Testing Insights – The Graphing Calculator

I’ve recently heard The Graphing Calculator Story, a ~54:00 min long Google Tech video on YouTube. On it, Ron Avitzur tells the story of the development of his (and Greg’s) Graphing Calculator, an impressive mathematical software that shipped with Mac computers for years.
What’s special about the story? Well, he did it at Apple, but for free (his contract was already closed), and in secret (Apple had cancelled the project). As he says, sneaking into the building and volunteering for an eight billion dollar corporation. :)

I enjoyed the story very much. It is very exciting to see the passion he had (has) for his software and how he was committed to it. Plus, Ron is a great story teller.
The graphing calculator had all the ingredients of a cool app. It scratched a developer’s personal itch, and is a great example of NeoVictorian computing: built for people, built by people, crafted in workshop, inspired.
Actually, if we’re commenting on NeoVictorianism, Ron was one that really “woke up one day to find himself living in the software factory“. The night got very cold, they said the factory is going to close and he should move somewhere else. The cool part? He kept doing his individual craftsmanship inside the corporation. Secretly.

Now to our matter, testing. He’s got some very good comments on Software Testing (which he calls in the story as QA. Not his fault, but ours). So nice comments, that I’ll just transcript:
At (~20:24), “Our biggest problem was QA“. “Fundamentally, you can’t do your own QA — it’s a question of seeing your own blind spots“, and “it is expensive to do it well“.
At a moment in the story, two testing engineers came to offer help, as in their official work “they were really bored because they spend lots of times developing automatic test tools and now they’re at the point where they push the button and the test starts in the morning and they come back in the evening to see which API’s break“.
These testers were successful because they badly wanted to explore the new software, and also because they had good mathematical experience/background — closely fit skilled testers!

Ron later speaks about usability (~35:57).
He describes the process of the usability studies they conducted after they’ve been programming with users in mind. Ron (which understands well the importance of usability: “In a classroom, any time spent frustrated with the computer is time taken away from teaching) says that even after all the attention to usability they had, they were surprised by the results of the study: “Sitting behind a two-way mirror, watching first-time users struggle with our software, reminded me that programmers are the least qualified people to design software for novices. Humbled after five days of this, Greg and I went back and painstakingly added feedback to the software, as if we were standing next to users, explaining it ourselves.” In the movie, he adds that they were “pounding on the glass:) and that “all engineers should be forced to go through this, watching real users actually trying to use their software“.

There’s another interesting comment at the very beginning (~02:30). Ron comments on how straightforward typewriting work was on the firsts Macs, and how a newbie could go from zero to full speed in less than 5 minutes on MacWrite.
This is very curious: Even today, the computer is more useful as a typewriter than anything else. The uses had varied much, and nowadays professionals use the computer for every nitty-gritty important detail, but still, the first thing that comes to mind to most people when they think “computer” is “writing”. From journals to books to presentations, my perception is that the only thing people can do (on a computer) with no complex instructions is publishing. Want to publish? Open this app and start typing. But you want to render a 3D object? Search for a court lawsuit? Build a repository of data? Out of luck, will take years to learn it well.
Our hardware has evolved, and the purposes we use the computer for have changed too. But the form has stayed the same as 30 years ago. And (not) surprisingly, the interfaces of our apps still resemble the interface of that first MacWrite. Time to change how we interact with computers? I hope so. Science Daily had long ago an article that said “While much about the computer has changed over the last three decades–greater power, faster speeds, more memory… – what has not changed is the user interface.” They offered a gesture interface proposition, and other technologies like multitouch or brain-controlled interfaces are being researched. From my part, I’m ready to test the new paradigm as soon as it’s ready :).

This is the full video, this is the link for the graphing calculator storry in text form (10 min instead of 55 :)), and go here for a demo of the product at Apple’s launch.

Enjoy, and please let know your testing thoughts in the comments!

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