October 24, 2018

Quality assurance, or why the devil is in the details
Author:
Magda
Hutny

In July 1962, the Mariner 1 spacecraft launched from Cape Canavera on a planetary flyby of Venus. Shortly after launch, it’s gone off course, which could lead to a disaster over shipping lanes – creating an imminent risk of causalities. It turned out that a missing hyphen in coded computer instructions was the source of the glitch.

Luckily, clear thinking of a range safety officer that quickly ordered the craft’s destructive abort minimized the damage only to financial loss. Still, it just might have been the most expensive hyphen in history – the spacecraft cost 19 million dollars.[1]

One could say that the devil is in the details, but I don’t believe the genius, wit, and spirit of a nation are discovered in its proverbs. And yet, that’s what I deal with at Admind ­– the details.

What is quality assurance actually?

I’m responsible for quality assurance within the Presentation Design Team. What makes my job easier is that as a Presentation Designer I’m familiar not only with a designer’s perspective, software capabilities (i.e., our everyday tools), or brand principles but also with internal arrangements and info from the client. I mostly work in PowerPoint but, on occasion, support other departments that prepare materials for printing and web.

How exactly does quality assurance look and what role does it play in the overall presentation design process?

Usually, the client provides ready content for a (brand management, sales, learning & development, etc.) presentation that we tweak to fit the brand guidelines. Oftentimes, it requires redesigning of all slides. At the start, a coordinator assigns tasks to relevant team members. Most of the time, there’s a single designer overseeing an overall design – supported by other team members if the project is very complex and, for example, requires intricate illustrations.

Very often, at this stage I’m already aware I’d be responsible for quality assurance. Some issues can be dealt with while actively working on the project, for example, numeric formats or text alignment. This reduces the need for corrections and speeds up the whole process.

Then, I’m handed in a finished product, which I thoroughly analyze. I’m checking if all necessary components are in place, look according to the client’s request, and are in line with the general guidelines as well as brand identity. Such an analysis comprises various aspects: from the project’s visual and textual coherence, through a check on shapes and colors used in a graphic, to eliminating typesetting errors and double spaces.[2] I can examine, for example, whether a map legend is effective and clear in its relationship to the original map and can be checked against what Google Maps shows. In other words, I look for anything that seems erroneous, raises my doubts, and might be an error.

If the project comprises a few or a dozen or so presentations, which need to be put together by several team members, I collect and standardize all files. Obviously, the designers communicate with each other to ensure consistency across deliverables, but the existence of some differences is simply part of the natural course of things, and thus unavoidable.

So, it looks like, whether willingly or not, we have to go back to hell, for while working on a project I play devil’s advocate.

This doesn’t mean, however, I’m the only person capable of taking responsibility for quality assurance; yet, due to my professional background and proven track record, that’s exactly what I most often do. After all, ten years spent working as an editor for an advertising agency pay off, even though presently I’m not as involved in proofreading and copy editing.

Here, at Admind, we run relevant trainings that cover brand principles and presentation checks – in areas both technical (selecting layouts, formatting placeholders, saving fonts, compressing images) and esthetic (choosing colors, line thickness, typesetting, and text alignment). Such courses, daily consultations, and experience pretty much enable each accomplished designer to perform quality checks.

What’s worth mentioning, though, is that very often it’s a tedious task that most of all requires attention to detail, but also a lot of patience. Personally, I strongly believe that one has to simply like this kind of work, or otherwise risks dying of boredom.

Contrary to popular belief, interpersonal and communication skills play a significant role, too. It’s indisputable that a designer has mastered their craft, put a lot of effort in project development, and thoroughly analyzed implemented solutions. For this reason, when it comes to major changes, I suggest them carefully and tactfully, and always try to provide a solid and clear reasoning behind them.

As you can see, we invest a lot of time and attention in quality assurance, even though it comes down to mere details most of the time. Why? One could claim that it doesn’t really matter, that it’s only about the project’s driving idea and overall look. Well, they’re certainly essential. But only imagine… Or actually you don’t even have to. Think of the last time you read an online text lacking even the most basic proofreading. Remember spelling mistakes, sentences cut in half, and statements that, even at first glance, one could easily call a pile of crap?

Would you believe that a portal neglecting such matters could credibly present all facts and connections between them? I don’t even trust dates and numbers presented in such articles – if they’re riddled with typos, transposition errors are too more than likely to occur.

Similar mistakes can have calamitous consequences not only in journalism or graphic design – vide the mentioned disaster of Mariner 1. Another one, and slightly more relatable, is a case of a Russian man named Dmitry Agarkov. After receiving a credit card application from the bank, he filled the agreement and returned it – but making his own edits: no annual percentage rate (APR), no charges and penalties for the card holder, and humongous financial penalties for the bank to face for attempts to terminate the agreement.

The bank staff members have accepted the agreement without reading because at first sight it looked identical to a standard one. They hadn’t notice anything suspicious for the following two years. It wasn’t until the bank tried to change the contract conditions in court that a judge ruled in favor of the client (because the staff was able to access the agreement and still signed it in a disadvantageous version).[3] 

In our daily work, we pay particular attention to checking whether the numbers, locations, and facts are presented according to information the client provided. Collateral damage is clearly out of question, but let’s assume that in the column titled “2018 income in USD,” by mistake we enter “3.0” instead of “30 bn.” A momentary lapse of focus is enough to shake the position of a market juggernaut. Practicing an alternative geography, i.e., placing the city of London somewhere on the North Sea or in the Republic of Ireland, would be equally unimpressive but could happen after an accidental click on the dot symbolizing this city on a map.

Someone could argue that it’s the authors, composers, and creators that should keep control of all aspects of their work. Still, everybody could use another pair of benevolent eyes. This enables us to look at our work from a different perspective. Even (or perhaps especially) extraordinary artists have always relied on help and valuable feedback from the people around them: significant others, friends, trusted editors and critics. For example, while shooting Star Wars, George Lucas listened carefully to insightful pieces of advice from his wife at the time, Marcia. Her suggestions and change proposals had a significant impact on how the whole saga shaped up. One of Lucas’s biographers went so far as to call Marcia the director’s secret weapon.[4] This name, as crude as it might seem, vividly highlights the importance of constructive criticism and healthy collaboration.

Even the most meticulous author needs support for a simple reason: one person is unable to oversee everything. In Polish publishing houses it is a (sadly increasingly neglected) best practice to have a text first go through a copy editing process and then two rounds of proofreading, with two different proofreaders performing the check. It’s a hundred percent sure that after all these stages, even if fewer, there will still be errors in the text.

People responsible for quality assurance are also the very first viewers of the work. If there’s anything unclear to them, if anything seems cumbersome to them – it’s very likely that others will see it as equally troublesome.

I play not only devil’s advocate but am also the audience’s spokesperson. By enforcing consistency across typesetting and visual choices, I look after readers or viewers so they don’t get lost in the project and have their perception impeded. By eliminating linguistic and formatting errors from the text, I increase confidence in the author and the receiver’s positive experience.

That’s why I consider quality assurance to be (or ought to be) part of user experience. Even without turning to ad hoc testing processes, we still have hundreds of years’ experience. The very first major book printed in Europe, i.e., the Gutenberg Bible, comprises hundreds of word divisions ­– it’s because Gutenberg obsessively wanted to get “the perfect grey type area without the rivers and holes,”[5] which makes reading easier. Since then, printers, graphic designers, authors, editors, and even psychologists have developed a plethora of rules and clever ways that – seemingly unnoticeably – ensure the audience’s convenience and make the whole project balanced, neat, and esthetic.

By now probably everybody can find their own answer to the question where is the devil in the details. Importantly, he’s not so black as he is painted.

_Magda Hutny

Presentation Designer at Admind. Prior to her current role, she spent many years working as an editor for one of Krakow’s advertising agencies, getting to know the advertising industry through and through. She proofread and copy edited diverse content, from advertising materials (BTL, ATL, print and web, branding, PR), through lifestyle articles, to academic and scholarly texts.

In her free time, she travels and is a compulsive reader of all kinds of cultural texts. She’s into conspiracy theories (ironically) and punctuation (seriously).

 

Annotations:

[1] In this particular case, some people claim it was an overbar. See I.R. Walker, Reliability in Scientific Research, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2011, p. 7, and J. MacNeil, Mariner 1 destroyed due to code error, July 22, 1962, EDN Network [online], July 22, 2018 [retrieved 23.08.2018]. Available on the Internet: https://www.edn.com/electronics-blogs/edn-moments/4418667/Mariner-1-destroyed-due-to-code-error–July-22–1962.

[2] I feel that one of the most demanding and exhausting aspects of an editor’s work isn’t staying up at night nor checking the same text for the thousandth time, but compulsively catching typos and double spaces. I assure you that while it can take the fun out of any leisure reading, double spaces missed during an auto check are an easy source of professional satisfaction.

[3] See [author unknown] Man Who Outwitted Bank Ends $700K Lawsuit, The Moscow Times [online], Aug. 15 2013 [retrieved 9.10.2018]. Available in the Internet: https://themoscowtimes.com/articles/man-who-outwitted-bank-ends-700k-lawsuit-26770.

[4] See F. Chung, The ‘secret weapon’ behind Star Wars, news.com.au [online], December 17, 2015 [retrieved 23.09.2018]. Available in the Internet: https://www.news.com.au/finance/business/media/the-secret-weapon-behind-star-wars/news-story/75eb078a8b14d93fce23b06e98805ffb.

[5] H. Zapf, “About Micro-Typography and the Hz-Program,” Electronic Publishing 6, no. 3 (1993), p. 283–88. See also K. Houston, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols and Other Typographical Marks, W. W. Norton & Company, New York–London 2013.

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