Lauren Macpherson
March 8, 2022

The psychology of the soft launch

When you go swimming, do you step tentatively into the shallow and or make a big splash diving into the deep end? These are the same choices you have when you launch a new product. Even the most experienced and successful restaurants will usually opt for a soft launch when opening a new branch - or even just serving a new menu. There is a new building, new equipment, new staff and new food. By serving a limited number of invited guests from an abbreviated menu you can learn what to fix in time for the grand opening and spare yourself some nightmarish reviews from your less tolerant guests.

But even if the food was slow in coming to the table, the chances of your guests getting up and leaving are pretty low. Unfortunately, digital products are not given anywhere near as much grace. 

  • 53% of mobile visits are abandoned if pages take more than 3 seconds to load. 
  • A 2-second delay in load time resulted in abandonment rates of up to 87%. 
  • One in five users abandons an app after just one session. 
  • The average app loses 77% of users within just 3 days. 
  • The average cart abandonment rate is 70%.

When these are the statistics you’re facing, a beta test or soft launch is always the best way to go for launching any software, website, platform, or app. Google beta-tested Gmail for 5 years before fully releasing it to the public.

The classic 3 step soft launch model

You need to ensure that your product performs well technically, performs well as a product, and performs well in the market.

  1. Technical testing - you only want to put a fully functioning product into a users hand. This means reaching a threshold for crashing in the 98th to 99th percentile. 
  2. Product testing - this is where you test all the performance assumptions (or hypotheses) you have made. Look at early engagement and retention metrics. Then, does the user return? Have you provided enough value and interest to keep them returning after a week? Then, are they willing to commit to a purchase?
  3. Market testing - this part moves from simply performance testing into the emotional side. Your users need to enjoy using the product, which means it should have some character and create an atmosphere. How does your audience feel about the product? How can you fine-tune how you speak to and interact with them? How can you retain their interest so they continue to be engaged and active users in the long term? This might be about making a compelling enough proposition from the outset, holding their hand through the onboarding process, or keeping them informed about new features and updates.

Technical testing

The very brief psychology of technical testing is that you need to keep making the test more independent and more thorough as you progress through each round. First, the person who wrote the item needs to test it themselves. Then, because you tend not to see mistakes in the work you have done, another programmer in the team should review and test it to catch anything missed. Then, a test engineer should take a look. They will run a much more thorough series of automated and manual tests to check for bugs and push the limits of the code. After this, it’s sometimes worth paying an outside agency to complete a full round of tests too. While most developers know the drill, it’s never nice to make mistakes and it can be frustrating to fix a bug in something you’ve written. By following these steps you allow developers to find and fix mistakes themselves, or within the safe space of their team first. Allowing for a nicer experience for all.

Product testing

Product testing is all about taking what you expect to happen when people use your product and finding out what actually happens. While you will still likely find some technical issues, this is more about performance, usability, user behaviour, and user opinion. These are often closed tests - private and limited to selected testers. Often these are people who have engaged with news about your product or signed up for updates pre-launch. They are usually reliable as they have already indicated they have some prior interest and commitment. If you find you need more testers, you can try the psychology of exclusivity by reducing the number of available spaces or simply incentivise them with an offer like free lifetime access to the product if they help.

First, you need to define the scope of your beta test. Remember, the bigger the scope, the more time and the more money you’ll have to spend. What are your goals - to find out how many users can complete the journey from beginning to end, how many abandon after a week, or how many are willing to pay for it? This will help to align everyone from stakeholders and investors, to designers and developers - as well as set realistic expectations.

Then, you need to design the test:

  • Define the length. Both a too-short and too-long test have been shown to yield non-representative results. 
  • Choose the most efficient number of testers because the number of unique issues found decreases as the number of testers increases.
  • Write product documentation so testers know how to set up and use the product. You want to ensure they spend the maximum amount of time interacting with the product, not learning how to use it.
  • Set up clear lines of communication, so you can inform them of any issues they should expect and so that they can communicate easily and freely in return. This will increase their confidence and tolerance.
  • If you are worried about negative feedback going public, or someone stealing your work, consider creating an NDA for participants to sign.
  • And finally, have a clear procedure for collecting feedback. Quantitative user behaviour data is in its nature unbiased. So spend time making sure you create an environment where the qualitative user feedback and interview data is also as raw and honest as possible. You’d be surprised how many testers omit things to be nice.

When running the test, remember, these users have scheduled their life around helping to improve your product. Respect their time, try not to change the schedule, and communicate well. Set expectations from the start, reach out personally if their participation drops off, and have a plan for re-recruitment during a test if you do lose some testers along the way. 

Market testing

Every product has a key moment they are pushing each user towards - for example Uber will have a golden number of rides a user has to take with them before they are considered to be a fully onboarded and converted user. Social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram encourage you to add friends and follow other users to increase the amount of time you spend on the platform. They also encourage you to explore new things and interact with them through likes, views and comments so they can gather data about you. More time = more chances to see ads. More data = better targeting and conversion rates for those ads. These together mean more money for them. 

What is important is not to become too focused on this. Because there is also a very important moment the user needs to reach - the moment they find value in your product. Using Uber as an example again, for some it would have been simply the ability to order a taxi in a few taps rather than searching for a company to call. For others, it would have been feeling safer since the journey is tracked, or paying online and not having to find an ATM late at night. 

Marketing tests are usually open betas. Anyone can sign up, which means they are better for quantitative data where you will find your average user and patterns in their behaviour you can use to improve your product more reliably. Open tests are also good for seeing how well your infrastructure scales.

The psychology of a beta tester

The whole point of this is to demonstrate how important soft launches and beta tests are to success. And at the core of this are the testers. So make sure you tailor your soft launch to suit their needs. The most common reasons people beta test are:

  • They are invested in having a need met and your product promises to do that. So communicate with them early on to find out what value they are seeking so you can ensure you’re asking the right questions and setting the right tests.
  • They dislike something about a competitor product. It’s therefore really important to find out what other products your testers use and what issues they have with them. First, so you can gain a competitive advantage but also so you can remove these barriers for your testers.
  • They want to see something fixed. They already know about your product and have gripes. This is specific to tests on an already existing product. Often these users have good technical knowledge so it is worth spending extra time with them.
  • They want to learn more about your product. Maybe they have a particular interest, it will help build skills that will help with their career, or maybe even their business. The upside is they will explore more than a regular tester, the downside is the potential for ideas to be stolen. So consider the NDA option here.
  • And finally, they just love the community. Testing new products is fascinating and it's fun to be a part of something.

Whatever the product, a soft launch is something that should be carefully crafted not just technically but also psychologically. As we build our own ventures often, we’re always running tests. So if you have any questions, feel free to reach out.

Lauren Macpherson
I'm an avid sharer of the latest news, tools, and tricks relating to all aspects of product development. My main aim is to stay true to our Explain-Like-I'm-5 roots: keeping things simple and easy to understand. My other is to find any excuse to talk about gaming.

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