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Our guest blogger this month is Brad Sellick, a recent Bug Battle winner with expertise in mobile testing (see his personal_photofull bio below). In this post, Brad examines the shortfalls of simulation tools in testing mobile applications.

There’s a challenge in developing and testing applications that is as old as the personal computer itself. The challenge being that the design, development, and testing of applications often takes place in an environment much different from “the real world” where users run and interact with those applications.

With the rise of mobile platform devices like the Blackberry and iPhone, I believe that challenge is greater now than at any time in the past. We now find ourselves producing applications in an environment (a desktop or laptop computer) that is completely different from the device the application will run on.

This challenge is compounded by the fact that development platforms have a very convenient method of testing a mobile application on the desktop via a simulator tool.

My own experience with iPhone development was a major eye-opener. I spent a lot of time building and testing applications on my Mac desktop and the simulator application. However, when I finally loaded an application onto an iPhone for the first time, it was a completely different experience.

‘Hands On’ Device Interaction

On a simulator, you still use a mouse to ‘touch’ the screen and simulate gestures. You also have a full-sized keyboard for data entry. Of course, this is very different from using a mobile device.

First, a mobile device sits in your hand. Each of us likely has slightly different ways of holding and operating the device. For some, it’s done with one-hand using your thumb or a finger. For others, it might be two hands using both thumbs.

Second, there’s the act of touching various screen elements like buttons and controls. This is much easier to do with a mouse pointer than a pudgy finger.

Based on my experience, this difference is a critical one, and the biggest, for testing application design and function. Using a mouse with the simulator, you do not get the full effect of having to scroll through a large list view of items or having to play ‘whack-a-mole’ on the screen with your thumb because button placement for navigating multiple screens is inconsistent.

Screen Size and Viewing: Objects on monitor are closer than they appear

In my experience with iPhone development, even though the simulator application mimics the size of the iPhone screen, it’s still a different experience viewing an application on the device rather than a monitor. A screen that is readable on a simulator may not be – and usually isn’t – as readable on the device.

Data Entry: What the simulators cannot simulate

No contest here. It would be a terrible mistake to develop an application that’s “data entry intensive” and test it on a simulator, with full keyboard and mouse access, and believe that it’s ready to be released. Trying to type even a sentence is a challenge on a touch screen keyboard.

Some functions not available on the simulator

I can’t speak for devices such as the Blackberry, but in the iPhone world, there are some things you just can’t test on the simulator. Using the accelerometer and making use of location functions are two things that immediately come to mind.

Today’s mobile devices are pushing the boundaries of traditional application design and testing methodologies. While fundamentally still the same, those methodologies need to be applied in new ways, especially with regard to testing application usability. Both designers and testers are strongly encouraged to ensure that application testing begins early, and happens often, on the mobile device itself rather than on a simulator.

In short, there’s a reason it’s called a simulator.

After a 12-year career in business intelligence and data warehousing (including testing and support roles), Brad is turning his career aspirations to software testing and development. Brad is an active member of the uTest community and was the most recent winner for Best Feedback in the Twitter Apps Bug Battle.

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More Stories By Jennifer Moebius

Jennifer Moebius, Public Relations Manager at uTest, champions media efforts, analyst relations and speaking/awards programs. A media maven and creative writer, Jennifer’s accomplishments include feature articles in BusinessWeek, Fortune, Dow Jones, The New York Times and Investor’s Business Daily. Prior to uTest, Jennifer was Senior Account Executive at boutique PR firm Emerge Public Relations where she managed PR programs for a variety of tech clients including Burton Group, Information Builders, Action Engine, Tizor Systems, good2gether and Harvard Business Publishing.