Soft launching, dark launching, and canary releases are useful strategies you can employ to test the market, make sure issues don’t reach production, and minimize their impact if they do.
There does seem to be a lot of confusion on the definition of each term and the nuances between them and they are often used interchangeably. For the purposes of this post however, we will try to differentiate between them and see how each of them can be useful.
A soft launch is used to describe the quiet release of a new app or update to a limited number of users. This is done with limited or no PR and media fanfare in a market that is smaller than but very similar to the app’s main market.
You can use soft launches to validate your app with real end users and solicit their feedback for any changes or improvements needed. It will show you how users are going to interact with your app, how they will use it, and whether its features are easily discoverable. You will also get to discover bugs you might have missed and test the readiness of your infrastructure.
Conversely, you can use them as a test run for your app to gauge the market’s reaction and test your marketing message and strategy. Soft launches are also a great opportunity to get started on app store optimization and test your app store listing.
Canada and Australia are two of the most popular soft launching destinations because of their similarity to the U.S. market. However, depending on your target audience, there might be many other countries that will be suitable. This post from Chartboost takes a look at promising destinations for mobile games, but most of it can be applied to apps too.
Dark launching is the release of a major change or a new app feature to a subset of your users with or without highlighting it to them. It can be used to stress test your app and discover any bugs or performance issues. But you can also use it to test the feature’s adoption, monitor its impact on your users, and validate your assumptions.
With the use of feature toggles, analytics, and feedback tools, you can quickly see if your users are gaining value from the new feature and get their feedback about it. This gives you the opportunity to tweak your app and make the necessary change if the need arises.
A canary release is very similar to dark launches, except it is done for all releases of your app and not only for new features or major releases. The goal of canary releases is to make sure that any issues that slip into production have a minimal impact on your users by stopping the release before it reaches more users.
Whereas dark launches are used to test features before making them widely available, canary releases focus on minimizing the risk and impact of production bugs.
Canary releasing is a very effective strategy and is now a best practice that both Apple and Google have baked into their platforms and recommend using them. Apple calls the feature “phased releases” and Google calls it “staged rollouts”.
Soft Launching Vs. Beta Testing
A common misconception is that soft launching and beta testing serve the same purpose and are interchangeable. While they might look similar, they both have very different goals.
A beta app is an app that is in the late stages of development but isn’t quite there yet. It has a higher tolerance for bugs and a wider scope for changes that can be made. On the other hand, soft launching is done with an app that has completed the development lifecycle. The main focus for a soft launch is stress testing your app and infrastructure and testing the market reaction. The scope of changes to the app is very limited and only if absolutely necessary and most of the changes will be on the marketing side.
Dark Launching Vs. Beta Testing
Dark launching is closer to beta testing than soft launching but there still are a couple of key differences. The most obvious being that dark launches require you to have a sizable user-base, to begin with. It is not a tactic that can be used for a new app or one that does not have a lot of users.
Another key difference is that in a dark launch, features are not tagged as beta and users have not opted-in to the test. This makes your users less tolerant for bugs and less likely to provide you with feedback. Features you release in a dark launch should have a high degree of polish if you don’t want to risk upsetting your users.
While all three of the tactics we discussed can help you build a better app, they each have their own benefits and purpose. Depending on the needs of your app, you will have to decide on the best course of action.
Soft launching is a great option for new apps and mobile games to stress test them and fine-tune their UX and your marketing plan. Dark launching is more suited for established apps that have a substantial user base with whom they can test new features and functionality. And finally, canary releasing is a best practice that can be followed by all apps to prevent production bugs from having too much of an impact on your users, albeit it is more effective the bigger the number of users.