Testing Saves Money... Lesson from a Swimming Pool

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The other day, I took my kids to the local swimming pool / health club. In honour of the first real Friday of summer - all of the high schoolers are finished, the elementary schoolers are just about done - they had a "happening", with inflatables, slides into the water, inflated dragons on the water, slides on the grass with water running down them, lots of fun for the kids. Needless to say, the place was jam packed, and the lines for each inflatable ran at least several minutes.

An important business lesson in testing came to light in my experience there.

Testing, Testing and More Testing

Sometime in the last year, the club decided to join the 21st century, and replace their laminated printed cards with member pictures (which inevitably break, get ruined or out of date, and are expensive to print), with small plastic "buttons" with embedded chips, and chip-reader turnstiles at the entrance. The benefits were obvious to anyone who has ever run a business, or even anyone who has waited on the line:

  • Speed: With an automated system, no guard has to check each ID and match the picture to the face of the holder, a much slower process.
  • Accuracy: Since the system automatically works for exactly one person per chip, and will not let him/her in twice within a minute or two, as well as brings up a picture of the member on the screen, far fewer "false positives" - letting in someone by accident who does not have member rights - and "false negatives" - denying someone who doesn't match the picture exactly.
  • Records: With automated entry, the club can gain much better insight into usage, who came, when, and better align facility hours and even offer better plans (although this one appears a little too hidebound to be that visionary).
  • Guests: Each member used to receive a punchcard with guest passes. If you lose or ruin your card, or even forget it when visiting, it can be complex or impossible to resolve. With an automated system, the proof of right to guest entry isn't the paper card, or even the chip, but rather the record in the central computer system.

Like airline eTickets and many other digital reference tickets, the fundamental difference between paper and electronic is that a paper ticket is the proof of right to entry or to board. On the other hand, with a digital reference - home printed eTicket or ID chip - the item in the hand is a reference to the proof, which exists in the provider's central computer. Replacing a lost item, or even working without it, is far simpler, since you have lost the reference, not the proof.

The challenge is that any transition in systems and processes, especially complex computer ones, is subject to laws of complexity, and is likely to have errors, bugs, failures. The way to reduce (but never eliminate) the probability and severity of such errors is: testing. People who live in the software world, especially those who have been immersed in the last 5-10 years, know this as an axiom.

To their detriment, the club never really tested the system, certainly not in a systematic way. Since installation, it has had issues, which management promptly ignored (due to incentives, the subject of an another post entirely). Thus, come summer opening day, with easily 2-3x the usual peak weekend crowd, the system barely handled the load, and the manager needed to spend his weekend time off at the facility, not swimming or lounging, but working through each and every member and guest.

Testing matters. Testing saves time. Testing saves money. Test aggressively, even if you must cut your budget on other features in order to have budget to build tests; it will pay back in spades.