The bravery (and rewards) of beta testing

What we can learn from digital product development
December 2023
By Hilary Knight
Cnc photo by brian medina 23 editas lowres header 800 xxx q85
Iregular's 'Control No Control' (Photo by Brian Medina)

A short while ago I interviewed Daniel Iregui of the digital art studio Iregular for The Three Bells podcast. It was a great conversation, and I was particularly struck by the role audiences take as further system or ingredient in his work:

"The way that we describe our work is that we always deliver unfinished projects that the audience finishes with their interaction. … How the piece looks, behaves, how it sounds, it's really up to the person that it's interacting with. But that means for us that the interaction between the people and the piece needs to be what we call expressive interaction, meaning [the audience is] really in control."

Playing an integral part in the artworks means audiences must be considered during the making process. This is where Iregular's practices are akin to user testing in digital projects - where websites and other digital products are regularly tested with future users to ensure that they meet the needs and expectations of the people they're intended for. For Daniel and Iregular, it's impossible to accurately recreate the scale of a live experience for testing purposes.  The studio environment lacks many of the factors affecting works in the public realm – footfall, road traffic, surrounding architecture, weather, and so on. Instead, they treat the almost-complete work as an advance-stage prototype and continue refining the work while it’s on public display.

Something that has stayed with me is how carefully Iregular considers audience attention:

"People have no patience. Somebody gives it a try, if the thing doesn't work, in three seconds, they're gone. They're finished. I love that challenge. How can I convince you to put your phone in your pocket and look at this low resolution screen for at least five minutes or how can I convince you to just arrive a little bit later to wherever you're going?"

Getting people to put down their phones is a big ask. Essentially, it is a "threshold" problem; how do you entice someone to cross (in this case) an invisible threshold from their own familiar environment into a new one? It is a tacit invitation all cultural organisations make and many struggle with, and I wonder whether one way forward is to reframe it as a user experience issue.

The majority of contemporary culture is screen-based and digital products are finely tuned to attract, capture and retain audiences by ensuring they're rewarded for their engagement with compelling, relevant content and well-timed, dopamine-inducing interactions. Of course, arts and culture venues quite rightly offer something different to our pocket-sized, screen-orientated culture. But in a world of finely tuned user experiences, might there be something to learn from product and games design?

Daniel and his studio test their artworks and present prototypes to the public in a process similar to the open beta mode used in digital product development. How might venues and cultural organisations also test and iterate their thresholds to make them easier to cross? What data insights might they need to do this, and how quickly and easily can they get them? Is it possible to rapidly prototype a venue's threshold requirement, and does it demand new ways of working?

We know that many of our established cultural institutions have a "threshold problem"; perhaps being prepared to present their not-yet-perfected entrances and hallways to the public, to test, iterate and update them, might help them find some interesting solutions?

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