When to Do Bandit Tests Instead of A/B Tests

When do you have to use bandit checks, and when is A/B/n testing finest?

Although there are some robust proponents (and opponents) of bandit testing, there are specific use instances the place bandit testing could also be optimum. Query is, when?

First, let’s dive into bandit testing and speak a bit concerning the historical past of the N-armed bandit downside.

What’s the multi-armed bandit downside?

The multi-armed bandit problem is a basic thought experiment.

In a scenario the place a set, finite quantity of sources have to be divided between conflicting (various) choices so as to maximize every occasion’s anticipated achieve.

Think about this situation:

You’re in a on line casino. There are various totally different slot machines (often known as ‘one-armed bandits,’ as they’re recognized for robbing you), every with a lever (and arm, if you’ll). You assume that some slot machines payout extra often than others do, so that you’d like to maximise this.

You solely have a restricted quantity of sources—for those who pull one arm, then you definitely’re not pulling another arm. After all, the aim is to stroll out of the on line casino with essentially the most cash. Query is, how do you be taught which slot machine is the most effective and get essentially the most cash within the shortest period of time?

In the event you knew which lever would pay out essentially the most, you’ll simply pull that lever all day. With reference to optimization, the purposes of this downside are apparent. As Andrew Anderson stated in an Adobe article:

Andrew Anderson

Andrew Anderson:
“In an excellent world, you’ll already know all potential values, have the ability to intrinsically name the worth of every motion, after which apply all of your sources in the direction of that one motion that causes you the best return (a grasping motion). Sadly, that isn’t the world we dwell in, and the issue lies after we permit ourselves that delusion. The issue is that we have no idea the worth of every consequence, and as such want to maximise our potential of that discovery.”

What’s bandit testing?

Bandit testing is a testing strategy that makes use of algorithms to optimize your conversion goal whereas the experiment continues to be operating reasonably than after it has completed.

The sensible variations between A/B testing and bandit testing

A/B cut up testing is the present default for optimization, and you realize what it seems to be like:

Standard A/B testing illustration.

You ship 50% of your site visitors to the management and 50% of your site visitors to variation, run the take a look at ‘til it’s legitimate, after which resolve whether or not to implement the successful variation.


In statistical phrases, A/B testing consists of a brief interval of pure exploration, the place you’re randomly assigning equal numbers of customers to Model A and Model B. It then jumps into an extended interval of pure exploitation, the place you ship 100% of your customers to the extra profitable model of your website.

In Bandit Algorithms for Website Optimization, the creator outlines two issues with this:

  • It jumps discretely from exploration to exploitation, whenever you would possibly have the ability to transition extra easily.
  • Throughout the exploratory section (the take a look at), it wastes sources exploring inferior choices so as to collect as a lot information as potential.

In essence, the distinction between bandit testing and a/b/n testing is how they take care of the explore-exploit dilemma.

As I discussed, A/B testing explores first then exploits (retains solely winner).

Bandit testing tries to resolve the explore-exploit downside differently. As an alternative of two distinct durations of pure exploration and pure exploitation, bandit checks are adaptive, and concurrently embody exploration and exploitation.

So, bandit algorithms attempt to decrease alternative prices and decrease remorse (the distinction between your precise payoff and the payoff you’ll have collected had you performed the optimum—finest—choices at each alternative). Matt Gershoff from Conductrics wrote a fantastic weblog submit discussing bandits. Right here’s what he had to say:

Matt Gershoff

Matt Gershoff:

“Some wish to name it incomes whereas studying. You’ll want to each be taught so as to work out what works and what doesn’t, however to earn; you make the most of what you’ve realized. That is what I actually like concerning the Bandit method of wanting on the downside, it highlights that gathering information has an actual value, by way of alternatives misplaced.”

Chris Stucchio from VWO affords the next clarification of bandits:


Chris Stucchio:

“Anytime you’re confronted with the issue of each exploring and exploiting a search house, you’ve a bandit downside. Any methodology of fixing that downside is a bandit algorithm—this contains A/B testing. The aim in any bandit downside is to keep away from sending site visitors to the decrease performing variations. Just about each bandit algorithm you examine on the web (major exceptions being adversarial bandit, my jacobi diffusion bandit, and a few leap course of bandits) makes a number of mathematical assumptions:

a) Conversion charges don’t change over time.
b) Displaying a variation and observing a conversion occur instantaneously. This implies the next timeline is inconceivable: 12:00 Customer A sees Variation 1. 12:01 customer B sees Variation 2. 12:02 Customer A converts.
c) Samples within the bandit algorithm are unbiased of one another.

