"Pioneers put up with hardships so others don't have to," says Jim Edlin, president of Bruce & James, Program Publishers Inc., a San Francisco software publisher. With that thought in mind, Edlin founded Wordvision Pioneers Club to cope with the hardships involved in debugging a computer program.

The club is actually part of a unique experiment in product testing that began last fall when Bruce & James placed an ad in PC magazine -- a publication for IBM Personal Computer users -- announcing a new but unfinished word processing program called Wordvision. Readers were invited to buy it at full price ($49.95), try it out, and suggest changes. In effect, these users would become self-selected product testers. If Bruce & James used any of the suggestions, the tester would receive a full refund. Furthermore, everyone who bought the unfinished program would be sent a copy of the final version.

Edlin called the process "gamma testing." He had already done the standard "beta testing," whereby a company selects a group of end users to try out a product. But Wordvision's beta group had been small, and Edlin felt he needed additional feedback.

He certainly got it. More than 900 people responded to the ad, of whom about 300 wrote back noting problems and suggesting improvements. One "pioneer" sent snapshots of screen ideas. Another drew templates of various keyboard designs. Yet another sent in disks with "programlettes" -- miniprograms for upgrading the package. "I wake up thinking about what I can do on my Wordvision rather than how to get through Zork III [a computer game]," wrote one person. Others were less enthusiastic: "This isn't a pioneer edition. It's a turkey edition."

Be that as it may, the Pioneer Club apparently did its job. Edlin reports that when Wordvision makes its official debut this month, it will have a number of features suggested by "pioneers." Given the experiment's success, it seems likely that other software makers will try "gamma testing" in the future.