At first glance, testing a mobile app may not seem to be very different from testing a conventional desktop app. Mobile and desktop apps are often written in the same languages and hosted on the same servers. They must also meet the same basic user expectations in areas like loading speed and accessibility.
But when you dive into the details, you realize that mobile apps are fundamentally different beasts from desktop apps–and that, by extension, mobile testing requires a unique approach. You can’t simply take a software testing strategy that works for desktop apps and graft it onto your mobile apps.
This article breaks down five of the main reasons why mobile testing necessitates a different strategy from desktop application testing and which unique needs QA engineers should consider when testing apps.
1. Mobile Configuration Variability
Perhaps the biggest difference between mobile and desktop testing is that with mobile apps, engineers have a much wider set of possible configurations to contend with.
In the desktop world, there are only two main operating systems – Windows and macOS – and a relatively small number of OS versions for each family. And although there are many types of PCs and laptops, they all conform to the same basic hardware standards.
In contrast, there are over 24,000 distinct types of Android mobile devices out there – to say nothing of iOS devices, which add to the diversity of hardware. There is also a wider selection of mobile operating systems and versions.
What this means for QA teams is that there are many more variables to test for with mobile devices. It also means testing must be more efficient so that engineers can test for as many potential configurations as possible without delaying software release cycles.
2. Lack of Mobile Testing Standards
With a traditional, web-based desktop app, there is a consistent set of standards that the app is supposed to comply with when rendering content – specifically, the standards set by the W3C, a consortium that advocates for a standards-based, interoperable World Wide Web.
In the mobile realm, however, there is nothing equivalent to the W3C standards. Apps can render content in widely varying ways, many of which are device-specific.
Here again, this increases the need for specific testing teams to account for more variations and edge cases. With desktop apps, ensuring that the app complies with the W3C standards is often sufficient, but mobile testing is not so simple.
3. Unique Mobile Accessibility Requirements
Accessibility testing, which ensures that accessibility features like the ability to increase text size function properly, is important for delivering a great experience to all users, whether they access apps using desktops or mobile devices.
But with mobile devices, accessibility testing is harder, because there is more room for error when implementing accessibility features. For instance, the smaller screen sizes of devices – and the greater variation in average screen size – could mean that an increase in text size will cause the app to render some text off the screen. Or, a “nighttime mode” feature on a screen could result in lower-than-expected contrast between text and backgrounds, causing accessibility challenges for some users.
A mobile testing strategy needs to be able to accommodate risks like these, which aren’t as pronounced for desktop apps.
4. Mobile Environment Differences
By definition, mobile devices may be used in a wide range of physical settings. Depending on the location from which a user accesses a mobile app, application performance could be impacted by a variety of environmental factors that don’t typically apply for desktop apps.
For instance, limited network connectivity might undercut application performance when users who travel too far from cell towers. Or, energy-saving features on mobile devices that are running on low battery could decrease the speed at which apps render content.
Once again, these factors create additional risks that QA teams need to address when planning testing routines.
5. Higher Stakes for Mobile Testing
It’s a best practice to strive to deliver the best possible experience to all users, whether they are on desktop or not. But the reality is that poor user experience in mobile apps tends to have a more negative impact on a company’s brand.
The reason why is that it’s easy for users to highlight poor app performance by giving apps low ratings or leaving negative comments in marketplaces. They can’t do these things for most desktop apps, because, unlike mobile apps, most desktop apps are not downloaded through centralized marketplaces with user-rating features.
This difference doesn’t make mobile testing more technically challenging, and to be clear, I’m not saying you can skimp on desktop testing because users will abandon your desktop apps if they don’t work as they should, but it does increase the stakes of perfecting a testing strategy. Businesses simply have more to lose, reputationally speaking, from delivering buggy apps than they do from low-quality desktop apps.
Conclusion: The Need for Purpose-Built Testing Solutions
All of the above is why we need more testing strategies and solutions that are designed specifically for mobile.
Historically, QA teams have frequently tried to extend desktop testing strategies to address mobile as they’ve added apps to their catalogs, but that approach simply doesn’t work. Mobile apps and devices are too different in fundamental respects to be shoehorned into a desktop-centric testing routine. The sooner QA engineers realize this, the sooner they’ll optimize their user experiences.