12 Tips for Planning Your Beta Test

This week we’re launching a new blog series: Beta Tips. Each post will cover tips for handling a different stage of your beta test. These tips come from our best practices after years of running successful betas. We’ve also included hints from the beta gurus at a number of our client companies, including Adobe, Autodesk, Avid, TiVo, Symantec, and UPS. These tips and more can be found in our free eBook: 100 Tips for Better Beta Tests.

To kick off the series, we’re starting at the beginning with tips for planning your beta test.

1. Start with a Project Plan

Like any well-run project, having a solid plan before you start is essential. A good beta project plan includes (1) the objectives of the test; (2) target market details (i.e., beta candidate criteria) including their demographic, technical, experience, and geographic requirements; (3) beta tester participation methodology and expectations; (4) the test schedule (including planned build releases, time frames, etc.); (5) the intended size of the tester team (broken down by market segment); and (6) a list of stakeholders and their responsibilities. Other details are great, but these are all essential.

2. Set Realistic Goals

There may be many goals you want to accomplish during your beta, like stressing certain features or testing different teams and resources under live customer action. However, you can only move so many mountains during a single project. If you think of each beta goal as a mini project that requires scarce resources like time and the focus of your tester team, you’ll begin to understand why it’s important to space things out. Generally, we recommend specifying one named goal per week, in addition to basic test functions like validating quality and collecting general product feedback. If you attempt to accomplish several major goals in tandem, you risk making little progress with any of them.

3. Balance Your Core Parameters

There are three core “moving parts” in every beta test: (1) the size of your beta tester team, (2) the duration of your beta test, and (3) the set of specific goals that you’re trying to achieve. It’s useful to think of these resources in equilibrium, where an adjustment to one has a countervailing effect on the others. Use this to your advantage in planning the most effective test. For example, increasing your test duration will allow you to accomplish more goals. If your schedule gets cut, you can often compensate by adding more testers and still achieve your goals. Factor these three pieces into your planning, but also keep them in mind when unexpected events require you to make adjustments during your beta.

4. Expect Launch Lag

Your testers lead busy lives and they often won’t be ready to start testing immediately upon receiving the product. For software, they may wait a day or two to install. If it’s a hardware product, they may not be home to receive the shipment upon delivery. There are a variety of reasons that launch lag happens, but the point is that it does happen. To compensate, it’s useful to add a week or so to your plan.

5. Size Your Tester Team Based on your Target Markets

Most beta tests introduce a product to numerous target markets (or market segments), typically based on attributes such as region, gender, income, and technical knowledge or requirements. It’s important to keep in mind that the number of market segments you need to reach should directly increase the size of your tester team. You don’t want to work in the other direction and select a number of testers to recruit and then hope you’ve adequately covered your target market. If the composition of your tester team doesn’t bear an accurate relationship to desired market segments, it’s difficult to weigh the relevance or importance of survey results (i.e., they become anecdotal).

6. Base Project Length on Goals

As a baseline, your beta test should be no shorter than two weeks (3-4 is generally optimal). Beyond that, the length of your beta should be tied to your project goals (and to some degree the complexity of your product). We’ve already discussed that under most circumstances, you should be pursuing one specific goal per week. Thus, if you have four primary goals that you want to accomplish, your beta test should be at least four weeks long. If you need to achieve more goals in a shorter period, consider increasing the size of your tester team and splitting your tester team into focused groups. That way, you’re maintaining equilibrium among your core parameters, and your tester team’s attention isn’t being diluted by trying to address several simultaneous goals.

7. Get Buy In

Beta tests are rarely managed by one person alone, and the data you collect almost always affects several different people and/or teams. Thus, your plan should also contain information about key stakeholders so that they’re aware of their responsibilities throughout the project, key milestones, and general process descriptions. This generally includes product management, QA, and support at the very least, but may also include product marketing, sales, and members of the executive team.

8. Don’t Forget About Ramp-Up Time

If you’re starting a beta program from scratch, recruiting a great tester team can easily take two weeks or more, depending on your target market requirements and the size of your test. If you’re starting a beta project with either an existing (hopefully interested) customer list or an established beta community, ramp-up can be reduced to only a few days. Either way, it’s important to include this period in your plan. The last thing you want is to sacrifice planned testing time because unanticipated recruitment delays consumed 25% of your beta schedule.

9. Build In Multiple Phases

Splitting a beta test into phases (e.g., Beta 1, Beta 2) offers a number of advantages. One is the ability to slowly introduce a larger tester team, which allows you to reduce the impact of early bugs, ultimately burning out fewer testers. Another benefit, specific to hardware tests, is the ability to cover more of your target market (and their unique environments) with fewer expensive, pre-production units by redistributing hardware between phases. If you require time between phases (a few days or more), communicate this clearly with your beta testers to ensure they remain aware and engaged. It’s best to keep this downtime to an absolute minimum when possible.

10. Plan for Idle Participants

It’s extremely uncommon for every beta tester to meet the goals you’ll set for them. Sometimes participants are simply unmotivated, but many times other personal or business responsibilities take precedence. It’s crucial to factor this into the recruitment section of your beta plan. If you’ve never managed a beta test before (and therefore have minimal recruitment and participation management experience), you should plan to include at least two to three times the number of participants you consider necessary to meet your goals.

11. Plan for Change

While your plan is a great starting point, beta tests quite often change course rapidly and unexpectedly. You may run into show-stopping software issues that require additional phases or participants. Another group may run into an issue that delays a build a week or more. Early feedback may change the primary goals. Be prepared to adjust as necessary, communicate changes clearly to all involved (especially changes regarding the beta test schedule or goals), and always update your plan accordingly.

12. Put Yourself in Your Testers’ Shoes

“Plan. Think things through, pretending you are the beta tester. What do you need to help you test and report information back? Then ‘beta’ your test with a few people to make sure it works as you expect and that you are getting back the information you need to make your testing successful and worthwhile.” — Gayle Musker, UPS

If you’re planning a beta test, be sure to check out our other resources, such as our software and hardware planning kits, which include templates and step-by-step companion guides to help plan your beta. Have a protip to share? Leave it in the comments below!

Download the complete set of beta tips now!

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