14 Sep 2017

Beta Testing with Feature Toggles: Testing in Production Like a Pro

We all know beta testing is important—not just for understanding your customers’ needs, but also for stability and security. Every time you do a launch you are essentially asking: “Are there bugs? Is there feedback?” Both with the goal of making your product better.

Testing in production will give you the most information about the success of your new functionality. And because feature flags help separate deployment from release, they make such testing safe and easy. When it comes to beta testing, a lot of the top companies tend to adhere to a similar paradigm—test early, test often, and do it in your production environment.

So how do companies have smooth and simple transitions from alpha to beta testing, and then to full rollout? Read on to learn how top companies are approaching their beta testing using deployment tools with feature flags providing links out to more in-depth descriptions.

But before we get started, here’s a quick terminology review. Pete Hodgson refers to this use of feature flags for betas as “permissioning toggles.” Also known as a “canary launch,” this is often random like a percentage rollout. A set group, or “champagne brunch,” releases to internal users or another section or group.


6 Approaches to Product Launching

#1 Facebook is the prime example of dark launching. Their release management has to be impeccable to operate at such massive scale. Their betas are often up to  million users or more.

“Although we push to production only once a week, it’s still important to test the code early in real-world settings so that engineers can get quick feedback. We make mobile release candidates available every day for canary users, including 1 million or so Android beta testers.”

Read their article on Rapid Release at Massive Scale to learn more about how they do continuous delivery at scale.

#2 Hootsuite gives a typical rollout pattern for its features—starting internally and then slowly exposing to a larger audience.

Typical
Push new code then:
– Dark launch to yourself or your team to test
– Launch to the whole Hootsuite organization
– 10% of all users
– Watch graphs
– 50%
– 100%
– Simple means of rollback if necessary

Check out Bill Monkman’s full deck on dark launching here.

#3 Etsy calls feature flags “config flags,” and gives a lot of credit for their process to Flickr.

“Key system-level and business level metrics (like checkout/listing/registration/sign-in rates) are projected on screens in the office and we have a number of internal dashboards that the team uses (we mainly use Ganglia and Graphite). We also have lots of switches and knobs to help us roll features out to percentages of users and ramp them up slowly, or quickly. Features are used and tested by us here at Etsy for some period of time before they are rolled out publicly.”

They have custom built a feature flagging API, “Feature API” to enable this. Some of the bucketing they use include: admin, internal, users, groups.Read more about Etsy’s deployment practices and check out their Feature API on GitHub.

#4 Beta can also apply to back-end rollouts. Instagram does canary deployments to a subset of servers, using feature flags as a continuous delivery tool. It’s important for continuous delivery to perform these tests, which are key in helping them avoid failed deployments.

But Instagram hasn’t always had this system. Read here to learn how they evolved from a “mish-mash of manual steps and scripts” to a system they could depend on. And check this out if you want more recipes for database migration with feature flags.

#5 Niantic’s Pokemon Go betas are well known and rabidly tracked by its fans. They famously roll out by region—a field test in Japan here, a limited beta in Australia, and then something in New Zealand. Sometimes these betas for features are invite-only. Here’s a write up of how they approached the rollout of the game Ingress.

#6 GoPro released their GoPro Plus product early using feature flags. By breaking the larger release into smaller features with their own testing timelines, they were able to iterate and improve continuously. The video below walks through the technology they used and the timeline from dogfood to a “big bang” marketing announcement.

“At GoPro you can kind of tell we don’t things lightly. We want to do big announcements and we want to come out with great products…we actually had smaller features that would go out, and then go for alpha testing and beta testing along the way. Shortly after March, we actually had most of the applications done from a core feature standpoint, but we kept iterating and improving those core features that we knew we were going to launch with.”

 

Controlling Your Rollout Like a Boss

Did you notice some trends there? These larger companies are using beta testing to do one of the following:

  • Testing in production with feature flags
  • Ability to release early and test small functionalities before a broader release
  • Internal tests that easily become external canaries
  • Regional rollouts

As more companies start to use feature management, these incremental rollouts are not the headaches they once were. Companies can be safer and smarter with how and when they expose features to their end users.

If you want to get started with feature flagging, check out featureflags.io a resource we made for the community to learn best practices.  

