Developing an application is one thing. Developing an application that actually delivers an excellent end user experience is another.
After all, the way that the designers who plan applications and the developers who build them see the world doesn’t always align with the way end users view it. Designers and developers may create an application based on certain assumptions about what their users want, only to discover that those assumptions are misaligned. In other cases, application features that work a certain way within the dev/test environments where alpha tests (meaning internal tests performed prior to an application’s release into production) are run may perform differently on actual end-user devices. As a result, when developers only test and evaluate an application release internally using alpha tests before deploying it into general availability for their entire user community, they risk releasing an application that burdens users with performance, usability, or other issues that pre-deployment alpha testing failed to catch.
How do developers manage this risk? How do they ensure that the applications they release don’t just check off the boxes that development teams and QA engineers establish during alpha testing, but that they also delight real-world end users who weren’t involved in the development process?
The answer is beta testing. Beta tests allow teams to validate applications with “real users” in real-world environments. It helps teams to get feedback from end users who represent an app’s actual user base. By testing application performance and functionality with a beta group prior to general release, teams gain a deeper level of validation that the software meets end-user requirements. They also significantly reduce the risk that an unforeseen application problem post-deployment will necessitate the application release to be rolled back or require the team to push out an update quickly in order to fix a problem with the production release.
This article explains how beta testing works, why it’s important, and how to get the most out of beta testing for mobile applications.
Beta testing is the use of end users to test and validate an application. In other words, when a team performs beta tests, it releases software to end users who represent the application’s real-world user base, then evaluates how those customers use and respond to the software.
By assessing the experience of beta testers, development teams can discover and investigate issues that they may not catch when applications are tested only by internal stakeholders who are part of the development process. If the same people who test an application also helped design it, they can’t provide the same level of objective, independent feedback that external users can. Beta testing provides the latter type of insight, providing development teams with validation that they can’t achieve through other types of testing.
Beta testing is a complement to, rather than a replacement for, alpha testing.
An alpha test is a test that is performed by the internal development team, often using test automation tools that allow developers to write and execute tests that can identify performance and reliability bugs. Alpha tests can also be performed manually by QA engineers who systematically test the functionality and usability of an application by hand, although this approach is less efficient than automated testing.
Alpha tests are especially useful for finding bugs that stem from coding problems or compatibility issues between an application and the environment or operating system in which it runs. They are generally not as useful, however, for testing usability and evaluating the overall customer experience that an application provides. Beta testing is more effective for addressing these needs because it allows teams to collect feedback from actual end users rather than merely testing how applications behave under different types of configurations.
Beta testing is a valuable strategy as part of any type of application development workflow. In the context of mobile, however, there are several reasons why it’s particularly important.
One reason is the especially high customer expectations that mobile development and QA teams must meet. More than two-thirds of users will switch to a competing app if the application they initially use is slow to load or requires too many steps to complete a desired task. Mobile apps are also subject to particularly high rates of abandonment, which raises the stakes even further for developers seeking to provide a delightful end-user experience. Careful beta testing helps teams find and fix problems that can lead to app abandonment.
The fact that mobile development cycles typically move quickly also makes beta testing essential. The majority of mobile applications are updated with a new release at least once per month, and a significant number see updates as frequently as every week. When your development operations move that fast, vetting each release as thoroughly as possible with beta users prior to putting it into general availability is critical for avoiding issues that could lead to a rollback or otherwise foul up your mobile application delivery pipeline.
Finally, the sheer diversity of mobile device hardware, operating systems, and browser environments makes beta testing important as a means of finding bugs that development teams would otherwise overlook. Although thorough alpha testing should identify software issues related to different types of mobile app host environments, teams don’t always test for every device or every combination of mobile hardware and software. Beta testing serves as a second line of defense for catching compatibility-related bugs prior to pushing software into general availability.
Simply implementing a beta testing routine is the first step toward adding this important layer of validation to your overall testing strategy. However, getting the most from beta tests requires tailoring your beta testing routine and resources to the needs of your development pipeline and user base.
Here are the questions you should ask yourself as you work to optimize your beta testing operations.
Too few beta testers leaves you with testing results that are not statistically significant or don’t catch all possible issues. On the other hand, if you have too many beta testers, orchestrating the tests becomes burdensome, and evaluating all of the test data quickly becomes infeasible.
