There are an infinite number of ways to manage a beta test, but a truly effective beta project follows a similar plan. This is the process our beta managers use across hundreds of betas.
Before beginning a beta test, the objectives of the project must be defined. It's common for the number of unique goals in a beta test to range from just a few to upwards of 20. Defining these goals in advance ensures that the appropriate number and composition of participants are selected, an adequate amount of time is available, and everyone involved understands what needs to be accomplished.
Tip: In addition to goals, there are many other significant details that go into beta test planning. These include a project timeline, an overview of the product's current state, the target market of both the product and the beta testers, plus the team members involved and their responsibilities. The best way to manage all this is with a detailed project plan. We offer free software and hardware beta planning kits to help with that.
Beta testing begins with the selection of test candidates. The ideal candidates are those who match the product's target market and whose opinions won't be swayed by a prior relationship with the company. Most private beta tests include anywhere from 10 to 250 participants. However, this number is highly dependent on the complexity of the product, the audience involved, the time available for testing, and the individual goals you'd like to achieve.
Tip: Depending on the goals of a beta, existing customers often make great beta candidates. Employees, on the other hand, generally don't. Sometimes they're not forthcoming with feedback, while other times they're overly critical. It's best to utilize your employees during alpha testing instead.
Next, products are distributed to beta participants. The focus of a beta test is to understand the customer experience as though they purchased the product themselves. With this in mind, beta is most effective when a complete package including all appropriate materials (software, hardware, manuals, etc.) are sent to participants.
Tip: While downloads are a convenient way to offer beta software products, they don't provide the user with the entire "out of the box" experience (unless this is the intended distribution method, of course). If time and budget allow, distributing physical beta products will often produce greater results. Additional builds may easily be offered online as needed.
Once your participants begin to use the beta product, feedback needs to be gathered quickly. This feedback comes in many valuable forms including bug reports, general comments, quotes, suggestions, surveys, and testimonials. With good beta management and communication tools, you can get a lot of feedback from test participants.
Tip: User feedback is the heart of beta testing, but it's often assumed to consist of nothing more than bug reports. This is a very limited view of beta testing, since beta testing can involve countless types of user input depending on your goals. The key is building your beta test and feedback mechanisms directly around the goals you're trying to accomplish.
A beta test provides a wealth of data about your product and how your customers view it. However, that information is useless unless it's effectively evaluated and organized to be manageable. All feedback should be systematically reviewed based on its impact on the product and relevant teams.
While bugs are often the core focus of a beta, other valuable data can also be derived from the test. Marketing and public relations material, customer support data, strategic sales information, and other information can all be collected from an effective beta test.
Tip: Many betas are performed using manual processes and rudimentary tools (often with nothing more than email). This type of approach makes managing large amounts of feedback extremely difficult, limiting the value of the beta test. Our beta test management platform is designed to organize, summarize, and deliver beta test feedback efficiently to the right people.
When a beta test comes to a conclusion, it's important to provide closure to both the project and the beta participants. This means providing feedback to the participants about their issue submissions, updating them on the status of the product, and taking the time to thank and reward them for their effort.
Tip: While it is not always feasible, the most common (and beloved) way to reward good participants is to provide them with final versions of the tested product. If this isn't possible, offering a warranty or support on their beta version can also be effective. We highly recommend rewarding your testers in some way, especially if you plan to use them again on a future test.