Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Dots

One of the questions that we asked ourselves at CEWT 3 was what we were going to do with the things we'd discovered during the workshop. How would, could, should we attempt to share any insights we'd had, and with who?

One of the answers I gave was that Karo and me would present our talks at Team Eating, the regular Linguamatics brown-bag lunch get-together. And this week we did that, to an audience of testers and non-testers from across the company. The talks were well-received and the questions and comments were interesting.

One of them came from Rog, our UX Specialist. I presented a slide which showed how testing, for me, is not linear or strictly hierarchical, and it doesn't necessarily proceed in a planned way from start to finish, and it can involve people and objects and information outside of the software itself. Testing can be gloriously messy, I probably said:

His comment was (considerably paraphrased) that that's how design feels to him. We spoke for a while afterwards and he showed me this, the squiggle of design:

I saw his squiggle and raised him a ring, showing images from a blog post I wrote earlier this year. In Put a Ring on It I described how I attempt to deal (in testing, and in management) with an analog of the left-hand end of that squiggle, by constraining enough uncertainty that I can treat what remains as atomic and proceed without needing to consider it further, at that time, so that I can shift right:

He reminded me that, perhaps a year earlier, we'd spoken about information architecture and that this was relevant to the discussion were were having right there and then. He lent me a book, How to Make Sense of Any Mess by Abby Covert.

The book discusses information-based approaches to understanding a problem, working out what kinds of changes might exist and be acceptable, choosing a route to achieving a change, monitoring progress towards it, and adapting to whatever happens along the way. I started reading it that evening and came immediately across something that resonated strongly with me:
Intent is Language: Intent is the effect we want to have on something ... The words we choose matter. They represent the ideas we want to bring into the world ... For example, if we say we want to make sustainable, eco-centered design solutions, we can't rely on thick, glossy paper catalogs to help us reach new customers. By choosing those words we completely changed our options.
Covert goes on to suggest that for our designs we list two sets of adjectives: those that describe properties we want and those that describe properties we don't want. The second list should not be simple negative versions of the first and the aim should be that a neutral observer should not be able to tell which is the desired set. In this way, we can attempt to capture our intent in language in a way which can be shared with others and hopefully result in a shared vision of a shared goal.

Later in the book, she suggests some structures for managing the information that is intrinsic to any mess-resolution project. Here I saw a link to another book that I'm reading at the moment, one that I borrowed from Sime, another colleague at Linguamatics: Beautiful Evidence by Edward Tufte.

This book considers ways to improve the presentation of evidence, of information, by removing anti-patterns, by promoting clarity, by exploiting aspects of the human perceptual system. It does this in order to provide increased opportunity for greater data density, enhanced contextual information about the data, the provision of comparative data, and ultimately more useful interpretation of the data presented.

Covert's high-level information structures are useful tools for organisation of thoughts and, in one phrase - "keep it tidy" - with one brief page of prose to accompany it, she opens a door into Tufte's more detailed world.

I had begun to reflect on these things while speaking to another couple of my colleagues and noted that I continue to see value returned to me by reading around testing and related areas. The value is not necessarily immediate, but I perceive that, for example, it adds depth to my analyses, it allows me to make connections that I otherwise would not, it helps me to avoid dead ends by giving a direction that might otherwise not have been obvious.

I was a long way into my career (hindsight now shows me) before I realised that reading of this kind was something that I could be doing regularly rather than only when I had a particular problem to solve. I now read reasonably widely, and also listen to a variety of podcasts while I'm walking to work and doing chores.

And so it was interesting to me that yesterday, with all of the above fresh in my mind, while I was raking up the leaves in our back garden, a recently-downloaded episode of You Are Not So Smart with James Burke came on. In his intro, David McRaney says this, reflecting Burke's own words from a television series made in the 1970's, called Connections:
Innovation took place in the spaces between disciplines, when people outside of intellectual and professional silos, unrestrained by categorical and linear views, synthesized the work of people still trapped in those institutions ...
Innovation, yes, and testing.
Images: EilReVision LabAmazon

Edit: after reading this post, Sime pointed out Jon Bach's graphical representation of his exploratory testing, which bears a striking surface resemblance to the squiggle of design:

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