As a general rule of thumb, you should aim to perform beta tests on a group of a few dozen users. But that number may vary depending on how many development and testing resources you have, as well as how large your overall user base is. If you are a small development team with limited time for orchestrating beta tests, you may want to test on as few as 5 to 10 users. Meanwhile, if your app has millions of users and you have extensive resources for developing it, testing with a larger group—perhaps around 100 users—will help you represent your total user base more accurately.
The ideal beta tester is one who represents a typical user for your app. Of course, the meaning of “typical user” can vary, but in general, you should consider factors like these to determine who is a good candidate to serve as a beta tester:
Location: Beta testers should come from a geographic region where you have many users.
Experience: Beta testers should have the same level of familiarity with your app as a typical user. If your average user has been using the app for a year, try to find beta testers who fit that description.
Technical skills: The ideal beta tester has a level of technical knowledge and interest that is on par with that of your typical user. Avoid beta testers who are “power users” unless a majority of your actual users fall into that category.
Note, too, that you may want to categorize beta testers based on which aspects of an application they are best suited to evaluate. In general, it makes sense to define two groups:
Technical beta testers, who focus on finding bugs that could impact end-users.
Marketing beta users, who assess the overall app experience.
Development teams can leverage several strategies to find beta testers. If your beta testing group is small, word of mouth or personal interactions can suffice for identifying users who are willing to serve as beta testers.
Websites or social media channels related to your app can also serve as a place to recruit beta users. Just be sure, again, that you are recruiting users who are representative of an average user. Sometimes users who congregate on online channels are more likely to be power users who are not ideal candidates for beta testing.
You can also use an open beta test to allow any user to opt into beta testing. For more on that, see below.
There are two main types of beta tests:
Open tests, where anyone can sign up to test the beta version of an app
Closed tests, in which only selected users are invited to test a beta release
In general, closed beta tests work best when you have a limited scope of features to test. Closed tests also keep the testing process simpler because they entail fewer testers. In contrast, open betas provide more test data and test coverage, although you’ll need to ensure you have the resources to orchestrate the test and evaluate results efficiently.
The time required for beta tests can range from mere hours to many weeks, depending on factors like the intensity of the tests and how many beta users you have.
However, the timeframe for beta tests should reflect the pace of your delivery cycle, rather than vice versa. In other words, don’t let beta tests become a bottleneck in software delivery. If you aim to release app updates every week, ensure that your beta tests run quickly enough—in one or two days—to meet that goal. On the other hand, if you only release monthly, you can afford longer beta tests.
The best beta testing platforms offer features like the following:
Support for testing on all operating systems
An efficient user experience with features like single sign-ons and intuitive user interfaces for submitting feedback or bug reports
Integrations between beta testing tools and bug trackers or CI tools that help to streamline the process of working with beta test data
The ability to record to test sessions using video so that developers and QA engineers can see exactly what beta testers experienced
In addition to these factors, assess variables such as how many applications a beta testing platform can support at one time, how many resources it consumes to run tests and which operating systems it supports for testing. Based on characteristics like these, one beta testing platform may be better than others for your requirements.
A final key factor to consider is how testers submit feedback on beta testing platforms, as well as how design and development teams collect and analyze that feedback. Platforms that integrate reporting and analytics into their feature sets can streamline feedback cycles, as compared to platforms that require feedback to be managed manually and separately from the testing tools.
You can optimize mobile app beta testing using platforms like TestFairy, a beta testing solution designed to distribute beta versions of your iOS and Android applications to select users. With a combination of key features such as app distribution, in-app bug reporting, and session video recording, the TestFairy platform helps mobile teams gather meaningful bug reports and relevant insight into how real users experience a mobile app. Scalable cloud architecture also allows teams to integrate seamlessly with any tool in the development ecosystem. In this way, TestFairy streamlines mobile development processes and enables teams to release better apps in shorter development cycles.
Developing successful mobile applications is becoming harder and harder as customer expectations grow increasingly steeper. While internal alpha testing provides one means of validating application functionality before releasing software updates to end-users, it is no replacement for beta testing, which is the only way to collect feedback from independent testers who are representative of actual customers.
That’s why a well-designed beta testing program should be part of every mobile application development strategy. By selecting the right beta testers, executing beta tests within a timeframe that meets overall software delivery goals, and managing beta tests with a platform that offers efficient test orchestration and evaluation, developers and QA engineers can gain a leg up in the race to release software that meets the expectations not only of the people who design and write it, but also of real users.