A/B testing is a reasonably strong algorithm when these assumptions are violated. A/B testing doesn’t care a lot if conversion charges change over the take a look at interval, i.e. if Monday is totally different from Saturday, simply be sure that your take a look at has the identical variety of Mondays and Saturdays and you’re wonderful. Equally, so long as your take a look at interval is lengthy sufficient to seize conversions, once more—it’s all good.”

In essence, there shouldn’t be an ‘A/B testing vs. bandit testing, which is healthier?’ debate, as a result of it’s comparing apples to oranges. These two methodologies serve two totally different wants.

Advantages of bandit testing

The primary query to reply, earlier than answering when to make use of bandit checks, is why to make use of bandit checks. What are the benefits?

After they had been nonetheless accessible (previous to August 2019), Google Content Experiments used bandit algorithms. They used to reason that the benefits of bandits are plentiful:

They’re extra environment friendly as a result of they transfer site visitors in the direction of successful variations steadily, as a substitute of forcing you to attend for a “last reply” on the finish of an experiment. They’re quicker as a result of samples that will have gone to clearly inferior variations will be assigned to potential winners. The additional information collected on the high-performing variations may also help separate the “good” arms from the “finest” ones extra shortly.

Matt Gershoff outlined 3 causes it is best to care about bandits in a post on his company blog (paraphrased):

  1. Earn whilst you be taught. Knowledge assortment is a price, and bandit strategy at the least lets us take into account these prices whereas operating optimization tasks.
  2. Automation. Bandits are the pure solution to automate the choice optimization with machine studying, particularly when making use of person goal—since right A/B checks are rather more sophisticated in that scenario.
  3. A altering world. Matt explains that by letting the bandit methodology all the time depart some likelihood to pick the poorer performing choice, you give it an opportunity to ‘rethink’ the choice effectiveness. It gives a working framework for swapping out low performing choices with contemporary choices, in a steady course of.

In essence, individuals like bandit algorithms due to the sleek transition between exploration and exploitation, the velocity, and the automation.

A number of flavors of bandit methodology

There are tons of various bandit strategies. Like a variety of debates round testing, a variety of that is of secondary significance—misses the forest for the bushes.

With out getting too caught up within the nuances between strategies, I’ll clarify the only (and commonest) methodology: the epsilon-greedy algorithm. Understanding this can mean you can perceive the broad strokes of what bandit algorithms are.

Epsilon-greedy methodology

One technique that has been proven to carry out effectively time after time in sensible issues is the epsilon-greedy methodology. We all the time preserve monitor of the variety of pulls of the lever and the quantity of rewards we’ve acquired from that lever. 10% of the time, we select a lever at random. The opposite 90% of the time, we select the lever that has the very best expectation of rewards. (source)

Okay, so what do I imply by grasping? In laptop science, a grasping algorithm is one which all the time takes the motion that appears finest at that second. So, an epsilon-greedy algorithm is sort of a completely grasping algorithm—more often than not it picks the choice that is smart at that second.

Nevertheless, each infrequently, an epsilon-greedy algorithm chooses to discover the opposite accessible choices.

So epsilon-greedy is a continuing play between:

  • Discover: randomly choose motion sure p.c of time (say 20%);
  • Exploit (play grasping): decide the present finest p.c of time (say 80%).

This picture (and the article from which it came) explains epsilon-greedy rather well:

There are some execs and cons to the epsilon-greedy methodology. Execs embody:

  • It’s easy and simple to implement.
  • It’s normally efficient.
  • It’s not as affected by seasonality.

Some cons:

  • It doesn’t use a measure of variance.
  • Do you have to lower exploration over time?

What about different algorithms?

Like I stated, a bunch of different bandit strategies attempt to clear up these cons in several methods. Listed below are a number of:

Might write 15,000 phrases on this, however as a substitute, simply know the underside line is that each one the opposite strategies are merely attempting to finest stability exploration (studying) with exploitation (taking motion primarily based on present finest info).

Matt Gershoff sums it up rather well:

Matt Gershoff

Matt Gershoff:

“Sadly, just like the Bayesian vs Frequentist arguments in AB testing, it seems to be like that is one other space the place the analytics group would possibly get lead astray into dropping the forest for the bushes. At Conductrics, we make use of and take a look at a number of totally different bandit approaches. Within the digital atmosphere, we wish to make sure that no matter strategy is used, that it’s strong to nonstationary information. That implies that even when we use Thompson sampling, a UCB methodology, or Boltzmann strategy, we all the time wish to mix in a little bit of the epsilon-greedy strategy, to make sure that the system doesn’t early converge to a sub-optimal answer. By deciding on a random subset, we are also ready to make use of this information to run a meta A/B Take a look at, that lets the consumer see the raise related to utilizing bandits + focusing on.”

Be aware: if you wish to nerd out on the totally different bandit algorithms, it is a good paper to check out.

When to make use of bandit checks as a substitute of A/B/n checks?

