Commit to Software Quality to Better Serve Web-Savvy Citizens
The Internet has opened the doors for state and federal government agencies to offer a vast array of services to the masses. Need up-to-date tourism information? Want to register a personal aircraft? How about registering to vote? All of these things can be done online. While each application may be unique, all must have something in common to be successful: a clear commitment to software quality.
Outside of the financial sector, most Web-based applications do not put enough emphasis on software quality. If a bug is found, the sentiment goes, it can usually be fixed quickly, so why put hundreds of hours of extra quality assurance (QA) effort into the site?
Web-based applications are clearly a cost-effective way to reach the public, but designing and building an application for widespread use also presents a number of distinct challenges. Privacy, security, and accuracy are all major issues to be addressed when creating a general-purpose application. How does one ensure that all segments of the population can use the application effectively? Some users will have older operating systems and browsers, while others may use the latest hand-held wireless devices.
Government agencies have recognized this, of course, and many have adopted techniques to deliver successful projects. They know that handling thousands of support calls each month is a sure way to eat up Internet cost savings. Being smarter about developing and deploying user-friendly Web-based applications, therefore, is the key to success.
User-friendly Web sites will indicate up front that a distinct number of steps must be completed and will even number those steps along the way. Limiting the number of functions available on a page is also helpful, especially in the middle of a multi-step process.
For the general public, convenience is key. The more that can be done to make things easier for users, the more successful an application will be.
Clear, detailed specifications are the starting point for all high-quality software. Professional quality assurance (QA) personnel can help shore up weak or vague requirements. It is important that all parameters be testable to find out whether particular actions yield desired results. Having solid, definable specifications will also let the test team know when its work is done.
Users should know exactly what can and cannot be accomplished on a particular site. They should also know ahead of time what information will be required of them. There’s nothing more frustrating then going through a 10-step process and finding out during the ninth step that a serial number or other information—which may not be handy— is needed.
Many government application forms can only be completed partially via the Web. If, upon completion of the application process, a particular document must be mailed to users rather than printed out from their computers, this should be made clear. Users should be informed in advance.
Perhaps there are no receipts for particular Web-based transactions, or certain types of users must apply or register in person. Exceptions such as these should be noted so that users are not disappointed by what they perceive as limitations to on-line services.
Keep Up Quality Efforts
General purpose, Web-based applications with broad deployment demand the best possible quality assurance services. The public needs to have confidence when conducting government business online. QA professionals provide a proven methodology and have the depth of experience to ensure that test coverage is complete and accurate. Many times, due to budget or time constraints, the QA effort is substantially reduced, but professional QA services will almost always save the project money in the long term.
Broaden User Base
When an application will be used by a wide-ranging audience, it is imperative that an entity test as many common environments as possible. Macintosh computer owners, while comprising significantly less than 10 percent of the market, nonetheless account for millions of users nationwide. In addition, many households still run older versions of Windows and outdated Web browsers.
Ideally, agencies would support as many households as possible but shouldn’t go out of their way to support systems older than five years. Users of dated systems are probably having Web usability problems already, and supporting them is just too costly.
Tackle Time Delays
Stress testing Web-based applications can help to find subtle errors in an application that might otherwise go undetected. In addition, solid stress testing will ensure that a site can handle the anticipated volume of visitors in a reasonable manner. If an application takes too long to respond to user input, many may give up in frustration, thinking that it is not working at all.
Most government applications require lookups or validation from large databases. These must be handled correctly so that users under-stand what’s happening. Routine delays of 10 seconds may aggravate some users, while delays of 30 seconds or more will cause others to give up altogether.
Consumers expect online government services to work properly and to be available at all times. The cost savings for providing government services online can be eaten away by technical support calls if the service is not properly designed, implemented, and tested. Plus, the loss of consumer good will in such a situation is immeasurable. Imagine the letdown of users who are eager to use an online government service rather than drive an hour each way and wait in line, only to find out that the online service doesn’t work properly and a trip has to be made, after all.
Done correctly, professional testing can reduce an organization’s support calls by up to 50 percent. Fixing system defects after release can be as much as 200 times more costly and may leave many online users too frustrated to bother returning.
Editor’s note: John Fox is Vice President of SWAT Solutions, a provider of software quality assurance services.
For more information, visit www.govinfo.bz/4205-151.