What is beta testing?

Beta testing is a way for Product Teams to test a new product or feature with real users before launching the final product to the wider public. Run beta testing to see your product perform in a real-world environment and catch bugs and usability improvements.

Beta testing in Product Management

Beta testing definition

Beta testing is the last round of testing before product launch, where a product or software is released to a limited number of users. 

You can think of it as a soft launch. The product should be stable and functional; you’ll only conduct beta testing when everything is as close to done as possible. It has all the bells, whistles, design, and features you expect to have in the final product. Then, based on beta test results, you’ll prepare the product for general launch.

Beta testing reduces the risk of product failure because it helps you identify issues early. It’s the moment when you expose your product to the unpredictable outside world. Once your product hits your beta user base, it’s subject to external interpretation and unexpected user behaviors. This can be nerve-wracking, but this real feedback is invaluable for improving the quality of your product.

Alpha testing vs beta testing

The main difference between alpha testing and beta testing is that alpha testing is internal, whereas beta testing is external. 

When you run alpha testing, you stress test your product with your internal team – engineers pretend they are users and try to find any flaws.

With beta testing, you send your product out to a controlled group of real users in a production environment.

Both alpha and beta testing have the goal of identifying bugs, flagging usability issues, and uncovering opportunities for improvement ahead of final product launch. Beta testing gives you the added advantage of fresh eyes and outside perspective – real users will give their genuine reaction, unclouded by any assumptions or knowledge about the product.

How do Product Managers use beta testing?

When you run your beta test, it won’t do to just set your product loose, sit back, and watch it all unfold. If you want to get value out of beta testing, you have to be intentional about how you run your test. To run a successful beta test, follow these steps: 

  1. Plan: Set test goals and create testing infrastructure.

  2. Find beta testers: Ensure user segment quality and set user expectations.

  3. Run beta test: Observe user behavior and collect feedback.

  4. Implement feedback: Tweak your product iteratively based on feedback and continue to observe.

  5. Close beta test: Distribute incentives and communicate with beta testers.

  6. Prepare product for launch: Make final changes based on beta test results and launch your product!

Now that you have an outline of the different steps of effective beta testing, let’s look at each step in more detail.

1. Plan
To define the goals of the beta test, ask yourself these questions: 

  • How long will you run the test? 

  • What is the scope of the test? Are you testing the entire product, or a specific feature or moment in the user journey?

  • What kind of information are you looking for? Is the test exploratory, or are you focused on a specific aspect like UX design or technical use?

Finally, set up the infrastructure to collect feedback! You need a place to collect and analyze feedback, and instructions for beta testers so they know how to submit their feedback. There’s no point in running a test if you can’t see the results. 

2. Find beta testers
Now that you have your goals defined, it’s time to find the audience that will best help you to measure your goal. The user base of your beta test should be similar to the target market of the final product. It’s often easiest to find beta testers amongst your most die-hard users, but unless you’ve designed your feature for power users, they won’t be the most useful demographic for beta testing because they look at your product from a different perspective than the average user.

You can either run an open or a closed beta test. An open beta test is open to the public – you’ll announce that a product is in beta and invite anyone to participate. A closed beta test is curated – you decide who you want in your group of beta testers, whether it be current customers, a target user segment, or a group that meets some other criteria (i.e. highly technical). 

Decide how you want to incentivize your beta testers. Depending on the product and the test, some will be more than happy to participate based on their passion for the company or industry. The best way to reward this kind of beta tester is to take their feedback seriously and communicate progress consistently. They should also be the first to know when the final product is live!

In other instances, you can incentivize your beta testers through financial means, either by paying them directly or by staging a raffle. 

Communicate expectations with your beta testers: duration, incentives, and how they can submit feedback.

3. Run beta test
You have your plan, and you have your users. You’re ready to go live! Make the product accessible to your testers and wait for that feedback to roll in.

Collect data both directly and indirectly. If it makes sense for your test, interact with beta testers directly and solicit feedback. If not, you can observe user sessions and actions, and analyze submitted feedback.

You can also set up forums where beta testers can bring questions and discuss difficulties they’ve run into amongst themselves. This is a treasure trove of insights!

4. Implement feedback
Depending on the goals and duration of your beta test, your product team can start implementing user feedback during beta testing. You can measure the effectiveness of the changes – did the solutions you made fix the problems you identified? 

Your goal during this time is to get the product as close to release-ready as possible.

5. Close beta test
Once you’ve fixed all the bugs and flagged issues, it’s time to close the test and launch the final product. Distribute any financial incentives you promised to beta users, and share the details of the official launch.

6. Prepare product for launch
Make any last updates based on results from the beta test and launch!

Beta testing examples

Gmail
Gmail started as a long-running beta test and now is one of the most-used products worldwide. Coincidence? We think not. Gmail, one of Google's flagship products, was famously in beta testing for five years (from 2004 to 2009) before it was released to the general public. 

The beta version was initially available only to a select group of testers, and then invitations were sent out to expand the user base gradually, allowing Google to gather extensive feedback and make improvements. 

It remained in beta even as Google gradually rolled it out to tens of millions of users.

Slack
Before it became a widely used communication tool, Slack underwent an extensive closed beta testing phase. The development team invited a variety of small to medium-sized businesses to use the tool for free in exchange for feedback about bugs and usability.

Slack’s developers initially created it as an internal solution for their communication needs, so you could argue it had a lengthy alpha test as well!

Discord
Discord, a popular communication platform for gamers, often releases beta versions of new updates to its software. Users can opt to use the Discord public test build (PTB Discord), which allows them to try out new features and provide feedback before these features are rolled out to all users.

This is an open beta testing environment. Early adopters can exclusively use PTB Discord if they’re so inclined, accepting the bugs and disruptions in exchange for first access to the newest features. Daring users can even use Discord Canary – a rare case where an alpha testing environment, full of bugs, is open to external users.

Beta Test in action

We just completed the beta test with Bill from Happy Company, and now we are good to launch it to the market!

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