There’s a excessive degree reply, after which there are some particular circumstances during which bandit works effectively. For the excessive degree reply, if in case you have a analysis query the place you wish to perceive the impact of a remedy and have some certainty round your estimates, a typical A/B take a look at experiment can be finest.

In line with Matt Gershoff, “If then again, you truly care about optimization, reasonably than understanding, bandits are sometimes the best way to go.”

Particularly, bandit algorithms are inclined to work effectively for actually brief checks—and paradoxically—actually lengthy checks (ongoing checks). I’ll cut up up the use instances into these two teams.

1. Brief checks

Bandit algorithms are conducive for brief checks for clear causes—for those who had been to run a basic A/B take a look at as a substitute, you’d not even have the ability to benefit from the interval of pure exploitation (after the experiment ended). As an alternative, bandit algorithms mean you can alter in actual time and ship extra site visitors, extra shortly, to the higher variation. As Chris Stucchio says, “Every time you’ve a small period of time for each exploration and exploitation, use a bandit algorithm.”

Listed below are particular use instances inside brief checks:

a. Headlines

Headlines are the proper use case for bandit algorithms. Why would you run a basic A/B take a look at on a headline if, by the point you be taught which variation is finest, the time the place the reply is relevant is over? Information has a brief half-life, and bandit algorithms decide shortly which is the higher headline.

Chris Stucchio used the same instance on his Bayesian Bandits post. Think about you’re a newspaper editor. It’s not a sluggish day; a homicide sufferer has been discovered. Your reporter has to resolve between two headlines, “Homicide sufferer present in grownup leisure venue” and “Headless Body in Topless Bar.” As Chris says, geeks now rule the world—that is now normally an algorithmic choice, not an editorial one. (Additionally, that is probably how websites like Upworthy and BuzzFeed do it).

b. Brief time period campaigns and promotions

Much like headlines, there’s an enormous alternative value for those who select to A/B take a look at. In case your marketing campaign is per week lengthy, you don’t wish to spend the week exploring with 50% of your site visitors, as a result of when you be taught something, it’s too late to use the most suitable choice.

That is very true with holidays and seasonal promotions. Stephen Pavlovich from recommends bandits for brief time period campaigns:

stephen pavlovich

Stephen Pavlovich:

“A/B testing isn’t that helpful for short-term campaigns. In the event you’re operating checks on an ecommerce website for Black Friday, an A/B take a look at isn’t that sensible—you would possibly solely be assured within the end result on the finish of the day. As an alternative, a MAB will drive extra site visitors to the better-performing variation—and that in flip can improve income.”

2. Lengthy-term testing

Oddly sufficient, bandit algorithms are efficient in long run (or ongoing) testing. As Stephen Pavlovich put it:

stephen pavlovich

Stephen Pavlovich:
“A/B checks additionally fall brief for ongoing checks—specifically, the place the take a look at is continually evolving. Suppose you’re operating a information website, and also you wish to decide the most effective order to show the highest 5 sports activities tales in. A MAB framework can mean you can set it and neglect. In truth, Yahoo! truly revealed a paper on how they used MAB for content material suggestion, again in 2009.”

There are a number of totally different use instances inside ongoing testing as effectively:

a. “Set it and neglect it” (automation for scale)

As a result of bandits routinely shift site visitors to increased performing (on the time) variations, you’ve a low-risk answer for steady optimization. Right here’s how Matt Gershoff put it:

Matt Gershoff

Matt Gershoff:

“Bandits can be utilized for ‘automation for scale.’ Say you have many elements to constantly optimize, the bandit strategy offers you a framework to partially automate the optimization course of for low threat, excessive transaction issues which might be too expensive to have costly analysts pour over”

Ton Wesseling additionally mentions that bandits will be nice for testing on excessive site visitors pages after studying from A/B checks:

ton wesseling

Ton Wesseling:

“Simply give some variations to a bandit and let it run. Preferable you employ a contextual bandit. Everyone knows the proper web page for everybody doesn’t exist, it differs per section. The bandit will present the absolute best variation to every section.”

b. Focusing on

One other long run use of bandit algorithms is focusing on—which is particularly pertinent in terms of serving specific ads and content to user sets. As Matt Gershoff put it:

Matt Gershoff

Matt Gershoff:

“Actually, true optimization is extra of an project downside than a testing downside. We wish to be taught the principles that assign the most effective experiences to every buyer. We will clear up this utilizing what’s often known as a contextual bandit (or, alternatively, a reinforcement learning agent with function approximation). The bandit is beneficial right here as a result of some kinds of customers could also be extra widespread than others. The bandit can make the most of this, by making use of the realized focusing on guidelines sooner for extra widespread customers, whereas persevering with to be taught (experiment) on the principles for the much less widespread person varieties.”

