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James Thomas
Updated: 2 days 9 hours ago

The Rule of Three and Me

Sat, 02/21/2015 - 10:20
You can find Weinberg's famous Rule of Three in a variety of formulations. Here's a couple that showed up when I went looking just now (1, 2):
If you can't think of at least three things that might be wrong with your understanding of the problem, you don't understand the problem. If I can’t think of at least three different interpretations of what I received, I haven’t thought enough about what it might mean. At work I challenge myself to come up with ideas in threes and, to keep that facility oiled, when I'm not testing I challenge myself to turn the crap joke I've just thought of into a triad. 
By providing constraints on the problem I find the intellectual joking challenge usefully similar to the intellectual testing challenge. Here's an example from last week where, after I happened onto the first one, I constrained the structure of the others to be the same and restricted the subject matter to animals:
  • If I had three pet lions I would call them Direct, Contour and What's My.
  • If I had three pet ducks I would call them Via, Aqua and Paroled On The Basis Of Good Con.
  • If I had three pet mice I would call them Enor, Hippopoto and That Would Be Like Turkeys Voting For Chris.
As an additional motivational aid I've taken to punting the gags onto Twitter. You can see some of them here ... but remember: I never said they were good.Image: De La Soul
Categories: Blogs

Why that Way?

Thu, 02/19/2015 - 09:01
Most working days I go for a walk round the block after I've eaten my dinner. As I leave our office I've got two primary choices: lift or stairs. I say primary because there's obviously many things I could do at that point (although I have promised my wife that naked star jumps will not feature in my daily exercise regimen ... again). In any case I go for the stairs.

At the bottom of the stairs I have two more choices: left or right. Each takes me to a different exit from the building but both open onto the circuit that I stroll round, and if I leave by one of them I will naturally arrive back at the other so there's (again, to the level of granularity that I care about) no significant difference between them.

I can't go straight on at the bottom of the stairs because the lift is there and a u-turn sends me back into work so every day I am forced to make the choice - left or right.  And every day until recently I've been making that choice without any conscious thought.

But when I realised I was doing it, I started looking for patterns. Philosophical aspects of the observer effect to one side I discovered that, over the period I watched, I tended to choose left and right roughly equally and that (ignoring extraneous circumstances such as deliveries being in the way) I have a tendency to go in the direction closest to the side of the stairs I happen to be on.

For instance,  if I've moved left to let someone else up on my right, I'll tend to go left at the bottom. If I've swung round the corner between flights a bit faster than normal and ended up on the right hand side, I'll naturally hang a right when I get to the ground floor too.

On my walk I listen to podcasts. A couple of weeks ago, while I was stair-spotting, Invisibilia told the story of how an experimenter's attitude towards their subjects can influence the performance of the subjects. In one landmark study, when  an experimenter was told that a set of lab rats were smart, the rats performed better and when told they were stupid, the rats performed worse.

The study concluded that the experimenter behaviour was unconsciously changed by their expectation of the animals. When told the rat was clever they might hold it more gently, talk to it more and so on. This in turn made the rat more comfortable and in a better mood to run around the maze or whatever.
Unconscious action can lead to unexpected but, crucially, predictable consequences.I don't think about which way I'd go from the bottom of the stairs but I can discern a pattern to the behaviour when I look. We're all making decisions all day every day - both in trivial matters like which way to leave a building and in more serious stuff like which way we'll test something or how we'll speak to our colleagues.

I'm never short of questions, but now I have some new ones: Why did I choose that way? Did I notice there were options? Did I know I was choosing? How did that influence my behaviour? How can I know the effects of that?
Categories: Blogs

Haiku Like You?

Sun, 02/01/2015 - 11:51
Early yesterday morning I was setting up a bunch of scripts to run a bunch of requests against a bunch of servers in a bunch of permutations over the course of a few days.
Bitter experience has taught me that this kind of thing rarely works right the first time so if I can, I find a way to start with a small version of the setup.  Here, that meant choosing a sensible subset of the requests, letting things run for a few minutes, keeping an eye on progress (files created in the right place, servers generating the kind of messages, execution times reasonable, CPU load and number of processes in the right ballpark and so on) and then inspecting logs at the end.

As I worked the bugs out of the configuration I had a little time to kill on each iteration. But what to do?

I'd stumbled across a couple of haiku I'd enjoyed just the day before and I'd been pondering something Chris George had said about factory testers during Cambridge Lean Coffee last week. So, a mission: one haiku per execution, each execution, on the topic of not-testing. Here's the results:
You like to say that
Testing is breaking software
Is that all? Really? When presented with
Something to test, first thought is
"Who will tell me how?" Following the script
Gaily sailing past issues
"Hey, not in my scope" Some boundary value
Submitting the empty string
Time for a cuppa?With apologies to poets everywhere.
Categories: Blogs

The Wrought Idea

Sat, 01/24/2015 - 11:18

So the other day I bleeted about how I like to write to help me collect my thoughts and how that feels like a dialogue through the page.

Somewhat ironically, you might think, I hadn't intended that action to be more than jotting down the realisation I'd just had.  But, of course, as soon as it was out there I began to challenge it, and by proxy myself.

Here's a sample:
  • "When I need to think through an issue, I write." Really? Always?
  • Does getting the ideas down free mental resource for inspection of the ideas? 
  • Does making it concrete mean that it's easier to spot inconsistency? I know people who are adept at maintaining multiple views of a thing. When a different angle of attack is used a different kind of defence is made. The defences are not compatible, but because they are never seen together, this can be overlooked.
  • Why didn't I talk about pictures? I draw a lot too.
  • I recalled that James Lyndsay mentioned the other day that he makes a point of writing down his hypotheses during exploratory testing. If he fails to do that he feels he does a worse job.
  • What about giving some examples - could I make a draft, list the challenges, show the new draft and repeat?
  • I just read a great piece on George Carlin where he says "So I’m drawn to something and start writing about it ... and that’s when the real ideas pounce out, and new ideas, and new thoughts and images, and then bing, ba-bam ba-boom, that’s the creative part."
  • Haven't I been in this area before?
And so I write and right until my thought is wrought.Image:
Categories: Blogs

State of the Art

Fri, 01/16/2015 - 08:17
A trend is better than a snapshot, right?

That's Joel Montvelisky, introducing the State of Testing Survey 2015.

I'm certainly in favour of data and I'd agree that a trend can be better than a snapshot. But if you want to know the state of some system right now for the investigation you're performing right now and you've no reason to think that right now is related to back then, then perhaps right now you'll take the snapshot, right?

Openness and openness to challenge was one of the things I liked most about the previous, inaugural, survey. In the discussion between Jerry Weinberg and Fiona Charles about the results (transcript here) Weinberg's opening remarks include:
We need to be careful on how we interpret this data [...] One way to look at the survey is that it’s giving information about what information we should be getting. I'm looking forward to seeing what was learned.
Categories: Blogs

Why I'm Always Write

Thu, 01/15/2015 - 23:18
When I need to think through an issue, I write. And when I do that I feel I'm having a dialogue with myself. I write. I challenge. I rewrite. I re-challenge. Within or across drafts. Dynamically or with reflection. At length or fleetingly. As a means to an end, or as an end in itself. It both clarifies and exposes the need for clarification. For me.

When I asked on Twitter I got a couple of useful references to similar things:
I'd be very interested in any others.

Edit: I followed up on this post later.Image:
Categories: Blogs

Special Offers

Fri, 01/09/2015 - 10:58
Linguamatics hosted James Lyndsay at the Cambridge Tester Meetup  last night.

His workshop started with some improv games based on the work of Keith Johnstone  which, by exposing our awkwardness, showed us that we were conditioned to behave in certain ways, that we have patterns of operation. As testers we want to be free to think, investigate, explore, perform.

A second round of exercises had us giving and receiving imaginary presents to illustrate the notions of offers and blocking. Here, one person creates a context for the other (the offer) which can be accepted or rejected, but both parties must be aware of the ways in which they might constrain that context (the block).

For example, I might mime the shape of something to pass to my partner and then, as their hands reach for it, change the shape. This constitutes a block - I am not collaborating as fully as I might. Blocks come in many varieties; the receiver may block by not accepting the gift or refuting some aspect of the context.

We formed small groups assigned to apply the notion of an offer - with no suggestion about the ways in which we might do it - to testing a task management application. Here's just a few of the thoughts I noted down, pretty much raw out of my notes:
  • every interactive component of the application is an offer.
  • the user interface, user experience, terminology, documentation and all other aspects of the product are offers to make a judgement about the software, its quality, its value to the user, its function, its domain and so on.
  • offers may be implicit or explicit.
  • is there a difference between an offer that is recognised as such by the receiver and one which is not?
  • some offers are compound; a form has a submit button but also fields that can be filled in. The fields are individually offers, but the whole is also an offer.
  • some offers are conditional; a particular field in a form might only be available when other fields are populated.
  • it is frustrating when the the relationships at play in a conditional offer are not clear. An offer that appears and is then removed for reasons the reciver doesn't understand is distracting and frustrating. The receiver feels let down.
  • when we saw some offer (say, a date field in a form), our first thought was often how "can we accept this offer in a way that violates its likely intent?" (say, a date in the past for the start of a task).
  • is the receiver blocking when they accept an offer in a way not intended by the giver?
  • an offer that doesn't obviously result in some change is confusing to the receiver; for example, pressing a button but seeing no obvious consequence.
  • the likely consequence of accepting some offers is clear, but in others we're taking a leap of faith. The error dialog that says "You tried to do some complex action, but there was a problem. Do you want to continue? Choose OK or Cancel" doesn't help us to understand the consequences of accepting the offer.
  • rejecting an offer is not a null action. It still has consequences.
  • accepting or rejecting offers can have unintended consequences. When multiple groups were testing the same application we were (probably) changing each others' data, resulting in some confusion (to my group, at least, until we had a hypothesis).
  • inconsistency of offers is confusing. Multiple different ways to report form submission failure; different icons for the same functionality; the same functionality under buttons with different icons; use of colour in some places for some data, but not others. The receiver doesn't know what to make of offers that are apparently similar to others in some respects - should they expect the same outcome or something different? This is a kind of block.
  • an offer that is taken up (say, a form is submitted) but then results in a block (say, a validation error) is unpleasant for the person who accepted the offer. It is possibly more unpleasant than an offer that is taken up only after all negotiation on the terms of the offer has been done (such as when fields are validated during input).
  • offers are always choices. If nothing else the receiver can accept or reject. But they are often more than binary, even in simple cases like an OK/Cancel dialog with two obvious buttons there may be a close button in the title bar, keyboard shortcuts for cancelling (often Escape), different ways to navigate the dialog (e.g. tab, shift-tab, using space or return to select a button, or using the mouse); the dialog might be modal or not and if not, the offer is deferrable.
  • offers can be thought of as nodes on a graph of the testing search space. And the reverse: any node on a graph of the search space is an offer, although not necessarily one made by the software, but perhaps made by the data or the tester, or some external context or constraint (such as time or project priorities).
  • deferring choices is a kind of blocking - is it important to defer consciously?
  • noticing, and accepting, offers is a way of breaking patterns of behaviour. Perhaps I always get to the admin page of some product by opening it, clicking on the Tools menu and selecting Admin. But the product offers me many other ways of getting there - I can create a browser bookmark for that function; I can customise the toolbar of the application; I can launch the application using an Admin-only account. Accepting the offers puts me in a different context, ready to see something different(ly).
  • There's a literature on human psychology around giving (also giving up) and receiving. How much of this could be relevant to human-computer interactions?
  • I like to give software the chance to demonstrate itself to me. Am I making it an offer?
  • what can I do to avoid being overwhelmed by the explosion of offers?
I've only recently linked improv and testing (and I'm quite late to that party) but just recasting my interaction with the software as a sequence of offers and blocks last night generated tons of ideas and a new tool to consider deploying on a very familiar problem.

That possibility of a different perspective, a new view, a cleaner vision is incredibly exciting, but until I've used the tool some more, built and broken something with it, uncovered some of its foibles and fortes and put some sweat into its handles, I won't know whether it's a microscope, telescope, a prism, a mirror, a window, rose-tinted spectacles or a blindfold.
Categories: Blogs

Meet Meat Lewis's

Sat, 01/03/2015 - 19:10

When I was a boy there was a huge department store in Birmingham called Lewis's and one year I got a badge from its Christmas Grotto.

Meet Me At Lewis's it said.

Meet Meat Lewis's I read.

I like to think this was an early indication that I was alert to alternative interpretations ... because the alternative interpretation isn't very appealing.

And I like to keep that in mind when I'm reporting an issue ... because there is invariably an alternative to my interpretation and it might be more appealing.
Image: Badge Collectors Circle
Categories: Blogs