For many companies, beta test preparation is fraught with uncertainty. Even knowing when to start can be a complicated decision. You might want to base the decision on quality assurance (QA) milestones, ensuring the product is stable enough for users. But if you’re facing a product release window that can’t be missed, your beta schedule might be set by counting backward on the calendar.
In our experience at Centercode, the best way to get ready for beta testing is to establish concrete guidelines in three areas: product readiness, team readiness and tester readiness. If these areas are out of sync or underprepared, your beta will most likely suffer. But when they come together, they enable higher participation, easier management and better results.
The general standard for beta product readiness is a stable, feature-rich (although not necessarily feature-complete) product. If you give beta testers a very buggy product, you’ll generally see a flurry of initial activity—comprised primarily of redundant bug reports—followed by a major drop-off in participation. Beta testers expect that the test product will have some issues, but there’s always a tipping point after which they’re too frustrated to keep trying. To ensure product viability, we perform a simple diagnostic check on the beta product before distributing it to testers. The check starts with determining an acceptable level of basic functionality, according to the features of the product and requirements of the users. Then we try out the beta build that will undergo testing to verify that it possesses this basic functionality we’re expecting.
There are three additional things to keep in mind for these checks:
- You probably don’t want to perform your diagnostic check based on scripts from QA. They’re not likely to tell you much, since the product should have gone through those tests already. Be a little more exploratory. And perhaps this goes without saying, but you shouldn’t ask QA to run these checks for you. Generally, it’s best to limit their involvement to providing test equipment.
- If you’re beta testing hardware products, be sure to perform the diagnostic on a small, random sample (e.g., 20 percent of the units). Test multiple units so you don’t later discover that the one unit you tested was the only one that worked. You should also select the units at random, rather than sequentially, so you’re more likely to encounter any issues that were introduced or fixed at some point in the manufacturing process.
- If you’re beta testing software products, you should install and perform the diagnostic check on each major platform you plan to test in beta (e.g., Windows 7, OS X Lion, Android, iOS, etc.).
At this point, you might determine your product is viable for beta testing, but that doesn’t mean it’s beta-ready yet. You still need to think ahead to the end of beta testing. As they say, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. So what sort of things do you need to anticipate? Anything restricting the beta product’s use, particularly after testing is complete, for example:
- Protecting beta software from file sharing with an activation/license management system
- Automatically disabling beta software and hardware after testing is complete
- Asking beta testers to return beta hardware after the test
In the first two cases, there’s a technical component that needs to be built into the product prior to distributing it to beta testers. If you distribute without it, there’s nothing you can do to protect your product retroactively. In the third example, preparing for return shipment before the start of testing is essential. You’ll want to give your testers all the return shipping materials up front, as well as clear instructions about return procedures. If you don’t do this at the beginning, testers are much less likely to comply.
When it comes to beta team readiness, you’ll want to be very systematic and detail-oriented. It can be challenging at times, because you’ll often be managing your own immediate team and interfacing with stakeholders in other departments (and sometimes other companies). It’s worth the effort, though. Just think of how easily your beta test would veer off course if one of those stakeholders wasn’t up to speed on responsibilities or schedules. To ensure beta-team readiness, try to incorporate these best practices:
- Create a beta plan by defining core parameters and processes (e.g., testing goals, mechanisms for collecting feedback, categories for bugs, incentives, etc.). It might sound obvious, but unless your team solidifies these details in advance, you’ll be prone to oversights throughout the process. (You can download a free set of beta test planning kits for both software and hardware products at www.centercode.com/library.)
- List all beta stakeholders with clearly defined responsibilities and schedules—paying careful attention to those who are external or in other departments. Review your plans with each person and ensure their commitment.
- Obtain any deliverables (e.g., support documentation, surveys, product keys, non-disclosure agreements, the product itself, etc.) from the stakeholders in advance of the beta test if possible. Otherwise, make sure they understand the deadlines and make any necessary resources available. People who aren’t familiar with beta testing might not realize how detrimental even a short delay can be.
- For stakeholders who directly participate in the beta test activities, make sure to account for potential slips in schedule. You should also have a contingency plan if someone’s availability is limited because of a planned vacation, the potential birth of a child or some other event.
- Lastly, for any infrastructure that will be relied upon during the beta (beta test management tools, customer support, bug tracking, content delivery, servers, etc.), make sure they are accessible, active and tested well in advance. If the testers require logins for any of the systems, ensure that accounts have been set up for them.
Once you’ve handled product and team readiness, beta tester readiness should be fairly straightforward. The key is to make sure that your testers aren’t just willing, but are also ready and able to test. From there, your responsibility is to make sure nothing is inhibiting their participation throughout the entire test.
Here are some quick tips:
- Have your beta participation agreements and non-disclosure agreements signed and stored before you start. Also, make sure you explain your beta secrecy requirements to testers in plain English.
- Verify contact information and addresses early, especially if you’re shipping any sort of physical product or incentive to your testers. Even if you’re testing electronically distributed software, verifying contact information is still important. A simple phone call to an inactive tester sometimes is all it takes to spark great participation.
- Be clear with your testers about their responsibilities and schedule, then stick with it the best you can. By and large, beta testers aim to please and respond well to solid direction.
- Make certain that your testers understand how to use the systems you’re providing for the test. Ensure any resources or training needed by testers to carry out responsibilities are both easily accessible (physically or electronically) and easy to understand. Friction or confusion about how to participate can squash their interest right from the outset.
- Finally, when it comes to scheduling, provide an appropriate amount of time to complete tasks and other responsibilities. It’s important to keep in mind that beta testers are volunteers with other responsibilities, and this isn’t a full-time job. Hopefully the best practices outlined in this article will get you thinking and planning for your next beta test. That’s really the best defense against the uncertainty that can precede a beta test: Accept that certain things may be beyond your control, but meticulously plan and prepare for everything else.
Hopefully the best practices outlined in this article will get you thinking and planning for your next beta test. That’s really the best defense against the uncertainty that can precede a beta test: Accept that certain things may be beyond your control, but meticulously plan and prepare for everything else.