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Bayesian Experiments

Why Bayesian

Bayesian A/B testing leverages a different statistical framework for A/B testing than the more widely used Frequentist-based statistics. It’s often selected for its simplicity and intuitiveness. Practitioners do not have to deal with the complexities of p-values, null hypotheses, nor unintuitive confidence intervals. Instead, you can make statements like:

We expect a lift in our metric by 10% +/- 5%. Overall, there is a 80% chance that the test variant beats the control variant and if we roll it out, there is risk that we degrade our metric by an expected amount of 0.5.

In contrast, communicating Frequentist AB testing results in a statistically-valid manner is comically quite challenging, and can invoke a double negative statement like:

Because the probability of observing the data under the null hypothesis is lower than 5%, which is unlikely, we can reject null hypothesis and accept the alternative hypothesis that the test variant improves the metric.

Bayesian methods can also make use of prior information to build a probability model for the observed data. Unfortunately, building a useful and robust prior model depends on a lot of factors including the amount of information you have, experimental context, and assumptions you’ve made. This is quite challenging to construct and is often criticized for introducing bias to your experimental results. In many cases, priors are often carefully constructed for single metrics under specific contexts where there is a rich history of prior experimental data (eg. >200 experiments). To deploy Bayesian methods across Statsig’s diverse customer-base and their wide range of metrics, we’ve avoided this by implementing a naive prior model that assumes nothing. This means that even though the results capture the same data, they may end up with the same statistical power as frequentist methods. Yet interpretation is much clearer.

Bayesian Testing in Statsig

Using Bayesian Testing is simple. You can set up the experiment as you would for ordinary AB testing. Then select the Bayesian option under the Advanced Settings of Experiment Setup.


And you are done. Your Pulse results should now be recalculated with new visualizations around Bayesian Testing specific statistics.


Deep dive analysis should also reflect Bayesian statistics


What is supported? Today, we are only supporting normal-normal Bayesian testing setups given its robustness and usage safety. We have plans to increase the set of distribution pairs available on our platform over time.

How we handle priors? To ensure that there is minimal amount of distortion from prior definitions, all our priors are initialized with infinite prior variance. Thus, given observed data,

μposteriorN( μ^  ,  σ^2n  )\mu_{\text{posterior}} \sim N\left(\ \hat{\mu}\ \ , \ \ \frac{\hat{\sigma}^2}{n}\ \ \right)

You may notice that this is effectively the same as a frequentist AB experiment with a t-test. God does not play dice and this elegant reduction is not a coincidence. We currently do not allow our customers to specify their own prior parameters, given the complications described above.

Feedback? We are focused on supporting your success. Let us know how we can improve our product here.

Bayesian A/B Testing Explained

Bayesian A/B Testing leverages a different statistical framework for hypothesis testing than the more widely used (Frequentist) A/B Testing. Even though they capture the same data and in many cases, the same statistical power, the interpretation of the results differ in important ways and require deep understanding to avoid unwittingly falling into traps. To dive into Bayesian testing, we first briefly recap Bayesian statistics.

Imagine you have an unfair coin and your job is to find what is the probability pp that this coin lands on its head. The coin is thus a random variable following a Bernoulli distribution over two possible states, {0,1}\{0,1\}, ie. XcoinBern(p)X_{\text{coin}} \sim \text{Bern}(p). In Bayesian terminology, this is the likelihood.

The frequentist approach of estimating pp is fairly obvious — you start with no assumptions, flip it a lot of times (say nn times), and take a ratio between the number of heads and the number of flips. This sample average, p^=num of headsnum of flips\hat{p} = \frac{\text{num of heads}}{\text{num of flips}}, is thus an estimator of the true value of pp.

The Bayesian approach however allows you to start with some preconceived notion of what pp is, and since you don’t have perfect information about what it is, we allow it to be a probability distribution, ppriorBθp_{\text{prior}} \sim B_\theta, parameterized by θ\theta (for eg. a beta distribution with the parameters θ=(α,β)\theta = (\alpha, \beta)). When you flip the coin nn times again, you have new information on the coin and thus can update your beliefs of what pp is. The way we do this leverages the Bayes Rule:

P( p=pk  p^ )=P( pk  p^ )P(p^ )=P( pk   p^ )piP( p^  pi )=P( p^  pk)  P(pk)piP( p^  p=pi )  P( p=pi )P(\ p = p_k \ |\ \hat{p}\ ) = \frac{P(\ p_k\ \cap\ \hat{p}\ ) }{P(\hat{p}\ ) } = \frac{P(\ p_k\ \ \cap\ \hat{p}\ ) }{\sum_{\forall p_i} P(\ \hat{p}\ \cap\ p_i\ )} = \frac{P(\ \hat{p} \ | \ p_k)\ \cdot\ P(p_k) }{\sum_{\forall p_i} P(\ \hat{p} \ |\ p = p_i\ ) \ \cdot \ P(\ p = p_i\ ) }

In other words, given the new observations in the sample, p^\hat{p}, we can calculate the updated probability of the true value of pp being pkp_k, ie. the posterior probability distribution It is the probability of the event that both p=pkp=p_k and p^\hat{p} being observed, divided by the probability of p^\hat{p} being observed across all possible values of pp. Statisticians often visualize this rule using the area in a Venn Diagram.


