual customers. With the rise of the internet era these barriers have been removed with companies that can now provide software or services online where additional support can easily be given.

Initially this allowed businesses to provide updates to customers purchased software however through the use of Web 2.0 technologies this quickly grew into providing customers software directly through the internet. These products have transcended the software/service definitions as they are software that are provided as an ongoing service where there is no versions, no installations and no upgrades. Users simply expect these services to be available and to improve over time. Therefore companies must keep software in a Perpetual Beta stage where new features are added on a regular basis as part of the normal user experience.

This blog post will discuss how Tumblr has used the best practices from the concept of “Perpetual Beta” to provide faster releases, reduce risk of glitches, maintain closer relationships with customers, gather real-time data and increase the responsiveness of their product.

tumblr

1. Release Early and Release Often

Due to the relative ease of updating the system compared to packaged software, it is important that you release your software in the early Beta stages, providing agile and iterative releases to incrementally improve software via user feedback. By releasing early you are able to respond to users feedback into the development of the software, this becomes a free method of testing and user-research. Tumblr provides a beta version of new features each time a significant update is made to allow user-testing and responses.

2. Engage users as co-developers and real-time testers

Incorporating users into real-time testing has presented a cheap alternative to traditional software testing. By providing some users with alternative features and experiences, companies can monitor usage to feed the evolution of their software. This approach is called “Split Testing” and has been a useful tool for Tumblr developers in monitoring the effectiveness and usability of new features. Tumblr announces new version releases and provides an alternate web address www.tumblr-beta.com , to allow users the choice of participate in beta testing. From using monitoring software and listening to the responses of users, Tumblr gains free insight into users needs.

3. Incrementally create new products

Updating new software no longer requires large amounts of releases bundled into a single update. Web 2.0 software provides an ongoing service where features are added incrementally with little disruption to the user experience. By incrementally updating features and allowing users to be real-time testers, companies are able to gain constant feedback on the current service and where the service should improve. By monitoring the usage of your service and incrementally improving the main features, new products can be created incrementally. Tumblr is under constant incremental updates, where the ways customers use the system are monitored and used to adapt the product to be more user-orientated.

4. Use dynamic tools and languages

As a part of creating software in Perpetual Beta it is advantageous to employ platform independent languages such as Python, PHP or Ruby. By creating an environment where change is easily achieved it allows easier transition to improving technologies and allows the business to stay on the forefront of technology. Tumblr takes advantage of these technologies using PHP, Ruby, Scala and many other software languages to develop different areas of their software.

skypebeta

“Skype Beta” – Beta no longer means incomplete, it means always improving!

There are however a few guidelines to avoid issues with using the concept of “Perpetual Beta” to further your software development and they will be discussed below.

Beware of Excess

As with everything in web development you must be wary of overusing certain ideals as they can be counter-productive. A part of undergoing Perpetual Beta is to not bundle updates, however companies must be careful to not go too overboard with this idea. Providing too many drastic updates over a short period of time could create confusion and fatigue with customers who constantly need to relearn the features of your software.

Privacy

Any monitoring software used to discover what customers are doing when they visit your webpage must be done with appropriate privacy and security guidelines. These must be available and accepted by the user and not gather any identifiable or unnecessary data about the user.

User Testing replaces Quality Assurance

The concept of Perpetual Beta allows companies to monitor users activities to enhance features and live-test the software. However it is important to not solely rely on customers for testing as this could become an excuse for poor quality of product. Updates should be tested in-house to ensure they are working before release and should be either an optional feature for users or one that does not limit their ability to use the software. Tumblr provides a separate web page for users who want to opt into beta testing, while providing the standard page for users who want the normal experience.

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13 thoughts on “Tumblr – Under Construction, Under Constant Construction

    • Thanks for the post, I think that is a great idea and have added that link to my blog. You’re blogs look very interesting aswell, I’ll be looking into them now. 🙂

  1. Hey David,
    This whole article was interesting but the part that intrigued me the most was right at the end when you mention that tumblr allows users to opt in for beta testing.

    I firmly believe the concept of perpetual beta is the healthiest option for modern apps and web services, but beta testing seems to be declining as perpetual beta becomes more popular. Companies are becoming increasingly willing to just roll out larger updates, sometimes with crippling negative responses that smaller companies can’t really recover from.

    Out of all the things we can hang on to from the old model of releasing software, I think beta testing is the most important and its a shame to see some companies throwing opportunities away. I wonder where, with the current state of the web, you draw the line to determine if something is worth going through beta or not? Tumblr seems to be doing a great job and I’m glad they’re still using it like some other larger sites are.

    Do you share any opinions in regards to beta or am I stuck in an old mindset here? I can’t really tell.

    Excellent post, thank you.

  2. Nice blog 🙂 and good explanation of perpetual beta. how do we know that a website is making a significant update by giving a beta version to the users? Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks for the comment.

      Perpetual Beta can come into 2 stages, the small updates that hopefully make no significant impact to users except for increasing efficiency. And then there is the large updates, and these are the noticeable ones. Tumblr for instance releases news posts when a significant beta update is available and allows users to opt into testing.

  3. Hi Leo

    This Web 2.0 is a very interesting concept. The application will evolve when time goes by providing us with better and better services each time it was used. Do you think the time will come that the application can’t find a way to improve anymore and become complete?

    Leo

    • Thanks for the comment Leo!

      You raise a very good point, and the conservative in me would say that it would definitely be a possibility where they would not be able to find anything to improve. However history has shown that as technology develops there will always be new areas to improve and use it. Wasn’t it one of the founders of IBM that said that he couldn’t see why someone would ever need a computer in there home.

      So I think as technology develops we can only speculate where things will head, and there will always be room for improvement.

      Thanks again for the comment. 🙂

  4. Your point on Tumblr providing and alternative address for participation of users is a great idea for beta testing! With regards to your discussion on ‘Beware of Excess’ – do you know of any examples of Web 2.0 applications that fallen victim to this trap?

    • Thanks for the comment.

      I did some research and I couldn’t find any specific examples of large companies overusing perpetual beta, however that could possibly be part of the reasoning of why they are still large. In early stages of company startups there will be a large amount of changes, however I believe the excess warning lies more with established companies. For example small changes to Facebook are often met with backlash, so by providing a large amount of drastic changes would do more harm then good, in this example.

  5. Hiya David, your post was actually a very interesting and well structured read! As an avid user of Tumblr, It will be interesting to see how (or if!) things change after the handover to Yahoo!

    Anyway, great post and good luck with your end of semester exams/ assessment!

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