While I can’t speak for other web designers, nothing quite strikes fear into my heart like the word ‘testing’. From whole days lost to cross-browser testing in BrowserStack; to the infinite feedback loop of bug snagging problems here and there that ultimately cause more issues down the line in an endless game of cat and mouse where the players setting the traps are past versions of yourself.
“Testing, testing—1, 2, 3. Is this thing on?”
Testing is the worst. I find it to be the longest, most painful phase of the entire design process—even with the new plethora of toys we have to help. Granted, some testing can be massively rewarding, like a series of logic puzzles to which we must deduce the most efficient solutions. But testing in general is bigger than that, and quite often somebody has stolen the page with the answers on. It’s a guessing game where we try and figure out every possible way our beautifully designed website will fail and then work backwards from there.
You don’t need me to tell you that the last few years have seen a paradigm shift in the way we contextualise the web. As it has been reframed from its 960px fixed-width desktop view and set free into countless new mobile devices, games consoles and wearable accessories. This, of course, is fantastic for the human race as access to information has never been faster, easier nor cheaper and the barriers to entry are constantly being lowered as Moore’s law holds up true. Yet it’s a little bit of a nightmare for us, we are the information architects tasked with the responsibility of feeding these hungry new contexts, and along with these new contexts come the added possibility and exponentially increasing probability of problems. Mo’ problems, mo’ testing.
All this begs the question: “how do we actually test websites for every possible use-case?” And the honest answer is: we can’t. But we can do our best to try. Try and cover as many bases as possible. Sure we can use emulator tools to recreate how a website might look and act on a certain flavour of Android by profile faking, but this is rarely ever good enough. Nothing quite beats loading up your work on a physical device and seeing how well it really copes. This way we can account for the unexpected issues like: screen glare; hand anthropology and system font rendering—to just scratch the surface.
There’s a fact floating around the internet about the number of new Android devices that are hitting the market everyday. I can’t quite remember the number, but I’m pretty sure it’s close to a bazillion. I don’t know about your testing budget, but I can’t quite spring for a bazillion devices to test on—and anyway, I only have drawer space for, at most, seventeen.
Enter the ‘device lab’
It seems internet raconteur Jeremy Keith has unwittingly sparked a global movement; at least amongst us web types anyway. Recently tweeting about opening what he branded a ‘test lab’ at Clearleft, his local tech community reached out and began donating their older devices that were otherwise gathering dust—forgotten about and lurking at the bottom of sock drawers. Before long he had collected an impressive range of mobile testing devices freely available to any designer or developer local to Brighton.
Since then shit has gotten pretty serious, it’s got it’s own acronym and everything.
Open Device Labs (ODLs) are springing up all over the world freely offering a wide-range of mostly donated devices for testing. At time of writing there are currently 46 ODLs across 19 countries totalling nearly 700 devices.
Living in Manchester (which I would argue as the centre of the universe), I had assumed that, of the 46 labs, one of them would almost certainly be local to me. Or at the very least somewhere in the North of England. I mean, if Salford can get the BBC then surely Manchester can get an ODL or two. Yet it turns out neither Manchester or our industrial city rival Birmingham have a single ODL to boast of. As a matter of fact, there is nothing north of Cambridge.
I know I have a few devices, forgotten about and unloved, keeping the spiders company under my bed. So, I am making it my responsibility to bring an ODL to the rainy capital of the north. Following a little asking around Reason Digital and TechHub seem enthusiastic to help.
If you have any unused devices that would make a good addition, I encourage you to donate them to your local ODL—and if your local ODL doesn’t exist, start one!
Shortly after posting this, Open Device Lab North tweeted me announcing they had launched that very same day.