Monday, August 15, 2011

Test Framing, or "Helping Someone Make a Decision"

I was describing to some friends of mine that "Test Framing" was a hot topic at CAST, and that I wished I could attend the session (was involved elsewhere). We discussed a bit about the ways that test framing comes into play when we work, and how we could explain test framing. I gave them an example of a recent situation that helped me with framing a situation, and then apply various testing ideas and critical thinking skills. Whether or not this is classic test framing is open to debate.

Anyone who knows me knows that I like to find ways to save money. I don't consider myself to be "cheap", but I also don't like spending money needlessly or foolishly. However, we often do things just because we have always done them or there doesn't seem to be a real benefit to doing them another way.

For the past six and a half years, I've worked in San Francisco. I live about 15 miles south of San Francisco, and in my town I have the benefit of two transit options. There's Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and CalTrain. Both travel about the same distance from my home town, but drop the passengers off in different sections of town. When I first started using BART, it made sense to take it because the office I worked at was literally upstairs from the Montgomery Street Bart station. Go up the escalator and turn left. I could time my departure from work within two minutes and still make my train. Insane convenience, plus trains from my stop and to my stop every 8 minutes. Framed like that, there's really not much reason to consider an alternate mode of transportation, even if it's less money. That's some significant convenience… but is it worth a 60% premium?

Honestly, I didn't consider it worth considering, even after our office moved from Market street (just up the stairs from BART) to Montgomery street (plus three blocks north of Market, or even further away from the other option). However, after I changed jobs and my company moved after being acquired. I found myself in an interesting position… my office was now roughly half way between the two commute choices (four blocks south to CalTrain, or three blocks north to BART? Well now, that's a little more interesting. Let's do some math.

From San Bruno to San Francisco and back on BART (including the $1 a day parking) that works out to $8.80 per day. Multiply that out 22 times and we're looking at roughly $195 per month or $2323 a year.

From San Bruno to San Francisco and back on CalTrain (they charge $4 a day to park in their lot, but there's plenty of nearby street parking for Free) works out to $5.50 per day, $121 per month, $1,452 per year. In short… is it worth it for me to walk a block to save $3.30 every day, $72.60 a month, or $871 a year? The answer is yes, of course it is.

But wait, both BART and CalTrain have a discount option for frequent commuters. How does it compare when those are factored in? Bart offers a 6 1/4% discount for high value ticket purchases, and if you use a Clipper card, these are applied automatically. So there's a discount benefit applied there. How is it with CalTrain? Well, here's where the gap widens considerably. CalTrain offers a monthly ticket for $73.00, which is a 40% discount over their daily rates, or a 60% discount from what BART charges, and that's AFTER the BART high value ticket discount. All told, taking CalTrain instead of BART saves me $4.99 a day, $24.96 per week, $109.82 a month, or $1,317.84 per year.

So here's the next piece of this… just cause I like to play what if's… Taking the convenience factor out of the equation, had I opted to take CalTrain from the very beginning of my time working in San Francisco (back in March of 2005) up until now, all things considered, had I banked the difference in ticket prices, the net savings over six years would have been $8400! Put into perspective, that's the cost of a decent used car, a semester of tuition at quite a few private universities (not to mention state schools), and could have paid for the equivalent of a mostly remodeled bathroom or a home landscaping project.

This is an example of framing a situation and examining the ramifications of choices. Do I beat myself up over the choice I made? No, because it made much more sense at the time to do it the way I did. The options were there at times, but the time required to get from CalTrain to my old office and back took me out of doing other things that mattered to me, and thus it was a non-starter. Still, there was a lot I hadn't considered, and looking back, maybe I should have. What would my physical fitness profile have been like if I had opted for the longer walk? Would I be in better shape and weigh less today with all that walking under my proverbial belt? Would that time spent walking allowed me to think up various ideas that I wouldn't have had the time to consider because I was focused on maximizing my time? It's easy to play these games and get frustrated about what could have been, but that's not the point. The point is that we sat down with scenarios, considered the options available, and came to a conclusion based on that information.

Now, to add additional details to this, and just to show it's not so cut and dry, CalTrain runs on a less frequent timetable. BART runs trains that can get me from San Francisco to San Bruno every 8 minutes in prime commute time. CalTrain's schedule gives me a train every hour regularly and a few express trains to choose from during the day, for roughly a train every 45 minutes. That's a lot less convenient, true, but is it so much less to make the savings not worth it. Absolutely not.

Take a scenario. Lay out all of the parameters you can find. Compare and contrast. Consider the benefits. Consider the disadvantages. Weigh the costs. Weigh the savings. Then present the whole story… and make a decision based on your new-found understanding. Repeat for every scenario you face :).

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