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Smart phone apps can make the user feel dumb

Is usability testing prior to release a lost art for smart phone software?  This is a big month for new phone launches -- first Nokia and Microsoft, then iPhone, then Android. Wonder how well they'll all work? Here’s an arcane little item from a now-dated phone: If you accidentally or on purpose double tap the Home symbol on a Droid 2, the device thinks you want to speak and so a female voice barks at you "PLEASE say a command." (This is with the phone set on silent.)  Arrgghh. The fix, after slogging around the Droid forums, is of course obvious, if you know where to look: remap the double tap on home to do something else, like launch a browser. Of course, why didn't I think of that? Thanks to the Internet, a stupid and obscure flaw that baffles the user (see those Internet posts dating back a few years) has a stupid fix. Meantime, until you find that fix, your device starts talking cheerfully and insistently from a purse or at a hushed banquet table – “PLEASE SAY A COMMAND!” while you look around embarrassed and a bit terrified, trying to turn the phone off, pull the battery, anything but the phone speaking when you called for silence. PLEASE, you just want it to shut up. This irritation has even spawned an app called HomeSmack to overcome this flaw.  Perfect. And how charmingly-named.

Observe a conundrum today – speed to market trumps quality.  New phones are popping up like weeds and so too, the apps to make the phone look useful. Documentation and how-to manuals are so retro, such an afterthought, unnoticed by phone buyers. Instead, user experience – that’s users telling other users – trumps anything the vendor doesn't bother to say.  I am clearly not the only person trolling the Droid forums trying to understand anomalies about my phone.  And that is no anomaly – the user manual for the iPad (iOS 5), which you can read on your iPad, is 144 pages. Bet you didn’t know there WAS a user manual – and if you did, would you read it? Are app designers reading thoughtful suggestions for designing apps? This guide, dated 2010, was dictated but not read: "There’s no substitute for a real user interface designer — ideally one who’s well-versed in mobile and Android, and ideally handy with both interaction and visual design…Two problems that currently plague Android user interfaces are small tap targets and overly small font sizes.” No kidding.

So poorly designed products proliferate and forums help hapless users mop up. New operating system versions with cutsy names (Ice Cream Sandwich?) and charmingly titled apps (I'm Good at Sports?) arrive at a relentless pace.  Ahhh, but what’s an app, anyway? Apparently it’s what you must launch in a hurry, chasing those other speedy launchers. Long, long ago, in a land far, far, away, new programmers proudly started out producing a display of 'Hello World!' before they want on to write code that performed real tasks – you know, like take an order and relieve inventory, calculate optimal bus routes, trace a circuit board design.  These 'apps' were buggy at first, of course, but they were typically NOT RELEASED until at least a round of scripted testing had occurred – then, it was just crazy, usability testing followed, the most minimal of which would include touching every icon or key combination. That is all gone with the wind speed of new "app" launches, good stuff, like MY DRYCLEANER MOBILE and Simply Noise generators. On the other hand, of course, since these so-called apps cost and do virtually nothing, how buggy can they (or their underpinning operating system) really be?  PLEASE SAY A COMMAND.

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This is nothing more than a carry over from the days of dumb terminals and mainframes. Management doesn't want to invest the time in testing because it takes time and time = cost which means less profit.

As a program manager in another life (think 370, VAX, etc), I spent my life testing because most people don't want to do it or are sloppy about doing it. It's tedious and repetitive. Everybody thought regression testing was the way to go but many times it generated ridiculous results. I repeat it takes time and time = cost which means. . . you get the idea.

Maybe we have hit on something. Seniors have the knowledge. Let the companies go to senior communities and get them to help with testing. Most people in these areas understand the need to take time and be thorough. We can learn the technology.

Just make the buttons big enough as I am only 65 but I still have trouble making my fat fingers hit the little spots. I sit here typing on an antique laptop with a nice big mouse next to me but a pencil with an eraser on the end works great on my 3rd hand cell phone with a touch pad. Yes. . .he tests his own equipment since manuals don't exist any more. . . but that is a story for another time.

I can't speak for other platforms, but yes, usability testing is nonexistent for the iPhone/iPad, because Apple won't permit beta testing for some unknown reason. That means we all end up as guinea pigs for all of the apps produced. It's incredibly frustrating, especially when a previously trusted and relied-upon app gets mangled by a new version.

It's actually quite frustrating for the app developers, too, who know all too well what the real world consequences of releasing buggy software are, but their hands are tied.


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