It's accepted that software upgrades and new releases sometimes have bugs – what is difficult to discover is the critical impact of those bugs. User Acceptance Testing (UAT) provides the answer. Unfortunately, few suppliers, integrators or retailers have the bandwidth or skill set to test systems thoroughly or emulate live retail environments.
Iain Winskill, service improvement manager, WHSmith states: "Two years ago we looked at outsourcing management of our store environment and considered organizations to take on the responsibility. We wanted a third-party with the skills and partner network to handle every aspect of the service."
"We already outsourced functions such as hosting central systems and networking – the usual suspects for outsourcing. However, this decision demanded careful consideration because we were effectively handing over our crown jewels. It was important to decide exactly what we were asking for and identify precisely what we were going to get – and that included effective UAT."
WHSmith selected BT Expedite to manage their store environment, making them responsible for all store IT solutions from opening new stores, through developing changes, delivery of new store software to communications and virus control – the total store environment.
Rob Price, director of client services, BT Expedite states: "We provide WHSmith with a fully managed service. However, from the outset I did not want us to be responsible for both UAT and software development, preferring instead to have an independent UAT to provide a check and balance on the overall solution we provide WHSmith."
"We use an extensive partner network to help us deliver our range of services, so we knew where to go for the right UAT service and selected PMC. Having worked with PMC for several years we knew their capabilities and their position in the retail business. Importantly, we knew they were independent, unbiased and understood effective UAT."
One of the challenges facing retailers when they test software and new releases is the expense and difficulty of emulating the 'live' environment. PMC's UAT lab at their Abingdon headquarters enabled them to provide BT Expedite with an independent UAT solution that could mirror WHSmith's live environment.
It is critical that retailers test software releases in a 'real' environment. This involves more than ensuring a release is functionally correct - it also ensures it does not introduce problems elsewhere in the application. Typically, developers only test the immediate area of change - UAT identifies any impact further down the system.
Winskill continues: "Without effective UAT problems can develop. At one level you have disgruntled employees because they can't use your system effectively. More importantly, you have unhappy customers because they can't checkout quickly or find closed tills. Where you have customer-facing applications it can be frustrating for the customer if there are delays."
"We focus specifically on our transaction times. If we can reduce each transaction by just 2/3 seconds, either capacity increases or queues shorten. Although customers may not notice the transaction time is quicker, they will know the queue is shorter. At PMC's labs they have a full-blown store environment using both our Wincor Nixdorf and IBM tills – so they can see the impact of changes and identify exactly how the system works in a real-world environment."
Many retailers consider UAT to be a 'necessary evil'. They regard testing as something they have to do, rather than something that produces measurable benefit. Retailers are reluctant to change because change is risk but testing minimises risk.
Winskill confirms: "UAT is not about policing it's about quality. It's not just aimed at IT it's aimed at customer-facing environment. We use UAT to ensure that our systems are improving. It makes unknowns known, enabling us to go forward in a knowing way. With quantifiable evidence of the benefits of UAT we can prove the benefits through the quality of our systems. We know we have a cleaner product."
"PMC has a clear understanding of and a grounding in retail. The people you meet there have worked in retail and understand the industry, the pressures and problems. The technologist will give you the IT view whereas the retailer will give you the customer facing view. There are dozens of examples where technology has tried to provide answers to problems that don't exist and PMC don't fall into that trap."
Price closes: "PMC provides a dedicated UAT environment. It enables us to better assess the quality of what we deliver. It's quicker in the sense that we have fewer problems with the solution once it's installed, because we get it right first time. The task itself is not necessarily quicker but reworks reduce significantly."
"The negativity that surrounds UAT is surprising. When a store system goes wrong it happens in front of your customers. Some companies prefer to take a risk but that's a shortsighted view. It's not just that one change they need to consider - it's the implications and 'knock on' effects that one change could have on the entire system; effective UAT will remove those issues."
The message to retailers is simple. Before you hit problems, carry out testing in a replicated live environment and warrant that your system does exactly what you expect it to do – you will save time, money and effort.