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

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
musicOfficial chart could be moved to accommodate Friday international release day
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
News
i100
Sport
Italy celebrate scoring their second try
six nations
Sport
Glenn Murray celebrates scoring against West Ham
footballWest Ham 1 Crystal Palace 3
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

    £35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

    Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

    Ashdown Group: Linux Administrator - London - £50,000

    £45000 - £50000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrator ...

    Ashdown Group: Business Intelligence Analyst - London - £45,000

    £40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: SQL Server Reporting Analyst (Busine...

    Day In a Page

    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower