March 8, 2008

Perhaps They Should Have Tested More - Cosmi

Apparently an inappropriate word made its way into a typing tutorial product.

Woman Shocked As 'N-Word' Appears In Typing Test

SACRAMENTO (CBS) ― A woman was stunned and a software company apologetic after an offensive word showed up on a computerized typing test. Monica Loadholdt was using Perfect Typing Pro, a software program made by Cosmi, when the 'N word' showed up in one of the typing exercises.

"I just stopped," Monica remembers. "I said, 'What did I just type here?'"

Monica quickly sent an e-mail to the Cosmi Corportation. Cosmi replied to CBS station KOVR-TV in Sacramento, saying, "It is in no way something we would ever desire to have in our software. It was a mistake not caught by our quality assurance team.'"

They also indicated that they offered Monica an apology, but she says she hasn't received any reply. "I would appreciate a response, I think I deserve that," she said.

Cosmi has already made a fix. A patch is available that removes the offensive passage from the program.
My friend Jean, who is a Senior Software Quality Assurance Specialist in Minneapolis, brought this to my attention.  She was offended by the company's statement.  She didn't like the phrase "It was a mistake not caught by our quality assurance team."

Jean's feeling is that this could not have been a "mistake", but the term must have been inserted intentionally.  Jean feels that it is unfair to place the blame on the QA team.

I wasn't as offended, although I do agree that it's probably unfair to mention only QA.  These kinds of problems are seldom the fault of one group, and certainly someone put the word into the software.

I don't know what Cosmi's quality practices are.  I would hope that the list of test words included in the product's content is checked before it it finalized.  Perhaps the group that checks it is called Quality Assurance at Cosmi.

When I have worked on consumer products such as these, my QA team was responsible for checking the master CD images before manufacturing began.  While we didn't have word lists in the product, my team was still responsible for ensuring that there were no viruses included.  If a virus ended up on the CD, I would have felt responsible.

I worked at another company that developed and hosted on-line auction systems.  The system was set up such that individuals could upload items for auction, along with descriptions.  We implemented a system which automatically scanned the descriptive text as it was uploaded, and removed offensive words.  It wasn't perfect (people can get very creative when they intend to be offensive), but it worked reasonably well.  Still we planned for cases where offensive words slipped through, and needed to be removed later by our Support team.  In that case, QA had no responsibility for the words - other than to ensure that the offensive-word-removal system worked as designed.  In that case if the CEO had placed any blame on QA when an offensive word slipped through, I would have been offended myself.

An update.
I wanted to investigate for myself how this word could appear in a consumer product. So I went to the Cosmi site, and downloaded a trial version of Perfect Typing Pro.

It turns out that the typing tests included in the product are based on classic literature - "The Iliad", "The Odyssey", "Through the Looking Glass", etc.

I ran a quick scan of the text, and sure enough, the offending word shows up in two of the exams - one based on "Three Partners" by Bret Harte and one based on "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain.

The text used for each exam is simply an extract from the original book.  I read the text - it hasn't been altered.  There's no software bug here.  And if the requirement was to ensure that the text in the exam matches the text in the corresponding book, then there is no bug in the content, either.

I suspect the Producer for this piece of software chose classical literature, and didn't consider that some older literature used terms that were considered appropriate for the time when it was written (1897 and 1912 respectively), but that may no longer be considered appropriate.
(You can read the books for yourself at and )

Is this a failure of quality assurance?  Is this a failure of requirements?  Or both?

One more note - Perfect Typing Pro comes with a feature where you can have the system updated over the internet.  When I ran the "Check for Updates", nothing was updated and these offending texts were not removed.