Why Didn’t You Run a Beta Test?

So your company just released its latest product and to the horror of the development team, several critical bugs have slipped into the release. Your engineering team is scrambling to get the issues addressed and support is screaming as they get inundated with calls and e-mails. Everyone is busy pointing fingers, and the common thread among your product reviews, social web commentary and general customer complaints is “Did anyone beta test this thing?” And as the company faces the scrutiny of the press, the public and the customer, the one question that gets asked is “Why didn’t you run a beta test?

Beta testing is often an overlooked, yet critical part of the quality process of any development effort. Many companies opt to pass on it for a variety of reasons. Many times these reasons have a logical foundation and for the most part seem like a good decision at the time. Unfortunately, this generally ends badly. The following are some of the “famous last words” that result in companies not running beta tests.

“Loose lips sink ships”

One of the most common arguments against performing a beta test is the fear of a product being leaked to the press. By definition, beta means taking your product outside and asking perfect strangers to test the product in a real world environment. The underlying paranoia of corporate espionage and the perceived competitive benefits of a surprising launch do not outweigh good quality.

The reality is that leaks are very rare. Most users fear the repercussions of a company filing a lawsuit for damage caused by a leak and take extra steps to ensure the security of the product. Moreover, if a company properly administers an NDA to each user, verifies his or her personal data and enforces the terms of secrecy, users do not violate this trust. A person invited to a beta test has little to gain from sharing the test data and a lot to lose. They want to be on the project; they want to earn a reward; and they want future opportunities to test again.

“We’ve got it covered”

Another fallacy that many companies subscribe to is the belief that their quality team can find every bug in the lab. The fact is, even the most inventive lab manager has a hard time replicating the real world usage scenarios of customers. People do unpredictable things and this is where beta testing excels.

Additionally, the diversity of test platforms and environments used by a team of beta testers are difficult if not impossible for most companies to match. An effective beta test compliments the quality process by introducing real, untrained users into the test process. The data gathered in a beta test directly reflects what your customer will experience. No lab can reproduce this effect.

“It’s too expensive”

Some companies abandon a beta test because there’s a lack of hardware or resources to conduct the test. Sometimes the prototypes are too expensive or there simply isn’t a perceived budget to conduct the test. Cost is always relative. What is the cost of a critical issue to support, engineering, and your product’s perceived quality? How much do you pay focus groups to give you feedback?

A beta test is one of the most cost-effective practices in engineering. You’re using volunteers to exercise every element of your product. There is no expensive test equipment, limited resources required to execute the test, and generally a very small cost for incentives. Beta testing has one of the highest ROIs of any test process.

“It’s too late”

Some developers perceive that beta testing is too late in the process to produce effective results. The thought process is that decisions have been made; the code is done; and it’s time to get to market. There’s a belief that even if bugs are discovered during beta, they won’t be able to be fixed before the product’s release. The truth is that the only time it’s too late to find a bug, is when it’s a real customer who paid real money for your product, for which you have absolutely no answer for.

Absolutely any bug found prior, can at the very least be addressed by the support team, who can then speak intelligently to customers regarding the issue, hopefully providing a workaround or information for an upcoming resolution. Ideally of course, you want to conduct a beta test so the feedback can be incorporated into the finished product. However, if it comes late, it still better than a customer finding it after they have paid for your product.

“The last one was a bust”

Last, people often complain that they conducted a beta test in the past but it yielded very little results. Poorly run projects account for a lot of the arguments against beta testing. People see no value in the test because they got little or no value from a prior test. The failure here is not in the test, but in the test’s execution. It is true that when a beta test is not conducted properly, results are poor. We’ve been conducting successful beta tests for more than eight years and every project we conduct yields useful results. Just like anything else, if it is poorly done, it doesn’t work.

Simply stated, a beta test is a critical component of the development process. Having real customers look at your product before you give it to paying customers is not only sensible, it is necessary to ensure the longevity and success of your product. Try as you might, you cannot control every element of a release. However, by incorporating effective beta testing into your process you can prepare for many of the potential issues that come with a product launch. In the end, you don’t want to hear your customer ask “Didn’t you beta test this?

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