Testing: Try again, fail again, fail beta

A habit of lab-style repeat testing and launching unfinished products is one of the key reasons why good technology firms thrive, says Ben Hammersley

Compared to the slow-motion disaster movie that is climate change, crashed sites and sub-optimal apps are problems that we can generally take in our stride – provided we've had our daily caffeine fix and aren't battling a deadline. There is no such thing as a finished digital product, and the most highly regarded applications are not those that never fail, but those that fail gracefully.

Where previously we wanted perfection from the things and services we consumed, now, as we grow used to living in a world where iterative design and Moore's Law dictate that everything is a work in progress, we are increasingly comfortable with the provisional, provided it serves its purpose. That's especially true when, in return for using a digital product at an earlier stage of its development we are asked to contribute our expertise or opinion to the work in progress.

Online everything is beta because the state of perfection is permanently receding on waves of innovation. An app that is adaptable, or that can deliver a soft landing even when it fails, is far more valuable than the perfect-for-a-moment app that lacks the flexibility to cope with whatever is coming down the line next or is late.

As we engineer more and more complex systems from vast amounts of code, we are developing our understanding that, with so many inputs, a consistently optimum outcome is simply impossible. The digital mindset is one that accepts that, in a perfect world, a new application would be perfection itself, but in reality it'll never be better than merely very good. This capacity to be very good, even in non-perfect conditions, does not happen by accident. It has been designed into the app, using the principle of failing gracefully as a guiding light.

Failing gracefully is what occurs when, for example, a website built with a brand-new coding technique is encountered by an old browser that doesn't have the necessary capabilities. No, the browser will not display all the elements of the site, but it will not react by having a hissy fit and crashing; correctly designed, it will cope to the best of its ability, because it has been designed to be flexible.

These are the apps beloved of coders everywhere; the apps that make even their failures look like successes. A clever web designer, too, will ensure that their design itself fails gracefully. Access a series of webpages made with Flash using the browser on the iPad, which has no Flash support, and you can see varying degrees of success at attempts to create designs that still work with the Flash content – pages that fail gracefully.

Failing gracefully is underpinned by a concept that comes as close to being a defining principle of internet design. The maxim "Be liberal in what you accept and conservative in what you send" was coined by Jon Postel, a legendary internet engineer, but he merely put into words what the thousands of architects of the internet put into the network, and the software that runs on it.

Postel argued that the ideal to aspire to was, for example, an email programme that could accept any email, however broken, however corrupt the code, however out of date, and work with it successfully enough to display the message. The emails it generated itself, on the other hand, should be as near to flawless as possible, and it should be working to fix any sub-standard emails received before it sent them on.

Some products and situations lend themselves better to failing gracefully than others. A flawed retail website is one thing, a glitch in a council's website for paying taxes is quite another. Where money or personal safety correlate with digital complexity, even the most exquisitely designed app may not feel trustworthy enough.

We have already seen that the financial industries have created a singularity of complexity with their software, one that is incapable of failing gracefully on a consistent basis. There are other digital products in development that, though they sound exciting, are treated with scepticism by people who know a lot about software design. Take the self-driving car, for example. Google is at the forefront of the development of an autonomous car, though numerous vehicle manufacturers are also working on the concept.

Its exponents claim that mass take-up would slash the number of deaths on the roads, once the pesky fallible humans have been removed from the equation. You wouldn't have to go far to find plenty of software engineers who would raise their eyebrows at this.

It's tempting to imagine a safer road network with fewer poor drivers, but failing gracefully is not a concept that translates easily to a car with no driver, and especially one where you've been tempted to remove the steering wheel. The same reasoning goes to explain the social, if not technical reason behind not having flying cars now that we're living in the future. A flying-car failure would be anything but graceful.

Most of us balk at the potential for disaster suggested by failing technology in such an obviously life-and-death situation, but we already live in a world where countless lives and limitless billions of dollars are dependent on the soft landings engineered by technology workers. And on a more everyday scale, we are evolving away from a natural philosophy of broken versus fixed, or in-progress versus finished.

Even 10 years ago, a new programme would go through closed beta testing in which a small group people would test a new app for flaws and bugs. These days beta tests are often open affairs involving hundreds if not thousands of volunteers. These people sign up to play a game, use a web app, or even read the first draft of a new manual on a programming language, and send their comments and criticisms back.

There might be some risks or frustrations attached to using a product that's essentially still slightly broken, but the users gain access to the latest information or entertainment, and the glow of knowing that they are participating in collaborative work on something that has value to them. And why not: after all, the very good, though it never quite catches up with perfection, keeps on getting better.

This is an edited extract from '64 Things You Need to Know Now for Then' by Ben Hammersley (Hodder & Stoughton). To buy this book at the special price of £16.50 (RRP £20) visit independentbooksdirect.co.uk

Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
Life & Style
life
Arts & Entertainment
Back in the suit: There are only so many variations you can spin on the lives or adventures of Peter Parker
filmReview: Almost every sequence and set-up in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 seems familiar from some earlier superhero film
VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones
tv
Life & Style
Father and son: Michael Williams with son Edmund
lifeAs his son’s bar mitzvah approaches, CofE-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys he’s experienced in learning about his family’s other faith
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Life & Style
Stir it up: the writer gets a lichen masterclass from executive chef Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon restaurants
food + drinkLichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines
Extras
indybest
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
News
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Apprentice IT Technician

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

    1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

    £153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

    Sales Associate Apprentice

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

    Apprentice C# .NET Developer

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We provide business administration softw...

    Day In a Page

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit