Automated Error Reporting = More Robust Software

I would like to tell you how to revolutionize your software development process
</marketing hyperbole>

On a more serious note, we (Red Gate’s .NET Development team) recently rolled a new tool into our development process which has made our lives dramatically easier AND improved the quality of our software, and I (& one of our developers, Alex Davies) just wanted to take a quick moment to share the love.

I work with a development team that takes pride in what they ship, so we take software testing rather seriously. For every development project we run, we allocate at least one software tester for every two developers, and we never ship software without first shipping early access releases and betas to get user feedback. And therein lies the challenge -encouraging users to provide consistent, useful feedback is a headache, but without that feedback, improving the software is tricky.

Until fairly recently, we used the standard (if long-winded) approach of receiving bug reports of variable quality via email or through our support forums. If that didn’t give us enough information to reproduce the problem – which was most of the time – we had to enter into a time-consuming to-and-fro conversation with the end-user, to get scrape together the data we needed to work out where the problem lay. As I’m sure you’re aware, this is painfully slow.

To the delight of the team, we recently got to work with SmartAssembly, which lets us embed automated exception and error reporting into our software with very little pain, and we decided to do a little dogfooding. As a result, we’ve have made a really handy (if perhaps slightly obvious) discovery:

As soon as we release a beta, or indeed any release of software, we now get tonnes of customer feedback through automated error reports.

Making this process easier for our users has dramatically increased the amount (and quality) of feedback we get. From their point of view, they get an experience similar to Microsoft’s error reporting, and process is essentially idiot-proof. From our side of things, we can now react much faster to the information we get, fixing the bugs and shipping a new-and-improved release, which our users rather appreciate. Smiles and hugs all round. Even more so because, as we’re using SmartAssembly’s Automated Error Reporting, we get to avoid having to spend weeks building an exception reporting mechanism. It takes just a few minutes to add reporting to a project, and we get a bunch of useful information back, like a stack trace and the values of all the local variables, which we can use to fix bugs.

Happily, “Automated Error Reporting = More Robust Software” can actually be read two ways: we’ve found that we not only ship higher quality software, but we also release within a shorter time. We can ship stable software that our users are happy to upgrade to, and we then bask in the glory of lots of positive customer feedback.

Once we’d starting working with SmartAssembly, we were curious to know how widespread error reporting was as a practice. Our product manager ran a survey in autumn last year, and found that 40% of software developers never really considered deploying error reporting.

Considering how we’ve now got plenty of experience on the subject, one of our dev guys, Alex Davies, thought we should share what we’ve learnt, and he’s kindly offered to host a webinar on delivering robust software with Automated Error Reporting. Drawing on our own in-house development experiences, he’ll cover how to add error reporting to your program, how to actually use the error reports to fix bugs (don’t snigger, not everyone’s as bright as you), how to customize the error report dialog that your users see, and how to automatically get log files from your users’ machine. The webinar will take place on Jan 25th (that’s next week). It’s free to attend, but you’ll still need to register to hear Alex’s dulcet tones.