Ton additionally talked about that you could be taught from contextual bandits:

ton wesseling

Ton Wesseling:

“By placing your A/B take a look at in a contextual bandit with segments you bought from information analysis, you can see out if sure content material is necessary for sure segments and never for others. That’s very useful—you need to use these insights to optimize the shopper journey for each section. This may be completed with wanting into segments after an A/B take a look at too, nevertheless it’s much less time consuming to let the bandit do the work.”

Additional studying: A Contextual-Bandit Approach to Personalized News Article Recommendation

c. Mixing Optimization with Attribution

Lastly, bandits can be utilized to optimize issues throughout a number of contact factors. This communication between bandits ensures that they’re working collectively to optimize the worldwide downside and maximize outcomes. Matt Gershoff offers the next instance:

Matt Gershoff

Matt Gershoff:
“You possibly can consider Reinforcement Studying as a number of bandit issues that talk with one another to make sure that they’re all working collectively to seek out the most effective combos throughout all the contact factors. For instance, we’ve had purchasers that positioned a product supply bandit on their website’s house web page and one of their name heart’s automated telephone system. Primarily based on the gross sales conversions on the name heart, each bandits communicated native outcomes to make sure that they’re working in concord optimize the worldwide downside.”

Caveats: potential drawbacks of bandit testing

Despite the fact that there are tons of weblog posts with slightly sensationalist titles, there are some things to contemplate earlier than leaping on the bandit bandwagon.

First, multi-armed-bandits will be troublesome to implement. As Shana Carp stated on a thread:

MAB is far rather more computationally troublesome to tug off except you realize what you’re doing. The purposeful value of doing it’s mainly the price of three engineers—a knowledge scientist, one regular man to place into code and scale the code of what the info scientist says, and one dev-ops particular person. (Although the final two may most likely play double in your staff.) It’s actually uncommon to seek out information scientists who program extraordinarily effectively.

The second factor, although I’m unsure it’s an enormous difficulty, is the time it takes to achieve significance. As Paras Chopra pointed out, “There’s an inverse relationship (and therefore a tradeoff) between how quickly you see statistical significance and common conversion charge throughout the marketing campaign.”

Chris Stucchio additionally outlined what he called the Saturday/Tuesday problem. Principally, think about you’re operating a take a look at on two headlines:

  1. Completely satisfied Monday! Click on right here to purchase now.
  2. What an attractive day! Click on right here to purchase now.

Then suppose you run a bandit algorithm, beginning on Monday:

  • Monday: 1,000 shows for “Completely satisfied Monday,” 200 conversions. 1,000 shows for “Lovely Day,” 100 conversions.
  • Tuesday: 1,900 shows for “Completely satisfied Monday,” 100 conversions. 100 shows for “Lovely Day,” 10 conversions.
  • Wednesday: 1,900 shows for “Completely satisfied Monday,” 100 conversions. 100 shows for “Lovely Day,” 10 conversions.
  • Thursday: 1,900 shows for “Completely satisfied Monday,” 100 conversions. 100 shows for “Lovely Day,” 10 conversions.

Despite the fact that “Completely satisfied Monday” is inferior (20% conversion charge on Monday and 5% remainder of the week = 7.1% conversion charge), the bandit algorithm has virtually converged to “Completely satisfied Monday, ” so the samples proven “Lovely Day” may be very low. It takes a variety of information to right this.

(Be aware: A/B/n checks have the identical downside non-stationary information. That’s why it is best to take a look at for full weeks.)

Chris additionally talked about that bandits shouldn’t be used for e-mail blasts:


Chris Stucchio:
“One crucial notice—e-mail blasts are a reasonably poor use case for normal bandits. The issue is that with e-mail, conversions can occur lengthy after a show happens—you would possibly ship out hundreds of emails earlier than you see the primary conversion. This violates the belief underlying most bandit algorithms.”


Andrew Anderson summed it up rather well in a Quora answer:

Andrew Anderson

Andrew Anderson:

“On the whole bandit-ased optimization can produce far superior outcomes to common A/B testing, nevertheless it additionally highlights organizational issues extra. You’re handing over all choice making to a system. A system is just as robust as its weakest factors and the weakest factors are going to be the biases that dictate the inputs to the system and the lack to know or hand over all choice making to the system. In case your group can deal with this then it’s a nice transfer, but when it will probably’t, then you definitely usually tend to trigger extra issues then they’re worse. Like all good instrument, you employ it for the conditions the place it will probably present essentially the most worth, and never in ones the place it doesn’t. Each strategies have their place and over reliance on anyone results in large limits within the consequence generated to your group.”

As talked about above, the conditions the place bandit testing appears to flourish are:

  • Headlines and short-term campaigns;
  • Automation for scale;
  • Focusing on;
  • Mixing optimization with attribution.

Any questions, simply ask within the feedback!

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