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Test Management

Tips for Tackling Agile Beta Testing

February 13, 2015

Many software companies are switching from traditional development methods to agile development. Agile development is an iterative methodology, focused on incremental software development rather than longer, more regimented development lifecycles. Agile development is rapid and flexible, and therefore requires a beta testing approach that is rapid and flexible as well.

To align with the tenets of agile development, agile betas occur in an “evergreen” model, with a persistent pool of candidates receiving early builds with each sprint and providing feedback for a very short period prior to the final release version going to the customer base. This approach, however, creates some unique challenges that need to be considered and tackled correctly.

The Characteristics of Agile Betas

The characteristics of agile beta tests are similar to those of agile development. The focus is on being nimble and responsive, so that feedback can be collected and implemented quickly as part of each sprint.

  • Quick phases: The single most defining feature of agile beta tests is the very short period of time available for the beta testing phase. Companies that ascribe to the agile method “release early, release often”, so you need to gather feedback from users quickly in order to keep everything on track.
  • Evergreen betas: Many agile betas run year-round, with participants always using the product one build ahead of the customer base.
  • Consistent participant pools: Due to the short beta period, agile beta programs often use one group of participants for all projects. This substantially cuts down the participant learning curve for new beta releases and eliminates the time spent recruiting new testers.
  • Engineer participation: Given the long-term relationship between agile developers and their testers, developers are often more hands-on in dealing and communicating with their beta participants.

The Challenges of Agile Beta Testing

Since beta testing is tied so closely to the development team and cycle in agile development, this creates some interesting challenges.

  • Short testing phases: The brief beta phases common to agile betas make it difficult to collect, evaluate, and distribute feedback from your participant pool with enough time left to act on that feedback.
  • Limited participant pools: Given the short time period available for beta, getting a wide enough pool of active testers to cover many products’ full target markets is incredibly difficult.
  • Lack of fresh perspective: While traditional beta tests offer fresh customer perspectives, agile betas often fall into the trap of relying on veteran users who’ve been involved in the product’s previous betas for months, or even years. While these users are extremely valuable, they lack the perspective of a new user and thus may fail to catch issues that would cause problems for new users.
  • Inefficient processes: Since agile betas happen so quickly and frequently, you can’t afford to waste time with inefficient processes and practices. Maximizing efficiency and minimizing friction is a must to maintain a nimble beta process.

Tips for Success

Given these challenges, agile development teams require well-thought-out beta programs to get the feedback they need to consistently release quality products. These tips can help you implement an impactful beta process with your team.

  • Be crystal clear about your expectations: Tell your testers up front what they’re getting themselves into. You’re asking for a lot from your testers over a long period of time, so it’s important that they understand what you’ll need from them from the very beginning.
  • Give them direction: Many of your builds will include small tweaks and feature additions, so use assigned tasks to direct testers to the parts of the product that need testing the most. You can also use surveys to make sure you get feedback on the specific parts of the product that have changed.
  • Have a feedback collection system: While some teams can get away with collecting feedback through email or one-off surveys, that approach won’t work in the world of agile. You need a way to easily collect feedback from your testers, analyze it, and send the relevant information directly to your team. This means having a beta management platform that’s as flexible as you are.
  • Don’t waste time chasing individual testers: Some testers won’t participate at the level you need them to. In a traditional test you might be able to devote the time and resources needed to get them to perform, but you may not have that option in an agile beta test. If that’s the case, simply remove them from the test and replace them with new testers. It’s not a bad idea to start with more testers than you need in order to account for the inevitable drop off from underperforming and burned out testers.
  • Prioritize your feedback: One of the keys in agile development is staying focused on the main priorities for the current sprint. Your testers likely won’t know what those priorities are and will give feedback on a wide range of issues. It’s your job to prioritize the most important feedback and bugs rather than getting bogged down by all the things you could be doing.
  • Be appreciative of your testers’ contributions: It doesn’t take much time or effort to say thank you, but it means a lot to your testers. It’s important that you show your appreciation throughout your test, as you’re working quickly and want to ensure you recognize your testers for their hard work. This will make them feel good about their contribution and will likely motivate them to continue performing at a high level.

These best practices will help you implement an impactful beta process for your agile team, ensuring they get the continuous, prioritized feedback they need to keep releasing quality software builds. If you’re interested in learning how software development teams are staying nimble with agile beta testing, check out our infographic on Software Testing in the Age of Iterative Development.

View the Software Testing Infographic

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