Best practices

PlanOut makes it easy to implement bug-free code that randomly assigns users (or other units) to parameters. The Experiment and Namespace classes are designed to reduce common errors in deploying and logging experiments. Here are a few tips for running experiments:

  • Use auto-exposure logging, which is enabled by default. Auto-exposure logging makes it easier to check that your assignment procedure is working correctly, increases the precision of your experiment, and reduces errors in downstream analysis.
  • Avoid changing an experiment while it is running. Instead, either run a follow-up experiment using a namespace, or create a new experiment with a different salt to re-randomize the units. These experiments should be analyzed separately from the original experiment.
  • Automate the analysis of your experiment. If you are running multiple related experiments, create a pipeline to automatically do the analysis.

There are no hard and fast rules for what kinds of changes are actually a problem, but if you follow the best practices above, you should be in reasonable shape.

Randomization failures

Experiments are used to test the change of one or more parameters on some average outcome (e.g., messages sent, or clicks on a button). Differences can be safely attributed to a change in parameters if treatments are assigned to users completely at random.

In practice, there are a number of common ways for two groups to not be equivalent (beyond random imbalance), including:

  • Some units from one group were previously in a different group, while units from the other group were not.

  • Some units in one group were recently added to the experiment.

  • There was a bug in the code for one group but not the other, and that bug recently got fixed.

In these cases, we suggest that you launch a new experiment, ideally through the use of namespaces.

You can alternatively re-assign all of the units in your experiment by simply changing the salt of your experiment. You can do this using the Python API by renaming your old experiment class, and defining a subclass of the old experiment that sets a new salt and experiment name:

class MyExperiment(MyOldExperiment):
  def setup(self):
    self.name = 'new_experiment_name'
    self.salt = 'new_experiment_salt'

Using a new salt re-randomizes units, and using a new name distinguishes your old experiment from the new experiment ways, which should be analyzed separately, since most units will likely be assigned to completely different parameters. Note that maintaining these separate salts and experiment names happens automatically when you use namespaces!

Unanticipated consequences from changing experiments

Changes to experiment definitions will generally alter which parameters users are assigned to. For example, consider an experiment that manipulates the label of a button for sharing a link. The main outcome of interest is the effect of this text on how many links users share per day.

class SharingExperiment(SimpleExperiment):
  def assign(self, params, userid):
    params.button_text = UniformChoice(
      choices=['OK', 'Share', 'Share with friends'],
      unit=userid
    )

Changing the variable name button_text changes the assignment, since it is used to salt to assignment procedure.

Changing the number of choices for the button_text also affects users previously randomized into other conditions. For example, removing the ‘Share’ item from the choices list, will allocate some users who were previosuly in the ‘Share’ condition to the ‘OK’ and ‘Share with friends group’. Their outcomes will now be a weighted average of the two, which may decrease the observed difference between ‘OK’ and ‘Share with friends’.

If an additional choice were added to choices, some percentage of each prior choice would be allocated to the new choice, whose outcome represents an average of all groups. Comparisons between users still in the old groups (the newly added parameters may be subject to greater novelty effects).

Detecting problems

If you suspect your experiment might have changed, check the salt and checksum fields of your log. If either of these items change, it is likely that your assignments have also changed mid-way through the experiment.

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