An alpha test is a form of acceptance testing, performed using both black box and white box testing techniques. As it is the first round of testing a new product or software solution goes through, alpha testing is concerned with finding any possible issues, bugs or mistakes, before progressing to user testing or market launch.
The main purpose of conducting an alpha test is to ensure the quality of the software system before it goes into the production environment. That’s why an alpha test relies on internal testers — team members, stakeholders, etc. — at the developer's site, in a virtual environment similar to the actual production environment.
You may have also heard of beta testing, which takes place after alpha testing and is performed by potential end-users.
An alpha test is conducted before a beta test, towards the end of the software development process.
The main aim is to verify the input and output functionality of the software, at a high level. To do so, alpha testing is rolled out in three phases:
Pre-alpha testing: A quick, high-level testing cycle to understand whether the system can be passed on to the next phases of testing.
Alpha testing: A lengthy and full cycle of thorough and rigorous testing to stress-test all the features of the system.
Post-alpha testing: A parallel process where one set of developers work on fixing any defects found, whilst other testers continue to search for bugs.
Throughout the entire process, alpha testing seeks to understand system behavior and user experience. This is done before the software is released to the market, so that any issues can be ironed out before the system is running in the outside environment.
Alpha testing is the responsibility of the internal testing or quality assurance (QA) team.
Generally speaking, an alpha test will run as follows:
The first step of alpha testing is to review the design specification and understand the functional and non-functional requirements.
Next, an extensive test plan is created, to generate all the necessary test cases.
Once the test plan and the test cases are ready, the team starts alpha testing. Here, the main priority is to check for any bugs or defects in the system.
As soon as the team comes up against a bug or defect, the issue is logged in a separate system.
These defects are then assigned to the members of the development team to work on and fix.
When the development team confirms that the issues have been resolved, the testing team retests the software product. This testing cycle will continue until no more issues are found.
As you’d imagine, there are many benefits to alpha testing. Here are some of the most important:
You accomplish adequate and thorough testing: Alpha testing uses both black box and white box testing. The black box testing techniques will test the system's input and output functionality at a high level. While the white box techniques test the system's design and internal structure. This is important to verify the product’s input and output flows, for all required and possible scenarios.
Improved software quality: In alpha testing, the system is tested in a simulated environment which is similar to the environment it will be used in. This creates realistic testing conditions, trying to empathize with end-users as much as possible. Of course, if the software is then taken into beta testing, the team will get feedback from genuine end-users as well. Any and all early feedback should improve the final product quality immensely.
A host of insights into usability and reliability: Alpha testing provides the opportunity to understand how the system will behave when it is released to the end-users. The product team will be able to measure the system's performance and obtain an idea of its usability and reliability in advance. These insights will help the product team to make the right decisions on the future improvements of the system.
Less re-work and shorter delivery time: Alpha testing allows the testing team to identify possible production issues in advance. This helps the development team to address the possible production issues and fix them before the system goes to launch. This reduces development re-work and the delivery time of the later releases.
Alpha testing is a critical step in the development process, and we’d always recommend that teams find the time and resources to do it.
That being said, there are a couple of drawbacks to alpha testing. Fortunately, being aware of these should minimize the impact they have:
Alpha testing means a longer test execution time: In alpha testing the complete product will be tested at a high level and in-depth, using the different black box and white box techniques. This means the test execution cycle takes a longer time to complete. The duration of the testing cycle also depends on the features of the product and the number of defects uncovered during the test cycle. If the product has more features and finds a number of uncovered defects, the testing duration will drag on.
The virtual environment creates limitations for non-functional requirement testing: Alpha testing is conducted to identify and eliminate production issues. So, yes, it is possible to test certain non-functional requirements — such as usability and performance — but there is a limitation on other non-functional requirements. For example, aspects like maintainability, in-depth security and reliability are tricky to test, simply because the alpha test takes place in a virtual environment.