Years ago, the great statistician George E. P. Box once wrote once, “Discovering the unexpected is more important than confirming the known.“
Without question, this certainly applies to software development. Lamentably, beta testing often is neglected or short-circuited in the product development cycle. Though it is often undervalued or even ignored, beta testing is a very crucial phase of software development. It’s known by other names: customer acceptance testing, user acceptance testing (UAT), customer validation and field testing (as is common in Europe)—but the basic approach is largely the same.
Beta testing has great value—if only because it is done with a view that looks out from the development team into the wild. There are many benefits in performing open-format, customer-facing product tests because they typically extend outward to provide the broadest coverage. In many cases, beta testing also generates unexpected feedback concerning user experience, product quality, and interoperability. This feedback can help to refine the product prior to final release. Beta testing—together with alpha testing and additional field testing—can significantly improve user experience by identifying subtle and otherwise hidden usage inhibitors hat internal teams overlook.
In this article, we look at the essence of beta testing, beta testing in agile teams, beta testing best practices, and the future of beta testing automation.
Preparing for launch
Product testing has at least three stages: alpha, beta, and continuous improvement. Beta testing builds on the findings of alpha testing, and continuous improvement follows beta testing. The aim is to steadily increase the probability that the product launch will be a great success—in the eyes of your customers. Yes, beta testing is driven by clear, definitive processes and objectives. But the real gems of external testing can be found in the feedback from actual customers, who use the actual product in real-world environments.
Sometimes, there is confusion over the distinction between alpha and beta testing. These two concepts are often interchangeable. However, they are two distinct and highly important stages of product development. Beta testing is also evolving, as we explain in the next section.
Beta testing: Customer validation ISN’T optional
The beta testing process assesses how well the product meets customer expectations and evaluates the extent that the product is ready for release. Also, beta testing is as an in-depth tour of new or different product features to get a clear and precise response on how well the customer will approve of the updated product.
Key participants in beta testing can include product managers, sales staff, user experience (UX) staff, and quality managers. As much as possible, it’s important to involve external, independent users that are potential commercial users of the product. That’s because these testers often provide considerably more objectivity and important product usage insights. When taken back to the development team, the feedback from actual users is a strong catalyst for product success—and can provide much more value to all of your customers.
Beta testers should expect a feature-complete product that may have some bugs, few crashes, and a nearly complete set of documentation. The aim is to identify and fix critical/important issues, and suggest user experience improvements that are achievable before launching the product. The primary goal is to improve the success of the upcoming release by providing recommendations for product improvement and a full perspective of customer experience. A product is ready to move into a continuous improvement phase when typical target-market users are comfortable with the user interface, are satisfied with how the product functions, and indicate overall satisfaction with their experiences in using the product.
Agile beta testing
The rise of iterative, agile development, together with the increasing interest in continuous delivery (CD), historically common notions of a beta testing phase are fading away. With good planning and proper team configuration, product development need not end for actual customers to begin evaluating the software. Yet there’s no doubt that beta testing remains a vital part of the software development success.
It’s unnecessary to insist upon a strict beginning or end to any testing phase, especially if it’s optimal to overlap some of the beta testing preparation with other activities. Since agile development is flexible and high-speed, its necessary to take a beta approach that is equally flexible. So that they align well with earlier agile development activities, agile betas work best in an evergreen model—in which a user pool receives a build following each sprint and gives feedback for a short period before the final release ships.
Challenges in achieving good beta results
Many tools today continue to leave the interpretation of beta-testing findings only in the minds of the customer. This is perhaps the top challenge in beta testing:
How can we distinguish pure impressions or perceptions from truly valid issues that require product adjustments?
Most issues relate either to front-end testing, user testing or split testing. Currently, no tool offers a single dashboard solution that can handle it all in one view. It’s important to understand that most actual users—using the product in an actual target environment—won’t grasp all aspects of beta testing. And, since proper beta testing must be done from that perspective, there is no practicable way to compare it with a standard or benchmark.
Increasing complexities in development and delivery tools are now affecting the entire testing endeavor—not only in the beta phase. Good test data and test environments continue to be elusive for many QA teams, and this is even more challenging in agile development. In software testing, the demand for ubiquity, mobility, intelligence and automation continues to increase. Many experts predict that automated, analytics solutions will eventually enable more efficient and accurate QA teams. However, intelligent beta testing solutions are largely nonexistent.
Beta testing automation
If a beta testing tool is to provide the end-user with the best available information to form a decision about a product, the tool should validate product functionality and usage—while also supporting user confidence. That is the goal. But the reality is this: there is no available dashboard or single-window solution (no available extensions or widgets) that truly empower users in beta. Most tools are built for testers or developers—not for customers who don’t have the specialized skills. This means that these tools are unusable by the end user.
Many Continuous Integration (CI) /Continuous Delivery (CD) solutions add to the complexities of technology stacks, frameworks, and languages. And, in a CI/CD pipeline, testing automation solutions are employed upstream of beta testing. Also, skilled test engineers are necessary to manage these tools. This means that the tools won’t work well in beta testing—where we want the perspective of actual users in their actual environments.
Another challenge to keep in mind is this: even if it’s feasible to enable automation to some significant degree in beta testing, the high volumes of automation data will cause an information explosion. Too much information would surely be a major distraction for users as they would struggle to get a meaningful, unified view of product context. To address these challenges, we look forward to the day in which intelligent, highly-connectable, unified-view beta-testing solutions that end users can readily understand without assistance from any geeks!
Beta testing gives rise to more insights
Whether you are launching a website, a new app, or a new mobile device, it is important that you have independent users test the product thoroughly prior to shipment. Beta testing serves multiple purposes, though all of those initiatives lead to one thing – improving customer experience.
Beta testing provides insights into product functionality and also helps you better understand user experience. Going beyond lab performance tests, beta testing reveals whether or not the same level of performance is achievable in actual user environments. Many products need to perform well in hundreds of various environments and many different usage contexts.
By delivering pre-release software to actual users that stand well outside the insular community of developers, beta testing serves to identify elements of functionality that are all too easily overlooked in the lab. In addition, your team benefits from feedback that can be very useful for improving future product versions—or even spawn ideas for entirely new products.
Envisioning the ideal beta test solution
Ideally, a user-empowering beta testing solution that addresses many of the challenges would exhibit these characteristics:
- Designed primarily for the end-user.
- Test the soft aspects of the application—interface, accessibility, and usability.
- Test the actual shipped application, in the actual target environment by actual users.
- Gather and employ data from all stages of the product lifecycle, and integrate standards and specifications.
- Integrate actual end-user test data to help the customer experience meaningful insights.
- Exhibit enough intelligence to compare and analyze the soft aspects of the product together with the functional test data.
- Employ AI and machine learning to produce additional useful recommendations—not merely relay bug and issue information.
At Functionize, we continue to pursue this holy grail. It’s our passion.