Usability Testing vs. Beta Testing

As product people, what we build and launch into the world comes with risk. Maybe the product will fail to perform the tasks it’s designed to accomplish (technical failure). Perhaps the product will be technically sound, but users won’t be able to figure out how to use it to complete their desired tasks. Maybe we will develop a product that accomplishes a goal that users don’t care about.

We test to mitigate risk.

One Risk, Two Risk. Red Risk, Blue Risk.

The risks associated with product launches come in a variety of forms. It’s scary to think of all the ways your product can fail. That’s why we perform different types of testing to evaluate our product, enabling us to fix errors of different categories: errors of product vision or goal (no one needs what your product does), errors of design, and errors of technical implementation.

One of the challenges of testing is remembering what the hell all the acronyms and jargon actually stand for and mean: QA testing, regression testing, internal UAT, external UAT, usability testing, beta testing, etc.

Different Pests. Different Tests.

As mentioned above, failure happens in many different ways. The pests within our products that harass users and threaten to send your customers away running and screaming come in different shapes and sizes. You don’t use rat poison to kill cockroaches. Similarly, you use different product tests to identify and eradicate different types of product failure.

Usability Testing vs. Beta Testing

And now, after that slightly rambling introduction, here’s the purpose of this post. The product team I’m a part of is having a slight disagreement. One of our team members believes usability testing is a substitute for beta testing, that essentially we will discover the same errors via usability testing that we would discover via beta testing. Some authoritative definitions culled from Wikipedia:

Usability Testing — Usability testing is a technique used in user-centered interaction design to evaluate a product by testing it on users. Typical testing involves 4–6 representative product users, asks users to accomplish a series of tasks relevant to product usage, and occurs in a setting where user behavior can be closely observed.

Beta Testing — Beta testing is a test of a product performed by real users in real environments. A beta version of the software is released to groups of people so that further testing can ensure the product has few faults or bugs.

I’ve found the what. But what about the why?

When you Google usability testing vs. beta testing, you find results that speak to how usability testing and beta testing differ in terms of set up. But I’ve found little feedback on the web on the differences in the types of errors or product failures that might be uncovered by each type of testing. I would like to hear from other product people on how the “why’s” of usability testing and beta testing differ.

  1. What types of possible product failures do you uncover in usability testing?
  2. How do those differ from the product failures that you might uncover in beta testing?

That’s what I want your help with. Please post your thoughts in the comments section. My next post will attempt to answer these questions, hopefully with your insights!