User research is a cornerstone of digital product design and development. And conventional wisdom dictates that you should thoroughly test new features and functionalities before you release them to users. But there’s one notable exception to this golden rule: beta features.
Betas are features that are released before being fully vetted and optimized using the usual UX research protocols. Presenting a feature as “beta” can be a great way to increase your team’s agility, go to market faster, respond more quickly to your users’ most pressing requests, and test out concepts on a wider audience.
But beta releases only make sense in certain situations. Not only that, but they must be handled carefully in order to achieve the desired results. Get it wrong, and you risk undermining your product’s usability — and unnecessarily frustrating your users, too.
Here’s what you need to know to figure out when to use a beta release — and how to ensure your beta’s success.
How to Know if a Beta Release is Right for Your EdTech Product’s New Feature
Before deciding whether or not to release a feature in beta, you’ll want to consider a number of factors. These include:
- The level of risk. Beta releases are best reserved for low-risk features. An ideal candidate would be something that builds off of existing mental models rather than overhauling them completely. For example, you might release an enhancement to an existing feature or workflow in beta. But a brand new flagship feature that totally changes the way your product functions? Never.
- The level of effort. If the effort involved in building a prototype to conduct user testing outweighs the effort it would take your development team to actually build the feature, a beta release may be your best option.
- Timelines and cost. Ask yourself: How much up-front discovery do you need to adequately explore your new concept? Alternately, how long would it take to simply whip up a working version of your feature and get it out the door? And finally, what’s happening in the competitive landscape? What’s the opportunity cost of waiting to release a fully validated feature? When it comes to beta releases, smaller, more incremental features are usually the most viable candidates.
- Research needs. Releasing a feature in beta gives you access to real feedback from real, invested users. Which means you can collect tons of additional data that you couldn’t get from user testing. That’s always a plus. But in some cases it may be necessary, such as when a feature or functionality is difficult to meaningfully simulate in a test environment. For example, most EdTech products include a scaffolded onboarding experience (one that builds over time as users take various actions). It would be impossible to simulate the full onboarding experience in an hour-long user testing session.
- Your team’s approach to product development. By definition, betas aren’t fully formed. They are certain to require further testing and refinement after you take them to market. The question is whether your team is prepared to manage those post-release activities. Without a clear plan in place, you risk dragging down your product’s performance with suboptimal solutions and UX-draining design debt. If you want to successfully leverage betas, you’ll need to be sure your team is aligned about the various research activities and improvements that will need to happen post-release. The more organized and collaborative your team is, the more likely you are to succeed with betas.
4 Steps to Ensure the Success of Your EdTech Beta Release
Ready to release a feature in beta? Take these steps to set the stage for success.
1. Select the right release strategy
There are two main approaches to releasing features in beta: private and public. In a private release, your team can control how many users get access to the new feature, and in some cases when warranted, which users. This allows you to test-drive a feature with a particular subset of users and get feedback before releasing it to everyone. In this situation, users outside your private group typically won’t be aware that the beta feature exists. (Note, however, that private betas are sometimes used as a marketing tool to create an exclusive experience and drum up demand.)
A public beta is one in which you release your new feature to all your users at the same time. In this case, the feature is fully “live.” It’s just that it’s framed as “beta” to set user expectations and (perhaps) encourage feedback.
You should select a beta release strategy that best supports your business objectives, user needs, and research goals.
2. Set users’ expectations
Setting users’ expectations about a beta feature is key. If you release a beta but don’t label it as such, your users will be much less patient and forgiving about the inevitable imperfections. By using a “beta” badge or some other indicator, you can release features as works-in-progress with the transparent goal of collecting feedback and making improvements.
Framing a feature as beta has other benefits. It can make users feel empowered to actively shape your product (especially if you make it clear that there will be opportunities to provide feedback). In addition, many users simply appreciate the fact that they are getting early access to a new feature!
Before releasing your beta, strategize closely with your UX research and engineering teams about how you will flag features as beta and gather feedback from users.
3. Define success — and how to measure it
Before releasing a feature in beta, take some time as a team to define what success looks like. What do you want this new feature to achieve? And which metrics will you use to measure it?
Work collaboratively with your product, development, and UX teams to brainstorm effective and timely ways to assess your beta feature’s performance. Doing so will enable your team to define an effective post-release research plan.
4. Collect User Feedback on Your Beta Feature
You can’t just throw a new beta feature out into the wild and hope people will reach out with feedback. Post-release user research is a must. It’s the critical first step in transforming your beta into a polished feature. Fortunately, there are many ways to collect feedback. Consider the following research methods:
- Test the live product. If you released your beta with minimal up-front user testing, now is your chance to get user feedback. Rather than testing once shortly after you release your feature, plan to conduct a series of tests over a predetermined period of time. This will help you to differentiate between initial learning curve frustrations and actual feature pain points. (Keep in mind that established users may be biased against new features and mental models.) Putting user testing on a regular cadence allows you to tailor your questions for follow-up research as you learn more.
- Poll your new feature’s users. For public betas, plan to track who is using your new feature. Reach out to them shortly after they use the feature to ask for feedback. This could be done with a simple survey, a follow-up interview, or even a diary study. Understanding the number of people who are using the feature will also help make any post-release research more statistically sound.
- Follow up with private beta users. If you release your beta feature to a private circle of users, let them know that they are part of an exclusive group — and that you need their feedback. If they know that, private beta users will be more likely to participate in any surveys, interviews, or user tests you have planned. Whatever your particular research methods, plan to follow up with private participants at regular intervals to gather their impressions and feedback.
With the right plan in place, your EdTech company can use beta releases to go to market faster, gather more meaningful user feedback, and encourage your users to take more “ownership” of your product.