22 Dec 2016

Beta Testing using Feature Flags

LaunchDarkly Feature Toggle Beta

It’s best practice for products to have some sort of beta – a way to collect customer feedback and test performance before releasing to everyone. In an era of continuous delivery, we are delivering new features and experiences more frequently and with less time to gather thorough customer and performance feedback. With this increased cadence, product teams are having to make betas shorter, forego them altogether, or slow down their release cadence to gather adequate customer feedback.

Challenges of traditional betas:

  • Coordinating Opt-Ins: It sometimes takes weeks or months to gather customer opt-ins to test new betas. You also have to organize the distribution of beta keys (ex. for early access to games) and reminder emails.
  • Organizing Focus Groups: Getting feedback from focus groups is often time consuming and expensive, creating a long feedback loop that lengthens the release process.
  • Opt-Out: If customers opt-in to a beta and don’t like the experience, then they will want a simple mechanism to switch back to the production version.
  • Granular Betas: It is very difficult to do targeted betas based on user attributes or to perform incremental percentage rollouts of new beta features.

Feature toggles

To overcome these challenges, smart product teams are beginning to run betas with feature flags/toggles. These are mechanisms for granularly controlling software releases, allowing you to control the timing and visibility of a beta release.

Currently, many betas are tied to code releases and are managed by a config file or database.  This approach requires engineering time or custom mechanisms to opt-in users.

With feature toggles, you can empower product, marketing, sales, and even customers (themselves) to opt-in new to a new beta experience.

Feature Toggle Beta Test LaunchDarkly

In this simple example, you can use a toggle to control the visibility of a new beta feature. Ideally, this toggle would be part of a user interface that could be controlled by a non-technical team member. The code, itself, could be deployed off and then turned on via the toggle.

Beta Test Percentage Rollout with Feature Toggle LaunchDarkly

Moreover, you can also use the toggle to control the percentage of users who get the beta experience. For instance, you could release the new beta experience and have it rolled out to 0% of users. You could gradually increase the rollout percentage from 1% to 5% to 20% and more, collecting customer and performance feedback along the way.

Surfacing this beta control functionality in a user interface is critical for giving non-technical team members access to release controls.

Regional betas

For a recent example of a targeted rollout, we can look at how Pokémon GO released their product country by country: first to the United States and then abroad.

This is a great use case for feature toggles because you can create targeting rules to determine which users receive the feature first. For example, I could create a toggle that is governed by the rule: “If users live in San Francisco, then serve the new Nearby Pokémon feature”. This allows you to maintain different regional feature sets without having to deploy different versions of the application. It also allowed Pokémon GO to refine their algorithms and assess customer feedback before rolling out the new feature to a wider audience.

Benefits of beta testing with feature toggles

  • Empowered non-technical users: Allow the sales, marketing, product, design, and business teams to turn features on for specific users, collect feedback, and control the business logic. This also substantially cuts down on engineering time.
  • Production feedback for your beta tests: Test features in production with limited user segments to collect customer and performance feedback.
  • Incremental percentage rollouts: Gradually roll out features to incrementally test performance and mitigate risk. If the feature is bad, toggle it off.
  • Real-time opt-in / opt-out: Allow users to opt in and out of beta tests in real time, controlled via the feature toggle. Skylight provides a nice article on this.

Getting started with toggles

Conceptually, a feature toggle is relatively simple. You create a conditional in your code that controls the visibility of a code snippet. There are many open source libraries that will allow you to get started.  However, these libraries become cumbersome when you try to feature toggle at scale or restrict access to particular toggles. Depending on your needs, you could consider a feature toggle management platform to provide a system for access control and mitigating technical debt.

19 May 2016

Case study: Modernizing development & controlling rollout with LaunchDarkly

The challenge

The company, a leading online real estate marketplace, sought to bring its development up to date with modern processes. To accomplish this transformation, they hired management with experience at the most idolized mega tech companies.  The first thing on the manager’s agenda? Move faster, with less risk by using a feature flagging system like the one they had built at their previous company.  

Just for some background – at this juncture, the team was doing three-week sprint cycles. They had feature branches that they would develop every three weeks and then push out. They would deploy five features at once and if anything went wrong, they’d have to roll it all back.  

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