What is beta testing?
Beta testing is a type of user test that helps teams learn about customer satisfaction and uncover issues and defects. By testing a product that's stable enough to work properly in customer environments, teams can make usability improvements, influence the product roadmap, and understand perceptions of the entire product experience from the customer perspective before launch.
Beta testing goes by many names, including: client validation, customer acceptance testing, customer development program, customer experience trials, customer feedback sessions, customer integration, customer technology preview, customer validation, design validation test, early acceptance, early adopter program, early preview, end user validation, field test, friendly user trials, limited availability, market readiness test, pilot test, play test, pre-release, soft launch, user acceptance testing, user test, user validation, and voice of the customer.
Why is beta testing important?
According to PwC, about 3 out of 5 of people would leave a brand or product if they experienced several bad experiences, launching your product without getting feedback from your target market is a risky move. A majority of companies have some sort of beta testing program on all new product introductions to avoid the risk of launching with critical issues or bad experiences that lose customers.
Beta testing your product:
- Builds stronger customer relationships: Beta testing is a customer program, just like customer advocacy programs, marketing newsletters, customer meetups, and other methods brands use to interact and build relationships with customers or prospects. Beta testing programs specifically help companies deliver new products, features, and critical improvements to the customer's product experience. Because beta testing allows customers and target market users to contribute directly to their own product experience, beta testers often become brand evangelists. They've invested so much time providing feedback that they advocate for your product or brand to their personal networks.
- Helps to avoid a product launch disaster: There is nothing worse than a spike in support calls spike up, vendors notifying you of return rates, or bad reviews spreading across the internet a week into launch. One of the biggest reasons organizations run beta programs is for the safety net they provide. Ironing out issues and making usability improvements before launch dramatically reduces the risk of failure.
- Produces a better product experience: Involving your customers into your software development establishes a customer-centric culture and rich environment for co-creation where your customers and potential customers can help shape an ideal product experience. Companies typically see an increase in over 10% in customer satisfaction, along with a significant reduction in issues at launch with investments into beta testing.
When do you do beta testing?
Beta testing typically happens within the "beta phase" of Waterfall Development, but in modern software development, this phase gets a little fuzzy. Typically, beta testing begins after quality assurance teams have passed a good deal of functional testing and dogfooding (employee beta testing) has already been started. Or, to put it another way, beta testing typically happens before product launch or release.
The easiest way to determine when you should be entering and exiting beta testing is by understanding your product state, along with some other basic criteria.
- Product state: Your product is typically ready to enter beta testing when it's 80-90% feature complete (or it's release ready).
- Product quality: You are going to want to avoid putting a product into the hands of customers that have critical or major severity issues, basically anything that will impact the users product experience. Why? Well, running a test with these high-impact issues can really detract or impact the ability to predict your customer satisfaction scores and they can also delay a project.
- Documentation and packaging: This one applies to hardware. Ideally, you want to beta test your product with its market-ready packaging (your documents can be in a draft state). This lets you collect customer feedback for teams in marketing or technical publications so they can update their deliverables to provide an optimal customer experience.
- Satisfaction levels: For companies releasing on Amazon or those that will be presented on G2 or Capterra, customer satisfaction ratings are a key measurement of product quality. Companies will often leverage a threshold where they believe the product should be, often landing at a 4.4+ out of 5 in order to be considered ready for release.
- Feature acceptance: Simply put, if your product has important features and functionality that are failing to meet the acceptance criteria you defined prior to testing, it's not ready to exit beta.
Benefits of beta testing
It's crazy how important this window of time in product development is to the success of a product and an organization. We've met with thousands of companies over the years and have learned some pretty great reasons why they are investing in beta programs. While the first thought of beta testing is for teams to just discover issues or bugs earlier than launch, the benefits of beta testing go far beyond simply finding some issues.
Let's elaborate on some of the benefits of beta testing:
- Reducing the cost to resolve issues: Issues found after launch can cost up to 100x more to resolve than it would if they had been found during testing.
- Enhancing your product roadmap: Every product team has a vision for the future of the product: the product roadmap. But what good would a look at the future be without influence or feedback from the target market? Product teams use feedback to validate their future ideas, generate new ones, and eliminate ones that just wouldn't be valuable.
- Improving product marketing and positioning: Yes, beta is about surfacing bugs and improving your product. But it isn't all bad news. Good beta tests also capture what users like about a product. They demonstrate how customers are actually using your product in natural environments and provide detailed comparisons to other products they use. This information is a gold mine for marketing teams. Praise for certain product areas can be turned into testimonials, fuel messaging based on what resonates with testers, and highlights clear definitions of differentiators and use cases.
