A beta test is a step in the product development cycle when a nearly complete product or feature is released to a limited number of users. The purposes of a beta test are to:
- Learn what customers think about the new functionality
- Surface potential bugs with a minimal number of users
- Identify and address potential usability issues
- Provide a disclaimer to customers why the functionality isn’t fully ready
Beta tests are not necessary for every release but are typically used when there are complications or risks that the business is attempting to mitigate.
For example, a chat app that is releasing a phone call feature might want to refer to the functionality as a beta feature to lower expectations from users. Otherwise, when the calls drop or fall out of sync, users could perceive the whole app as lower quality.
There are multiple types of beta tests. An opt-in beta allows users to choose whether they want to participate in the test. Whether the whole product is in beta or it’s one feature within the product, this type of beta is low risk because customers volunteered for the experience.
A soft launch differs from an opt-in beta. In these releases, existing users who get the functionality did not choose to participate in the test. With a soft launch, it’s best to release the functionality to a smaller number of users at first to gauge feedback before releasing to more customers.
Closed betas are invite-only tests that are usually for higher risk releases where product teams want to control the number of users on the beta. These tests often only have a few users at first and then grow as the product matures. Once the risks have been mitigated then the test evolves into an open beta where any customer can join the test.
If a product or feature is in beta, it’s best to brand it as such. A discreet ‘beta’ banner informs users that the functionality is incomplete but actively being improved upon. This disclaimer reduces expectations and invites constructive feedback from users.
Challenges with beta testing
Recruiting quality beta testers is a common challenge. For opt-in beta tests, finding customers who will consistently test the new functionality is an even greater challenge.
Innovators and early adopters are the customer segments that have a high enough pain-threshold to withstand a beta. They’re also highly opinionated which makes them willing to provide candid feedback. This is exactly the type of customer that product teams want to hear from.
The problem is that innovators and early adopters only make up an average of 15% of a customer base. When surveyed, a much higher percentage usually express a willingness to beta test new functionality. Filtering out the majority of customers who will end up wasting resources is a problem most product teams face.
Benefits of beta testing
Beta testing requires some extra attention but the extra work does pay off. There are almost always going to be usability issues and bugs that seasoned product teams can’t foresee. Beta tests are a great way to transition users from an infant product or feature into maturity with less whiplash. Involving your customers in beta tests is a great way to make them partners in the product development cycle.