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Crowd Sourced Website Quality Assurance
How to get your customers to do the work for you.

by Glen Emerson Morris
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The browser war going on between Chrome and Firefox may be a hit with consumers, but it's sure making life difficult for anyone working in Website quality assurance these days. By the time most companies finished testing Firefox 4.0, 5.0 was already out, along with a beta of 6.0, and an early version of Firefox 7.0. Since each version of the browser needs to be tested on three Windows platforms to make sure the Website appears and functions properly, the total number of combinations needing testing exceeds the resources of most businesses, large or small.

The biggest quality assurance problem facing online advertisers these days isn't making sure their new Websites work. It concerns making sure their current Website works with all the new browsers coming out, and that's not easy. Different browsers tend to draw things differently, and sometimes badly. So browser appearance problems are common. Functionality problems are also common because different browsers handle code somewhat differently, and these days Web pages tend to be full of lots of code.

There are several solutions to the testing issue, most involve paying thousands of dollars to a variety of testing firms. An alternative is the crowd source (aka Tom Sawyer approach) which is to somehow get your customers to do the work for you. It's amazing how well this kind of program can work.

To implement a crowd source (aka free) browser testing program, all you'd have to do would be to recruit a limited number of computer savvy customers, perhaps between 30 and 50, and provide some kind of reward for committing to test the Website every time a new browser comes out. The volunteer testers should be provided with a basic set of steps to navigate through the Website, and a way to report and appearance or functionality issues. The volunteer testers could be rewarded on the basis of number of problems found, with rewards being discounts on company products and services, or promotional items with the company's logo on them.

The best place to start searching for volunteer testers is your company's Website logs and sales records Best customers are always the best testers for functionality issues since they use the functionality of you Website on a regular basis. This familiarity will make them the more likely to notice issues. Appearance testers don't have to be your best customers. They just have to have the right equipment to be able to notice appearance problems on your Website and willing to report them. Websites track what browser and OS a person is logging on with, so you find people to recruit with exactly the browser/OS combinations you need to have tested.

Once you have a list of potential volunteer testers, send them an email or equivalent asking for their help in testing your company's Website. You could also post a notice somewhere on your site asking for volunteers and possibly post a page or two with details about what kinds of problems you want reported.

If you'd like to avoid the work of recruiting volunteer testers you could just add a method for customers to report browser/OS related problems on your Website. It would be nice to have a wiki based system that could allow customers to enter problems into forms that encouraged all the right information was collected form the customer. These days there are bug reporting modules you can add to several of the canned Websites, like Joomla and Drupal. These modules are usually easy to install, and provide a basic framework you can expand on as needed.

It's also possible to have volunteer testers test your Website before it goes live, but that approach is more difficult to pull off. You need to provide the volunteer testers with access to a "test only" version of the new Website, and have password protected access. If this is economically and technically possible, this can be the best option. However, you may get flack from some in the marketing department

Marketing people tend to dislike Website beta programs because they think it exposes a negative image of the company to customers. So does letting a Website go live that has serious problems. With a beta program at least you control the number of customers who see your Website's problem. And it's long been established as an industry best practice.

If you'd like to push the envelope, there are some interesting possibilities emerging in crowd sourced quality assurance.

It's theoretically possible to use Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC), or something like it, for crowd sourced quality assurance. The BOINC system is comprised of a small screensaver people can download and install, and a server that remotely controls the screensaver to let scientists use their computer to process data from experiments. The best know example is the seti@home screensaver designed to for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence in the data from the Arecibo radio telescope. The BOINC system is an extension of seta@home technology.

A system similar to BOINC could be created that would make a great system for running load tests (a load test determines how many simultaneous visitors a Website can handle without being too slow). A company could provide its volunteers test team members with a screensaver that ran load tests. The screensavers would be controlled from the company's server, and load tests run on volunteers computers when in the screensaver mode.

A few years ago a client of mine paid $10,000 for a 30-day rental for LoadRunner with a maximum of 250 simultaneous virtual users. With a system based on the BOINC architecture, you could have as many virtual users as you could recruit. Just 250 volunteer testers could save you $10,000 on a monthly basis. Of course, it could cost thousands to program the software needed to test, but it would prove worth it in the long run. It's also just a matter of time before there are free, open source, crowd sourced quality assurance tools based on the BOINC architecture, as well as other architectures.

Let's hope crowd sourced Website QA tools evolve sooner rather than later. By this time next year there will be a lot more browser/OS combinations to test than there are now, and we're going to need all the help testing we can get.

Glen Emerson Morris was a senior QA Consultant for SAP working on a new product to help automate compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley law, an attempt to make large corporations at least somewhat accountable to stockholders and the law. He has worked as a technology consultant for Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius.

Copyright 1994 - 2011 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved ' keywords: Internet advertising, Internet marketing, business, advertising, Internet, marketing. For more advertising and marketing help, news, resources and information visit our Home Page.

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