- Reducing returns and lowering churn: By evaluating your hardware and/or software with the target market, the feedback you get from beta testing identifies areas of friction in your product that, when fixed, keep retention rates high and returns/churn low.
- Decreasing your customer support costs: Beta testing surfaces issues that would have been calls or tickets. And by using issues identified during beta to create knowledge base and training, your support team gets a head start that will allow them to resolve calls faster.
- Better reviews and higher ratings: Beta feedback tells you what users are saying about your product before the rest of the world, giving you more time to enhance the positives and correct any issues or usability friction before release and launch.
- Settling internal debates: Customer data from beta testing is a reliable tool for settling debates and offsetting internal bias that comes up throughout product development. The earlier target market input is introduced, the more effectively it unifies a department and organization.
Who manages beta testing?
Some companies have a fully dedicated team or department devoted to handling or servicing the rest of the company with beta testing. Typically, those managing these tests are called beta test managers or beta program managers.
But not every organization has a fully dedicated team. In this case, it's common to see other roles step up to the plate, such as:
- Product managers
- User experience researchers
- Quality engineers
- Support managers
Beta testing has many applications, from improving quality to understanding the customer experience, so it's not uncommon for anyone in this role with a vested interest in these deliverables to run beta tests.
Beta testing program models
Inside a given company, there are different products, different customers, and different ways that a beta program might serve. The three most common beta program models you'll find are: the service model, the self-serve model, and the hybrid model.
Service model (dedicated team)
In this model, a dedicated team within an organization handles the recruitment and management of beta testing on behalf of product and development teams. This model treats each project like a service it provides, whether it's for Product, Engineering, Testing, User Experience, and/or Support. At a small scale, this team will typically have a couple of members and a manager. At a larger scale, there might be dozens of members, including managers and a director.
The self-serve model is used by companies that feel they can have better influence into product development and design by enabling designers, engineers, and product managers to directly manage testing. In this model, an individual will manage the project and take the results directly into their decisions for their primary role. So, for example, product managers take beta test feedback directly into prioritizing improvements and shaping their roadmap, while engineers validate test builds and enhance test processes. This model typically requires additional support from a few trained resources who can provide additional bandwidth for managing tests.
Some companies choose to include both models to run their beta program. For example, teams may leverage a dedicated resource to manage beta testing or, if they're trying to move quickly, rely on their own departmental resources to get started. This model is very common in large-scale enterprises or companies with a significant investment into product development.
How to run a beta test
Like other forms of user testing, beta tests follow a standard multi-phase approach. These phases are: planning, recruitment, testing (engagement, feedback, results), and wrap-up. This structure allows teams to account for the pace of project activity and plan when to expect results.
Deadlines are fixed and time is usually tight in the later phase of development, so maintaining a schedule is key. Your project manager will thank you for having a clear understanding of the different phases of your beta test.
Planning phase: Every project starts with a plan. This is a simple and concise document that outlines the objectives or intent, schedule, and ideal tester profile. During the planning phase, gathering input from stakeholders in Product Management, Quality Assurance, Engineering, User Experience, and Project Management is ideal as a jumping off point to discuss the details. Our free planning kit lays out everything you need to run a successful beta test.
Recruitment phase: During the recruitment phase, the team or role managing the beta test will start identifying ideal candidates for testing and invite them to join the project. While this process varies with the organization and targeted testers (target market users or existing customers, for example), the general stages of recruitment are: application, tester selection, and tester onboarding. Learn how to build a foolproof recruitment plan with resources in this free recruitment kit.
Engagement management: Communicating with testers about which product areas to cover and activities to complete is essential to encouraging ample feedback during beta. To keep feedback flowing in, setting expectations is key: provide testers with a project schedule and send out reminders about what needs to be tested and when. For tips on maintaining engagement, check out this tester engagement pocket map.
Feedback management: Engaged testers will provide ample product feedback. But in order to make the most out of that feedback, it needs to be triaged and cleaned up. This means: organizing it by product area, ensuring it has enough actionable information, and prioritizing it based on popularity, frequency, and severity. This ensures stakeholders can understand what needs to happen and start improving the product as early as possible. Here are some tips for handling tester feedback.
Results distribution: Handing off the results of a beta test to stakeholders on a regular basis is key to optimizing its usefulness. Daily and weekly updates are the most common types of distributions for this data. The results from testing typically include: tester feedback overviews, surveys, and tester engagement outcomes. One to two week sprints generally allow enough time to provide results to your team members while still giving them time to complete necessary tasks.
Wrap-up: The final phase of beta testing is the wrap-up phase. During wrap-up, the team or individual managing the beta test will tie up any loose ends and bring the test to a close. These activities include: announcing the test closure, distributing incentives (if applicable), retrieving products from testers (if applicable), and distributing the comprehensive results from the project. Here are some resources to help with the closure of your test.
