Beta testing, also known as user acceptance testing (UAT) or end-user testing, has come a long way from the early days of software development. Previously, the term “beta” was used in conjunction with a product that was new and didn’t have user acceptance or a lot of user data to back it up yet. With the prevalence of more agile and iterative development methods, the former notions of beta and user acceptance testing phases don’t quite apply anymore.
Now, beta testing is still a critical step in software development, but it’s important to pivot the approach so that it’s relevant for the current climate.
Comparing & Contrasting UAT with Beta Testing
While UAT and beta testing are commonly used as interchangeable terms, beta testing can be considered a type of UAT testing. Beta testing is carried out in the field or within a customer environment. It tends to be somewhat informal, can be done by hundreds or thousands of testers, and can go on for weeks or months—depending on the size of the software.
UAT, on the other hand, is specifically conducted in a controlled environment to verify functionality and gain acceptance from the client. More technical approaches to this can include system and integration testing. This is usually the last form of testing conducted in the software development lifecycle (SDLC) before the product goes live.
The main purpose of both is to confirm that the software fulfills the purpose it was intended to serve. This validation is typically carried out by end-users who are acquainted with the business and understand the software requirements that need to be met.
The Value of Beta Testing in Context
Present-day beta testing ties into the theory of agile development, and the onset of SaaS/cloud deployments. The value it brings is that it gives insight into how the customer is receiving and interacting with the product, and it gives development teams more constructive feedback on the changes they made or need to make.
While the benefit of beta testing is uncontested, most teams developing software for external customers don’t have a close enough relationship with their end-users—or even the opportunity—to have them beta test the software before release. In the event that they did, it’s still unlikely that they’d be able to do so within the short window of time that’s necessary for agile practice.
As a result, many companies turn to outside agencies or crowd testing platforms to perform various types of UAT and gain the understanding of their product’s functionality and how it can be improved.
Four Methods of Beta Testing
Whole Product, Whole Community
Roughly a decade ago, companies would release a product in the beta phase to demonstrate that it was still being tested. Gmail is a great example of this—the beta testing for this email service spanned several years. With the rise of mobile devices, this practice has seemingly tapered off, as seeing the “beta” label can dissuade people from downloading those apps.
Partial Product, Small Community
Sometimes new products or features will be released to a specific demographic of users as a follow-up to rigorous internal testing; many large tech companies like Google or Facebook do this. Considering how many users are on Google and Facebook, their development teams can issue new or modified features to a small portion of their user community and still gain valuable insight. Quantitative, qualitative, and telemetric data can be gathered from even 0.1% of the overall users and can inform how the development teams should proceed in their next round of updates. Of course, this gives tech tycoons a significant advantage over other smaller companies. Most of the other companies would risk losing revenue if they launched a new feature without ensuring a quality user experience.
Whole Product, Small Community
When you have the ability to identify users in your community that is especially passionate about your product or brand, whole product, small community beta testing works best. These loyal users tend to be more invested in the outcome and are motivated to deliver helpful feedback in a timely manner. However, commencing this testing can be incredibly complex and logistically challenging. In order to conduct this type of beta testing successfully, you have to identify the right customers, distribute the software to them, be available for support if they run into issues, and then collect and analyze the feedback they report. Most tech companies simply don’t have the resources to do this.
Partial Product, Whole Community
If a new feature is added to a product, sometimes beta testing can be performed on that specific feature with the whole user community. The opportunity for qualitative and quantitative feedback is great, but the approach is risky. This only works well if the new feature can be isolated from the rest of the product and user experience. You don’t want to conduct this form of testing and have it cause confusion, glitches, or lead to skyrocketing support tickets.