Beta testing is an opportunity for real users to use a product in a production environment, with the goal of uncovering any bugs or issues so they can be addressed before a general release.
What is beta testing?
Beta testing is the final round of testing before a product is finally released to a wide audience. The objective is to uncover as many bugs or usability issues as possible in this controlled setting.
Beta testers are “real” users and conduct their testing in a production environment running on the same hardware, networks, etc., as the final release. This also means it’s the first chance for full security and reliability testing because those tests can’t be conducted in a lab or stage environment.
Beta tests can either be open or closed. In an open beta test, anyone is able to use the product and is usually presented with some messaging that the product is in beta and given a method for submitting feedback. In a closed beta, the testing is limited to a specific set of testers, who may be composed of current customers, early adopters and/or paid beta testers. Sometimes they are conducted by diverting a certain percentage of users to the beta site instead of the current release.
Beta testing can either last for a set period of time or run until new issues stop being reported and all-important ones have been addressed.
The difference between beta testing and alpha testing
The primary difference between an alpha test and a beta test is who is doing the testing—alpha tests are typically performed by internal employees in a lab or stage environment, while beta tests are conducted by actual users in a production setting.
The goal of the alpha test is to catch as many issues as possible before the product has any public exposure or usage. The goal of a beta test is to ensure that real users can successfully complete their tasks and get a wide range of users interacting with the product, as well as testing the scalability, performance, and reliability of the product under real-world usage scenarios.
What is the objective?
Beta testing is the best chance to find bugs and usability issues before a product is fully released. While internal testing can uncover many problems, nothing can truly simulate real users trying to complete real tasks.
Additionally, beta testing is the first opportunity to test software in an actual production environment versus a lab or stage setting. This ensures the software can perform under real workloads and that speed, storage, and scalability all work as expected.
In addition to finding problems, testing is an opportunity to validate hypotheses about how users will use new functionality and ensure the product meets requirements and expectations. While beta testing is not typically a time period when new features or functionality is introduced, it can be used to inform any “fast follows” required to fully satisfy the needs of users.
Beta testing is also a chance to refine the positioning, marketing, and communication about the product, as these can be tested out against people who are actually now using it.
Another potential objective of beta testing comes when invitations to the beta are “exclusive”—this is more relevant for new products than for subsequent releases, but getting some early-adopting influencers into the beta testing pool can build some buzz and anticipation for the general release.
How do product managers use beta testing?
Product managers can tap into the feedback flood of beta testing to collect a host of ideas and suggestions to consider for future releases. Because beta testers are encouraged (and sometimes incentivized) to provide feedback, they are far more likely to proactively make requests and comments than typical users.
Beta testing is also a chance to begin looking at usage behavior and analytics to confirm users are interacting with the product as expected or to discover unexpected usage patterns. Gathering these learnings before a general release can inform priorities about user education, onboarding, user help, and documentation to make it a smoother experience for the general user base.
Feedback from beta testing can also be used as ammunition if there is a dispute over how big a deal a “known issue” might be. If product development was resistant to address something, the input from beta testers can help product management make a stronger case that it should be resolved.
Product managers can also run experiments and a/b tests during beta tests, seeing which different prompts, notifications, messaging, layouts and featured content move the needle and drive the desired behavior.
Looking at the performance of the production environment during beta testing can also contribute to how aggressively the product should be rolled out. If scalability appears to be an issue during the beta test, the rollout can be slowed down to avoid a major outage or performance issues while the infrastructure is ramped up for a larger load.
Finally, beta testing is a chance to validate that any KPIs or OKRs actually correlate to the expected behavior. A user completing a particular task may be expected to lead to increased usage or repeat visits, yet if the numbers don’t bear that out those metrics may need to be adjusted or deprioritized.
Beta testing is immensely valuable to product teams and should be a checklist item for any major release. There’s simply nothing that can replace real users using the real product in a real environment.
The feedback collected will not only improve the current release but can also help drive priorities for future releases and ensure the roadmap and planning is as responsive as possible to what’s being learned from the market. Beta tester input comes in much larger quantities and often with more detail than typical product feedback, which arrives somewhat randomly and via various channels.
It does require some work and commitment to support a beta test environment parallel to the current production release, as well as recruiting and managing the beta testers, including communication and feedback collection and analysis. But the rewards of a beta test usually outweigh the resource costs and time-to-market delay, ensuring the final release is top quality, fully vetted and ready for prime time.