Alpha testing is a critical part of getting ready for your product launch. It generally starts when your product is 60% feature-complete: stable enough to work in the real world, but still needs fine-tuning before it's ready for customers. As its name suggests, it takes place in the alpha phase of the product development life cycle when some functional testing has been completed and builds are ready for end-user testing to start.
Historically, many companies have relied on employees across departments for alpha testing. And for good reason! The process of dogfooding — i.e., "eating your own dog food" by having employees use your product the way your customers would — is a great way to leverage internal resources for surfacing quality and performance issues. But is alpha testing with your employees the only way? And does employee feedback net all the insight you can get out of the alpha phase?
Let's take a look at the benefits of testing with your employees, where the gaps in employee-only testing lie, and how to bridge that gap by opening your alpha tests to your customers.
The Benefits of Employee Alpha Testing
There's a reason so many companies run employee tests during development. While they may not necessarily be members of your target market, the real-world home and office environments of your employees provide a fantastic opportunity to unearth quality and performance issues in the wild
Part of this has to do with confidentiality. Some feel that keeping it "in the family," so to speak, diminishes the risk of leaks. While leaks are much less common than people realize, it is true that managing permissions and accessibility in tools like Jira is much easier without external audiences to worry about.
But your employees' familiarity with your product also comes with unique advantages. Some employees have a deep, technical knowledge that helps you identify and resolve issues faster. They're also in tune with the goals your product is trying to achieve. They're uniquely positioned to notice when a feature or product area hasn't quite hit the mark. They might have realistic ideas for improving it.
Then there's the larger, holistic benefit of getting departments outside of the software development team familiar with your product. By involving other teams like marketing, sales, and support, dogfooding becomes a great tool for rallying your organization around your product.
...And the Gaps Left Behind
But for all the good they bring to your product, alpha testing with employees still has a few gaps. The thing that makes your employees strong testers (i.e., knowing your product really well) comes with inherent bias. They might inflate their estimation of how well the product is performing, for example. Or they may not think to report a technical issue because they're already familiar with a workaround or because they assume QA is already working on it.
There's also the challenge of engagement. This has to do, in part, with culture. Some employees will relish the opportunity to get to know the product better. But others will see it as extra work. Without a culture of fluid dialogue, some employees may not see the point of providing feedback — "No one will listen to me anyway." They might feel put-upon being asked to test and provide feedback, especially if this is a top-down initiative they didn't necessarily opt into voluntarily. Or they might feel like they're too busy with their primary responsibilities to test, leaving certain areas of your product high and dry on feedback.
Filling the Gaps: Your Customers
Including external users like early adopters and innovators makes your alpha tests more effective than relying on employees alone. Like any customer testers, they should be in your target market. But what sets them apart from the average beta tester is that early adopters and innovators are very passionate about technology. They have more technical aptitude and patience for troubleshooting issues, which makes them ideal candidates for testing products that aren't quite polished enough for beta.
Opening your alpha tests to customers gives the same benefits you would get from dogfooding. You're uncovering issues and harvesting user data on natural use in the wild. But non-employee testers will be less biased about your product, which means their opinions and findings are more likely to mirror those of your target audience. And they genuinely want to test. They'll offer more detailed, high-quality feedback, purely because they're enthusiastic about improving your product.
Getting the Best of Both Worlds
Dogfooding does wonders for fostering a product-centric culture. Seeing a product take its final form as issues get fixed and ideas get implemented truly bands an organization together. It also offers department-specific benefits.
- Inviting Sales to participate in an alpha test gives them a headstart on how to position the product.
- Marketing will be able to align messaging with their hands-on experience using the product.
- Support teams will have more time to prepare for what they can expect to see at launch.
Meanwhile, including early adopters and innovators in alpha testing pushes customer influence upstream in product development. Earlier involvement of target market users means customer feedback is informing decisions earlier. This kneads the voice of the customer into the very center of your product.
Alpha testing with employees and external users together tightens the alignment between your customers, your co-workers, and your product.
We'll point you in the right direction. Our free recruitment kit offers tips, tricks, and recruitment templates for finding and recruiting both employees and testers from your target market. Download it now and get started filling in a rock-solid alpha, beta, or user testing recruitment plan.