The denominator in the equation is the marginal probability of p^\hat{p}. Unfortunately, this can be devilishly hard to compute depending on how the likelihood and the prior distribution (in this case, the Bern(p)\text{Bern}(p) and BθB_\theta distributions) interact. Since the distribution of the event depends on the real-world effects, the common practice to choose convenient distributions, also known as conjugate priors, to model your prior beliefs. There is a full list of such priors — and we’ve sneakily used one above, since the beta distribution is the conjugate of a Bernoulli random variable. An especially powerful setup is the Normal-Normal conjugate pair with known variance σ\sigma, where the likelihood is defined XN(μ,σ)X \sim N(\mu, \sigma) and the prior distribution is μpriorN(μ0,σ0)\mu_{\text{prior}} \sim N(\mu_0, \sigma_0). This adequately models most real world phenomenons due to the central limit theorem, and allows us a quick and intuitive way for us to update our view for new observations:

Given observed sample mean μ^=1nXi  ,  μposteriorN(  11σ02+nσ2(μ0σ02+nμ^σ2)  ,  11σ02+nσ2  )\text{Given observed sample mean } \hat{\mu} = \frac{1}{n} \sum X_i \ \ , \ \ \mu_{\text{posterior}} \sim N\left(\ \ \frac{1}{\frac{1}{\sigma_0^2} + \frac{n}{\sigma^2}}\left(\frac{\mu_0}{\sigma_0^2} + \frac{n\hat{\mu}}{\sigma^2}\right) \ \ , \ \ \frac{1}{\frac{1}{\sigma_0^2} + \frac{n}{\sigma^2}}\ \ \right)

In essence, the new posterior mean is a scaled sum of the prior mean and the observed mean, with scaling factors being the prior variance, the (known) likelihood variance and the number of samples taken. The standard deviation terms σ0\sigma_0 and σ\sigma signify the relative level of “conviction” between your prior belief and the data you’ve observed. A quick note here: even though we philosophically assume that we know the likelihood’s variance term σ\sigma, we don’t in real life and simply approximate it using the sample variance, ie. σ2σ^2 :=1ni(xiμ^)2\sigma^2 \approx \hat{\sigma}^2\ := \frac{1}{n} \sum_i (x_i - \hat{\mu})^2.

So that’s Bayesian statistics. How does this apply to AB testing? We simply start with a prior, then collect data across the variants, updating a posterior for each variant. For instance, with 2 variants, Test and Control, we calculate the posterior distributions, TT and CC. We can then calculating the Bayesian testing statistics as follows. Define Δ=TC\Delta = T-C random variable of the difference between TT and CC, which is also a normally distributed random variable.

  • Treatment Lift :=μtμcμc:= \frac{\mu_t - \mu_c}{\mu_c}
  • 95% Credible Interval :=[αμc,βμc]:= \left[\frac{\alpha}{\mu_c},\frac{\beta}{\mu_c}\right] where α,βR:P( α<Δ<β )>95%\alpha, \beta \in \mathbb{R}: P(\ \alpha < \Delta < \beta\ ) > 95\%
  • Expected Loss :=Exp[ Δ  Δ<0 ]P(Δ<0):= \text{Exp}[\ \Delta\ |\ \Delta < 0 \ ] \cdot P(\Delta < 0)
  • Chance to Beat :=P(Δ>0):= P(\Delta > 0)

At first glance, Bayesian testing seems simple and intuitive. However, the simplicity is deceptive. We’ve actually swept an enormous amount of complexity under the rug — the entire method is extremely sensitive to the choice of priors. What is the correct prior distribution to use? Given the choice of prior distributions, how do you model the prior distribution parameters (in this case, μ0,σ0\mu_0, \sigma_0)? These assumptions can dramatically affect the results. In fact, the leading scientific publication, Nature, recently published guidelines on what is required when using Bayesian testing, in which they warned:

Because the posterior distribution can sometimes depend strongly on the choice of prior distribution, a key part of reporting priors is justifying the choice. That is, it is not sufficient merely to state what prior was used, there must be a rationale for the prior. Two further steps are involved in justifying a prior: a prior predictive check and a sensitivity analysis.

A widely used method to satisfy this standard is Markov Chain Monte Carlo simulations, via techniques such as Metropolis-Hasting or Gibbs Sampling. More details can be found in this awesome blog post here. But for practical use, this can be too much unnecessary complexity for most companies and is generally only employed at the largest scales by companies like Meta, Amazon and others.

With this in mind, we’ve designed Statsig’s Bayesian Testing functionality to as useful as possible without unwittingly leading customers to dangerous waters.

Related: Try our new Bayesian A/B testing calculator.