As developers, we know that a beta release creates a safe and valuable place to test our application in production. It provides metrics on what works and what doesn't. But we also know that beta releases aren't always successful. At times, they don't provide much benefit other than creating "another QA gate" before rolling out to all customers. There are other reasons why beta releases fail. Sometimes we use a beta release to ship knowingly bad code just to see what happens. Other times our lack of goals or proper customer selection impedes our learning from the release. However, your beta release should be production ready. It should pass QA checks, emit the proper metrics, and have an emergency undo button. The beta release is a dry run of the production launch and should be considered seriously. But other than that, what can we do to make sure our beta release succeeds? The following eight components are key.
1. Clear Goals
The first thing you need is clear goals defining your desired outcome for the beta release and the product. The goals should be specific and more than "Make sure our stuff works." Without a goal, you won't lay the foundation necessary for all the other steps in this article. When creating your goals, consider these questions:
What do you need to learn about your new release?
What features are you comparing?
How will you measure success?
What change in customer behavior are you expecting?
Is there an assumption that you need to prove?
Once you have a clearly defined goal, you can go on to the next steps.
2. Measurable Feedback
Now that you have your goals defined, you'll determine what feedback you're looking for. Here you answer the question, "How do I know if the beta release is successful?" That's why it's important that the metrics and insights you measure correspond to your stated goals.
Typically when discussing feedback, many of us think about surveys and free-form feedback. However, in today's data-hungry world, this isn't enough. We need solid numbers behind our product decisions. Therefore, most of the feedback should be metric-based. What does this mean for your product? It means that if you want to have a successful beta release, you have to have the groundwork in place for capturing metrics. If there's something you want to know about usage and performance, you must set a metric around that functionality. For example, consider a beta release focused on performance improvements. Without metrics around past and current performance, it may be difficult to say whether performance improved or not. Or, if you let your customers opt in and out of the beta release, you must track the numbers related to those actions. Furthermore, metrics around feature usage track how behavior has changed for those that opted in against previous activity or the control group.
Although metrics are king (or queen) when determining application and user behavior, the beta customers should also have the ability to provide the typical survey or free-form feedback. And they should have an easy way to report issues or praise. There might be scenarios that you've overlooked that aren't getting measured. Or maybe there's a functionality that takes customers a little bit longer now, but the experience is better and they're getting more value out of the feature. You might not see that in metrics, but you might get it in feedback.
3. Feature Flags
You could do a beta release without feature flags. However, you would have a bad time. Without feature flags, you'd have to create various distributions or versions of code and somehow manage who gets what version and when. Or you'd have to create rather convoluted processes to get what you need. With feature flags, you'll have fine-grained control over what features all your users get and when they get them.
4. The Right Beta Customers
It's important to find the right beta customers. You rely on them to use your product and provide good feedback. And in return, they get access to your new features or bug fixes before anyone else. So be deliberate when selecting these customers. And if possible, make sure they're taken care of and feel like they're part of the process. Now, what types of customers should we consider for our beta release?
Early adopters—These are the customers that start using all your features the day they come out. They upgrade early and often.
Customers that need the feature—Who needs this feature, or who experienced the bug? Who requested it, and who has to do workarounds without the feature? These folks will be excited to be part of the release and see their suggestions realized.
Employees, family, and friends—Here you can create a defined group that won't blast errors and issues on social media if things go wrong. However, these users might not be as critical of your product as other customers. That might result in overly positive feedback.
Some other considerations include variability. Make sure your beta group represents your user base well. If your main customers are Midwestern housewives, then a beta test comprising retirees or teenagers might not be a great fit. Also, consider corner cases. If you have customers with special requirements, pull them in to make sure everything still works. Even when beta-testing a bug fix, you'll want to include customers that aren't experiencing the bug to make sure you don't create unintended side effects. An important note is that these beta customers will also be your earliest evangelists. And the more you include them in the beta process, the more they'll feel like part of something bigger than themselves. Therefore, they'll be more encouraged to share your product with their circle of contacts.
5. Opt-In Strategy
Next, based on your goals and metrics, you'll want to devise an opt-in strategy. This could be as simple as "give everyone the opt-in button for a limited time and let them qualify themselves." However, that makes it difficult to control the makeup of the beta group. Also, it may limit the number of customers in the beta release or add more customers than the new release can support. A smarter approach involves starting with a small rollout to your target beta customers and then increasing over time. You can also opt customers in automatically instead of providing them the option with feature flags.
6. Frequent Monitoring and Review
For beta releases that last a few weeks or more, feedback should be reviewed daily at first. That way, you can react quickly to any high-priority fixes and changes that need to be made. As the beta release continues, the reviews can become less frequent. During the review, you should consider how the beta release is doing and compare those results to your goals and metrics. You can also prioritize additional feature ideas that come from the feedback. When prioritizing new features, determine what needs to change before the full launch and what can wait. Additionally, you should consider what support tools require changes or updates for the release based on your daily reviews. And finally, you can monitor the stability of the product.
7. Defined Exit Criteria
You'll also need to know when this particular beta release is over. In general, it will conclude when you've either met your goals or decided the launch must wait. Also, it might be over once you've made any changes and bug fixes for problems found in the beta release. Once those changes roll out and work successfully, the beta release ends. Above all, this criteria should be metrics-based. But how do you really know when you're ready to ship? Use your metrics, but also use your industry knowledge. Typically, even if there are some rough spots, if it's better than the old version then it's time to ship. If the beta release provides value, your customers are ready for it.
8. The Next Beta
Congrats! You've made it through a beta release. You had clear goals and a way to measure them. You were able to toggle your features to the right customers and gather the right feedback. And, you knew when the beta release was complete, and you rolled out the changes to everyone. So what's next? Oh, that's right. It's time to start planning the next beta release. Take what you've learned from your previous release and incorporate those learnings into the next one. Iterate and improve on the process so you can deliver the features and business value your customers need.