Friday, August 9, 2013

Listen, Then Form Your Own Opinion: 99 Ways Workshop #45

The Software Testing Club recently put out an eBook called "99 Things You Can Do to Become a Better Tester". Some of them are really general and vague. Some of them are remarkably specific.

My goal for the next few weeks is to take the "99 Things" book and see if I can put my own personal spin on each of them, and make a personal workshop out of each of the suggestions.

Suggestion #45: Listen. And then form your own opinion. - Amy Phillips

One of the challenges we all face is that we have a unique world view that is all our own. We see the world "not as it is, but as we are" (Steven Covey). By that virtue, there are many things that color our opinions, and very often, that coloration is based on social, economic, religious, political and experiential aspects. While that's OK for many people in other settings, and while opinions are important, we want to do our best to make sure that our opinions of testing and observation are as factual as possible. 

Some of you are going to think that this is another exercise in active listening, and yes, it is, but with some additional considerations. Understanding what the stakeholders want and need is important. Holding true to appropriate ethics is important. Being honest in our dealings is important. On none of those areas would I want to compromise my standards. Those standards absolutely shape my opinions and what I think makes for good governance of a software development and software testing process. There are a couple of additional aspects that, if we are aware of them, can help us determine the best course of action.

Workshop #45: Explore the biases and the prejudices that can shape and color opinions, both ours and others.

In addition to being a good listener, it's also important to understand what shapes the way that we and others view the world. There's a discipline in philosophy called "Epistemology", which focuses on what we know and why we think that we know it. Knowledge and experience can be good guides, but there will be times when we will deal with less rational aspects of whether or not something "works" or "doesn't work".  

Bias is what happens when we come into a situation with a pre-conceived notion of how things should be. We can have the best intentions, be focused on doing the best work we can, and yet miss important clues because we are not looking for the right things, or are distracted by issues that prevent us from seeing what we need to see. Sometimes we rely on our own experiences. Sometimes we are affected by social pressures. At times we take people's word for something as though it were a fact, when perhaps further investigation is warranted. 

Confirmation bias is what happens when we are asked to "see that something is working properly". If we are under a time limit or pressure, we may focus our efforts on "making sure that the system works". By contrast, we may be directed to "make sure that we find the problems in the system".

In one case, we are working from the premise that the system works correctly, we just need to verity that. In the other example, we are working from the premise that the system is already broken, we need to find out how. Both approaches can bias how we deal with our testing. 

This is a large and broad area, so talking about all of the potential biases we can face as testers is beyond the scope of a single blog post. Reading up on the various biases and how they can affect the way we think is definitely a topic worthy of continued exploration.

Bottom Line:

Listening to the customers, programmers, program managers and others is important. It's critical, but we need to go beyond merely forming opinions of what we learn. We need to see if those opinions stand up to scrutiny. We need to understand where the opinions of the customers, programmers, program managers and others are coming from. We need to determine if they are valid. we need to understand the potential biases that they might bring to the table, and how those bias may color their (and our opinions). Having a gut feeling can frequently be a good way to see if something feels right or not, but go with more than your got. Go with evidence, experience, and facts, and keep as close to the evidence, experience and facts as possible.

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