Primate | Digital Agency Edinburgh

What’s bugging you?

Software bugs have a terrible reputation, hated by some and at least an inconvenience to most. They can find their way into any nook and cranny and just as easily appear out of seemingly nowhere, much to the horror and dismay of their adopted owner. They are less useful to the digital ecosystem than they are to the natural one, but just as common.

But what exactly is a bug in the digital sense? Why do they occur? And what can you do about them? Read on to find the answers to these questions and learn about the best ways to keep your digital assets in tip top condition.

What are bugs?

A bug in digital speak is essentially any design or functionality of a product (whether that be a website, a piece of software, an app etc.) that looks or acts differently to what was intended. Or, more importantly, something that produces an incorrect or unexpected result. Most people are familiar with this reality, given the number of electronic devices we own or use daily.

For instance, anyone with an Apple device will regularly see an ‘Update Available’ notification. The description will often show that there are no fancy new features available – it’s just software updates to eradicate a bug or two. Proof that even tech giants aren’t immune to glitches in the system.

Where do bugs come from, and what can you do about them?

Bugs are an occupational hazard of owning a website or a digital product. They are normal, to be expected and happen for multiple reasons – here are the three most common.

Programming error

If whoever is writing the code or markup makes a genuine mistake this usually results in something not working or rendering the way it was meant to. These are the easiest cause of bugs to prevent – the answer lies in proper testing and good working conditions. Tired developers make more mistakes!

Misunderstanding or miscommunication

In this scenario, everything technically works but the intent was not clearly conveyed so the application doesn’t work in the way it was expected to. Here, we are entering more of a grey area as often two parties have very different expectations and assumptions around what something should actually do.

For instance, if a website doesn’t render ‘properly’ at a certain size on a particular device, is that a bug or just a failure to communicate what sizes and devices the site should render correctly at? And if the site is technically functional but just doesn't look very good, is that even really a bug?

The best way to limit these sorts of ‘bugs’ is to properly plan, define, and communicate work upfront to eliminate as many assumptions and unknowns as possible.

External influences

Outside factors such as web browsers, third party APIs, plugins, servers, devices (you name it!) changing can cause a knock on effect that results in unintended consequences. This is common in the digital world as so many products are interconnected. A company like Google or Facebook updating a piece of functionality could have an impact on many other sites and products.

External influences are the most difficult cause of bugs to predict and mitigate. Digital is a fast moving industry with so many interlinking components that it can be tricky to keep up with progress, let alone stay ahead of the curve. The key here is on-going work and maintenance to anticipate problems as far as possible, detect and resolve issues swiftly.

Car ownership provides a good analogy for this. Say you’ve owned a car for a year and driven on all sorts of roads maintained to different standards with bumps, bends, potholes and gradients. Not to mention the other road users and their vehicles, the weather and many other variables.

Then all of a sudden, the engine starts making a strange noise when you hit 60mph. Your warranty expired 6 months ago – so what caused the fault? Could it be poorly maintained roads? Or maybe it’s down to the weather in your area? The fact you live close to the sea? Or just general wear and tear?

The answer is that the fault could have occurred because of any or all of the variables mentioned above. As a vehicle owner you can reduce the likelihood of a fault developing or escalating with regular maintenance, but you can never fully prevent them. Sometimes, these things just happen, and the same is true for bugs.

The best bug avoidance strategy

To sum up, the best bug avoidance strategy is split into three parts.

Firstly, you should endeavour to limit mistakes during development by treating your developers well and giving them the tools and conditions they need to do their jobs properly.

Secondly, you must remember that communication is key when developing and maintaining digital products. You should be crystal clear about your goals and expectations, and make sure the rest of your team are on the same page too.

Thirdly – and arguably most crucially – it’s wise to anticipate and plan for on-going work and regular maintenance to keep your digital assets in good shape. The hard work doesn’t end after launch, and this is the best way to ensure everything continues to look and function as it should to keep (potentially costly) downtime to a minimum.