Value through Simplicity

Testing is a complex activity that has intersections of technology, psychology, analysis and people management (amongst other skills – this in itself could be a blog). Before you get confused, people management, from my testing perspective is working with people and influencing, not being a gatekeeper to release or some similar activity. If we accept that creating software is a complex task we might benefit, as testers, trying to find ways to reduce complexity. Sometimes I think complexity is promoted as a “badge of honour”. Personally, I prefer to make things as least complex (simple) as possible.

I feel that if I am talking about concepts with simplicity, rather than complexity, being my guide, I’m probably going to get my message across with greater effectiveness. I also think it enables us to take action far quicker which shortens the space between an idea and learning about that idea by actually doing.

There is no “one size fits all” approach just as there is no “best practices”. I might suggest though that if you approach testing as primarily being an exercise in documentation, you just might be missing opportunities to add real value. Not to say testing documentation isn’t important, but there is certainly a balance. In the near future a couple of co-written blogs on detailed test cases (and why they are a massive fallacy) will be zooming out into cyberspace. That’s for later.

Two weeks ago I sat with my 2 test specialist colleagues and a developer. We chatted about some upgrade changes (3rd party software) that we had to introduce. We wanted to avoid falling back onto automation and just waiting for “green ticks”. Why? Because we knew that we didn’t have as much coverage as we would like in a particular area the upgrade would impact. We have some good coverage through the API layer but we wanted to spend time testing that our customers would not be affected through the GUI (there are reasons why our automation is somewhat lower here, but that’s not a discussion for this blog) Beyond that though, we knew there was value in having some humans diving in and hitting the software in ways we knew the automation didn’t and couldn’t. I think it is pretty cool that we know our automation well enough to make calls like this.

So after this chat we developed a test strategy so we could co-ordinate our testing effort. We spoke to the strategy for about 10, maybe 15, minutes. We spoke about which bits we each wanted to start with, areas where we might lack some knowledge, how to compensate for any knowledge shortfall, what we would do if we found a bug. We agreed this was more than “hey I found a bug” and move on. We wanted to form a quick gathering so we all understood the bug and the nature of it. This would enable us to quickly adjust our individual testing approaches, if required, or to quickly come up with some additional test ideas for exploration. It’s amazing how quickly some focused discussion enables ideas to flow and in turn deepen the testing.

The strategy is shown below. Small and simple and the details can be consumed quickly. These are all advantages. Gaps are exposed pretty quickly because there is no clutter. The information can be consumed quickly because there is no clutter.

The documentation shows what we want to hit, who is taking care of the initial “slices” and what those “slices” are composed of. Note also that the whiteboard is in the open and available for anybody to see it and provide feedback (that’s intentional, not accidental). The rest of the strategy, well that was discussion and collaboration. I’m a big fan of this approach because it means maximum time hitting the software rather than crafting documents that often serve little purpose beyond “ticking off” a process box. Test cases? Nope, we each had a direction and ideas. I mean that is a type of test case it just doesn’t come with explicit steps and expected results defined.

I get that the above might seem strange to some (or many). I also acknowledge that this is the first group of testers I have worked with where, as a group, we embrace the exploratory nature of testing (and I’ve worked with a lot of testers). It’s actually really nice to work with a group of testers where I don’t have to try and influence an exploratory approach. It’s pretty normal for us, on a daily basis, to be involving each other in some way with each others testing. The starting point can be anything from “hey check this out” to looking over a shoulder and suggesting that something looks a bit weird or simply asking “hey what is that?” while pointing at something on the screen. This is how we end up pairing a lot. Those “interruptions” become paired exploratory sessions. It’s a fun place to work and productive. I genuinely learn new things every day. I really wish more testers and developers would open themselves up to this type of interaction. The discoveries can be amazing and that’s a real value add to the software.

So perhaps you can’t reduce a strategy to a white board list. Perhaps you are expected to write detailed test cases or you are sitting in a silo waiting for bits of code or documentation to “waterfall to you”. I’ve been there and you cannot move from that in a hurry. It’s embedded and beyond your direct control (I really should blog on things I did to shortcut my way through pointless process or cheats to look like I was complying). What you can do though is pick one thing, just one thing, that you can do something about. Pick something low risk but something that will help reduce complexity for you. Many years ago the first move in that direction for me was to start early conversations with the business analyst and developers that were working on projects coming my way (I was the only tester in the team doing this). This was my first step toward really learning about testers influencing quality. Over a period of time it seeped into the test team practices (because behaviours like this do get noticed. The worst thing that could have happened was being told to stop and stay in my own silo – like I said, low risk, small steps). See if you can find something that helps you start the journey.


3 thoughts on “Value through Simplicity

  1. I really like this acknowledgement … “This was my first step toward really learning about testers influencing quality”. I believe you were not only influencing how the team looked at quality, but it was probably the first step in how the team saw you (the tester) adding real value. It may be harder to see, but small things .. and especially the simple things, are often hard to quantify. Nice post.


  2. “Pick one thing, just one thing you can do something about” – This is so true, and great advice to anyone not just in testing also for your life. Thanks Paul, what a lovely well written blog post.


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