Beta testing metrics
Beta testing has a variety of metrics you can use to understand a product, customers, the way the project is being managed, or how multiple projects are being managed within a department or program. For the sake of clarity, it's easier to simplify these methods into inputs and outputs of beta testing.
Here are some examples:
Beta testing quality metrics
- Number of Issues (total, by severity, by occurrence, and/or by impact score)
- Number of ideas (total, by occurance, and/or by impact score)
- Percentages of issues, ideas, and praise
Beta testing satisfaction metrics
- Net promoter score
- Customer Satisfaction (CSAT)
- Star rating
Beta testing efficiency metrics
- Percentage of testers submitting feedback
- Percentage of testers completing surveys
- Admin reply ratio
Beta testing tools
If you've ever dabbled in beta testing management, you know that it can be time consuming and stressful. But equipping yourself with the right tools greatly reduces the time you spend managing project tasks.
Here are some useful tools for managing an beta test:
Centercode: The Centercode Platform supports every aspect of your user testing program, including beta testing. With powerful automation to maximize your resources and smart analytics to keep your stakeholders connected to your project, the platform ensures your alpha tests have the greatest possible impact on your product.
Spreadsheets: If you are really pressed on budget, a spreadsheet tool like Excel or Google Sheets can be a lifesaver. While it does require a lot of manual work and isn't well-integrated into your other business systems, they can help you organize your testers, feedback, and results.
Email: Email is a cheap and useful way to invite and communicate with testers, announce activities, and share your results with stakeholders. This can be unwieldy depending on the size of your test, so stay organized. For example, using filters can help prevent follow-up feedback from falling through the cracks.
Jira: If you are beta testing with employees, a Jira project can be an easy way to collect issues from your testers. Jira has a lot of integration capabilities, so linking Jira between other systems like Centercode dramatically increases the usefulness of your data. If you're inviting external users to submit feedback through Jira, be very careful about who has permissions and access to what.
Mobile test app delivery: Tools like TestFairy and TestFlight make it easy to distribute test versions of your mobile apps to Android and/or iOS devices. Once you have a list of beta testers, it's pretty easy to upload a build and send it to your list of testers.
LaunchDarkly: For teams that practice progressive delivery, LaunchDarkly is a great for enabling new features in production for limited groups of testers (i.e., feature flagging).
Survey tools: One critical, time-saving tool to have is something to collect feedback from testers beyond email (which is more difficult to organize). Here's where survey tools can come in handy. It's relatively easy to collect feedback through SurveyMonkey or TypeForm. However, these tools are disconnected and don't enable collaboration from testers. This makes it difficult to prioritize what to fix, improve, or promote in your product. You'll have to analyze the data collected from survey tools in spreadsheets and put them into Jira and/or a slide deck to get your results in front of your team.
Beta testing templates and resources
We have an extensive library of free beta testing resources, but here are several of the most useful.
Beta test planning
- Software Beta Test Planning Kit (Template): Become a test planning wizard with the scalable framework and easy-to-use templates included in this kit
- Learning a Simple Framework for Practical Test Planning (Webinar): Watch the webinar to learn the fundamental framework for building a comprehensive user testing plan that has fueled hundreds of successful tests.
- Product Mapping (Webinar): Discover how to create a map of product experiences that enable feedback categorization and drive targeted tester feedback.
Beta test recruitment
- Beta Tester Recruitment Kit (Template): Use these best practices and templates to attract quality testers and speed up the recruitment period.
- Recruiting and Selecting Great Beta Testers (Webinar): Join the Betabound community managers as they share their lessons learned for planning effective test recruitments, building a diverse tester community, recruiting qualified candidates, and selecting the right people for each beta test.
Beta test participation
- Understanding Tester Engagement Through Metrics (Template): This cheat sheet is a quick and easy tool for measuring tester participation.
- The Tester Engagement Pocket Map (Ebook): The road to consistently high tester participation and abundant feedback isn't easy to navigate. Stay on course with this pocket map for increasing and maintaining tester engagement.
- Curing the Four Common Causes of Low Tester Engagement (Webinar): You'll walk away with actionable tactics for keeping testers engaged and for increasing the volume of quality feedback coming in during your user tests.
Beta test feedback management
- The Feedback Playbook (Ebook): The Feedback Playbook covers everything you need to know about cultivating, collecting, and managing high-quality feedback (like issues, ideas, and praise) during your user tests.
Beta test incentives
- Beta Test Incentives Kit (Template): How you reward your testers will have a significant impact on the success of your user testing program. This kit will help you build a strategy to incentivize and reward your beta testers for the hard work they put into your beta tests.
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