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In the computer industry, "beta testing" is a buzz word, meaning that software companies release programs to a select few users after all formal testing is complete, specifically to get real-world feedback on the product before its commercial release, to make last-minute enhancements if needed.

And, did you know that such real-world testing occurs with wheelchair products, as well, where those with disabilities use unreleased products, providing real-world feedback to ideally make the final product a better wheelchair?  Indeed, beta testing is a valuable part of the development process within the wheelchair industry, likely a valuable step toward the very wheelchair that you currently use.

Beta Background
Per FDA regulations, wheelchairs go through formal testing protocol to ANSI/RESNA standards.  Of course, formal testing proves form, function, durability, and reliability; however, beyond literal testing and the development team's professional knowledge and experience, how does a manufacturer ultimately know that a new wheelchair will meet the preferred functional characteristics of an actual end user in everyday life?  

This is where wheelchair beta testing comes in.  After formal testing is complete - but while some changes can still be made to the product - clinicians, providers, and end users are selected to use a new wheelchair, and provide detailed, real-time feedback on its qualities.

In rehab facilities, clinicians not only review a new wheelchair from their perspectives - whether a beta unit fully meets their clients' needs, from positioning to performance - but may also prescribe units to individual users for full-time, long-term use, where the end user and clinician serve as a beta-testing team, providing joint feedback.  Similarly, manufacturers work with esteemed providers and their customers to use and assess beta units over the long term.  In this way, beta units receive feedback from all three aspects of the mobility field - clinicians, providers, and end users.

The Chosen Few
Although it may seem like any wheelchair user could appropriately test a mobility product, there's a bit of a science to selecting the most fitting end users as beta testers.  Specifically, beta units are placed with users who are suited to the exact class and application of the product.  For example, if a manufacturer wished to select beta testers for a high-performance, ultra-light, rigid wheelchair, the demographic of a beta tester would be someone who uses that type of wheelchair full time, as opposed to a powerchair user.  In this way, not every user is an ideal beta tester for every wheelchair, and clinicians, providers, and manufacturers carefully place beta sample with the most appropriate users.

What Beta Testing Is and Isn't
Another important factor toward those who are selected as beta testers is overall user discretion.  Users sometimes note, "I destroy wheelchairs - give me one and I'll test it for you!"  In reality, simply trying to wreck wheelchairs isn't beneficial, productive beta testing.  While assessing real-world durability is part of beta testing, there are many, many other aspects that need noting, across the entire spectrum of use, from comfort to functionalities to positioning to transportability to performance and so on, based on the particular type and application of a wheelchair.  Therefore, a beta tester is most beneficial when he or she uses a wheelchair across the entire scope of uses, and can articulate successes and shortcomings of the product to a meaningful degree.  

Discretion, of course, also goes toward confidentiality.  Beta testers are using products that aren't entirely finalized or released to the public, and comments on the product must remain reasonably confidential.  The idea is that beta testers provide feedback on how to improve the product, and it's not fair to the product or manufacturer if a beta tester uses the wheelchair, and then publicly tells others of issues that he or she experienced, potentially effecting the products reputation before the manufacturer has finalized the product and resolved any issues found as intended by the process.  Therefore, beta testing is a confidential dialog between the user and the manufacturer, not an opportunity to publicly critique a still-developing product.

The fact is, a relatively small number of new wheelchair models are developed each year, at least by comparison to the software industry.  However, the models are beta tested, where users a lot like you test wheelchairs before they are released, ideally improving final products for all of us.  Who knows, maybe you will be a beta tester - or, maybe you are (don't worry, I won't tell).

Published 7/07, Copyright 2007, WheelchairJunkie.com