Mob4hire taps into the crowd for mobile app tests

The difficulty of testing mobile applications for the plethora of handsets and carriers in the market is a pain point that a Canadian-developed online forum hopes to resolve by bringing together globally-based developers and testers onto a common platform.

Launched last October, Mob4hire Inc. is a site where mobile application developers can post their projects on which individuals can then bid to test. The site’s approach, crowdsourcing – similar to outsourcing a business function except the model relies on the general populous instead of a third-party firm – is designed to eliminate the complexity of a “fragmented mobile world” where the average cost of testing a handset is 5,000 to 6,000 dollars, said Mob4hire’s Calgary-based president, Paul Poutanen.

Poutanen estimates there are more than 7,500 different handsets, 500 carriers, and 10,000 mobile developers globally. “Even though you test an application for a specific carrier, you have to test it again for another carrier. And it gets very complicated,” he said.

The idea for crowdsourcing mobile API testing actually emerged through Cambrian House, a crowdsourcing community whose members incidentally run Mob4hire. It’s much like crowdsourcing a platform for crowdsourcing, said Poutanen. “We’re eating our own words.”

Currently, the site is in alpha registration, during which testers can register their handsets and submit profiles. Thus far, there are close to 100 globally-based testers ranging from electrical engineers to housewives.

The developer profiles also span the gamut, he said, including game companies and SMS providers who build a variety of applications. Poutanen expects that in the next several weeks, the site will have API projects for testers to begin bidding on.

Once a developer has chosen its testers, Mob4hire relays the API to the testers’ handset, then pays the testers once a test report is complete.

The global reach of Mob4hire aims to resolve four major challenges that plague mobile application developers. It will address the issue of obtaining handsets from other countries, a process that often entails a local address, said Poutanen.

It’s also designed to reduce the high cost of data plans that accompany handsets, as well as the travel time required to test applications, say, on a U.S.-based carrier in the U.S.

And finally, the process will reduce tester bias. “If you’re sending your own developer down to the U.S. to test an application, likely they’re not going to be testing the help screen because they wrote it themselves,” said Poutanen.

Companies are beginning to shift the research and development of products from their own infrastructure into the public sphere, observed Carmi Levy, senior vice-president of strategic consulting for Toronto-based AR Communications Inc.

And taking this crowdsourcing approach certainly responds to the “absolute hell” of building atop any mobile platform today, given the fragmentation of devices and networks that “result in literally millions, if not billions of different combinations and permutations for a particular application,” said Levy.

Compounding the complexity of mobile application development is the fact that few vendors have the resources to implement a test regimen to account for that diversity, he said, adding that crowdsourcing allows for a wider test sphere void of high costs.

But despite the notable benefits, said Levy, companies have to take it on faith that most of their testers are qualified enough to partake in evaluations. Companies who choose not to rely on the public sphere due to tester legitimacy concerns, may risk facing application design problems down the road, he added.

Moving forward, Poutanen is aiming for 5,000 community members within the next couple of years, and foresees this “community of mobile aficionados” as serving as a focus group for mobile developer companies.

It’s often difficult, he said, to assemble focus groups for mobile application testing because of the complexity of evaluating a new application on a phone the individual has never used before. “It’s much better to get feedback from a phone you are actually using.”

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