Beta programs are a somewhat maligned and misunderstood concept these days. Companies don’t really talk publicly about beta programs, and when they do, they are definitely NOT representative of what most people do.
For example, Gmail launched in 2004, and was in beta until 2009. Yes. It was in “beta” for 5 years. Not only is that the longest beta I’ve ever heard of, but when they exited beta, they had about 100,000,000 users. Not your typical beta by any measure.
These days, a lot of companies eschew formal beta programs. Instead they deliver features incrementally, use feature flags and other means to slowly make the new capabilities available to segments of their users, look at user and performance analytics to understand behaviour and decide how to address issues.
But, in many cases, that’s not possible. For example, in many B2B scenarios, you can’t just release features incrementally. Complex workflows or functionality required for regulatory or legal compliance can’t be tested piecemeal. In those cases, where late stage user feedback is needed to ensure functionality, usability, performance etc. have not missed the mark, a beta program is the solution.
But, executing a successful formal beta is much more difficult than it sounds. In short, you are asking customers to spend their valuable time on your unreleased software.
And most of the immediate benefits of this testing come back to you, not them.
The main goal of a beta program is to obtain enough detailed feedback and information from your users to ensure your product performs as required. This performance could be about usability, task completeness, speed of execution, scalability etc. The goals are up those who define the beta program.
So how do you best achieve these goals? Well, that’s a longer tale and one that’s documented in the Building a Better Beta. Download it, take a look and if you have questions, feel free to contact me.
Saeed Khan is a founder of Transformation Labs and has worked for over 20 years in high-technology companies building and managing market leading products. He speaks regularly at industry events on the topic of product management and product leadership. You can contact him via Twitter @saeedwkhan or via the Contact Us page.