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Have you discovered an application you use has a “beta version” or features that are “in beta?” Beta testing is a crucial part of what makes the software we use daily stable and user-friendly. Here’s how it works.

Making Sure it Works

Beta testing is the process of testing an unreleased piece of software with a portion of its intended audience. It’s one of the final stages of the software development lifecycle (or SDLC) and often takes place before a public release. During beta testing, it’s essential to make sure that the testing environment mirrors the real-world experience as much as possible. Therefore, if someone is beta testing a word processor, they should continue creating the same kinds of documents they make for work.

Beta testing isn’t only for entirely new software. Developers also use it to test out the latest builds of an existing piece of software, ensuring that it’s stable when the update is rolled out to more people. Beta testing often provides valuable feedback from potential users on potential improvements, common bugs, and performance. This feedback can be collected automatically with crash reports and internal statistics or manually via surveys and interviews. The software team can use the information they gain from this process to fix any issues, change the software’s behavior, and plan for future releases.

The testing process itself largely depends on the type of software. If the program’s intended audience is relatively small, a company might hire a beta testing agency to round up a sample of prospective users. On the other hand, if the expected audience of an app is in the millions, then a company might perform a public beta test instead.

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Public Beta Testing

Some software makes use of “public beta testing,” where a part of the audience can opt in to use a future build before it’s released to the general public. For example, on the Google Play app store, you may opt into the beta testing process for any app that offers it, such as Google Chrome. Apple also provides a beta access program for their various operating systems, like iOS, macOS, and watchOS.

While running a beta test build has some disadvantages, such as software instability or bugs, you will also get access to cool new features before anyone else has used them. For example, when Windows 11 was beta released several months before Microsoft rolled it out, a subset of Windows users opted in to the program and had access to the new start menu layout, navigation features, and overall design.

Some companies implement new features to a subset of their users before they become standard for the rest of the userbase. For example, social media apps like Facebook and Instagram often test out a new layout or menu item to a sample of their users. Some of these features eventually make it onto the general public build, while some are scrapped entirely due to negative feedback.

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Alpha, Beta, and Gamma

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You might have also encountered the terms “alpha testing” and “gamma testing.” While these processes are similar in that they are tests done before the software is publicly released, they differ in certain ways. Here’s a run-down of each of these testing types:

  • Alpha Testing: This is typically conducted in a lab environment with a subset of the company’s employees instead of end-users.
  • Beta Testing: This is conducted on a sample of the software’s intended audience and replicates the actual user experience as much as possible.
  • Gamma Testing: This is done right before something is released. It is significantly less common and has largely been phased out.

In software development, another type of testing you might hear about is “user acceptance testing” or UAT. UAT is performed when engaging a particular client instead of a broad audience. Rather than testing to get feedback and comments on the software, it’s generally done to complete a transaction. It ends when the intended user “accepts” that the software meets their requirements.

What Gets Beta Tested?

Beta testing isn’t limited to desktop and mobile applications and operating systems. Hardware can also get beta tested. Before the newest phones or gaming consoles are released, many devices are often provided to beta testers first. These testers will use them daily for a certain period, providing valuable feedback to manufacturers.

They’re also commonly done on online multiplayer video games, where players will hop onto a “preview build” to try out any changes to the gameplay experience before they get released. This includes significant changes like entirely new features, missions, and maps and smaller changes like those that affect a game’s player balance. Typically, a company will use user reactions—both in-game and social media—to gauge what should change between the beta build and the public build.

Beta testing isn’t solely for computer-related activities either. Nowadays, you can refer to anything tested before its final release as a “beta test.” Even artistic projects like books will have “beta readers” who read through the entire text and provide feedback before the work gets published.

If you’re interested in exploring more about the software development world, you might want to learn about a variant of beta testing is known as A/B testing.

RELATED: What Is A/B Testing?

Profile Photo for Vann Vicente Vann Vicente
Vann Vicente has been a technology writer for four years, with a focus on explainers geared towards average consumers. He also works as a digital marketer for a regional e-commerce website. He's invested in internet culture, social media, and how people interact with the web.
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