Amazon and the hazards of inadequate app testing

Amazon quietly updated its app last week and confessed that its iOS shopping cart would freeze when a shopper tries to switch between apps

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Mobile app complexity is seriously tricky, as Amazon can attest. On Thursday (Oct. 13), the e-tailer quietly updated its app and confessed that its iOS shopping cart would freeze when a shopper tries to switch between apps. It makes one wonder how extensive mobile app testing is these days when this kind of glitch can get by the usually competent folk of Amazon app teams.

After all, it's hardly a wildly unlikely scenario. "Who could have predicted that iPhone users would ever switch between apps on their phone while shopping?" is not quite the defense an app developer wants to offer to an angry manager.

In Amazon's defense, mobile app interference is getting hard to avoid. A team that tests their app against the latest iOS or Android mobile OS has every reason to fear that the OS will update, with no notice, shortly after the app is launched. On the iOS side, Apple doesn't even widely brief its own people about what will be in a new OS update. On the Android side, OS updates may never reach many customers at all thanks to the open and decentralized nature of Android.

Beyond the OS, coders have to worry about interference from other apps, and especially from helper apps. Let's not forget that Starbucks' mobile app started revealing its passwords in plain text when a popular crash analytics tool surreptitiously grabbed the data. Or that Walmart's iOS mobile app started losing control of its most sensitive data, which was captured by the seemingly benign iTunes backup mechanism.

Some of this is beyond any reasonable controls set by developers, given that mobile users can collectively download tens of thousands of apps in millions of different combinations. But I am concerned that even the likely scenarios are not being tested.

How many companies bother anymore with alpha and beta releases of all app updates before launching? Indeed, the companies that most need to do that exercise — the ones with the least loyal customers — are the ones that seem to not even try. Amazon has a relatively loyal following, so I would guess that most shoppers who were bedeviled by this app-switch glitch just launched the app again to try anew. And possibly call Amazon's very easy-to-reach customer service to flag the problem.

But what if this kind of problem involves an app for, let's say, a startup apparel site that a shopper has just heard of? Such a person is likely to uninstall the app and shop somewhere else — and could easily decide to avoid that site entirely. Daily reports about various app malware flooding mobile make users nervous and slightly reluctant to download unknown apps — and 50 times more willing to delete an app after the slightest problem. A crashing app may, to the nervous, signal possible malware.

So app developers take note: Unless your users are madly in love with your company, spend more time in app testing — or suffer Amazon's pain.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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