Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Autistic Software

When we start to test a system as testers we normally start with a lot of assumptions predicting how the software will act dependant on certain inputs. However how the software reacts will be interpreted differently depending on who is doing the testing. This is especially true when testing UIs or systems that depend on human interaction.

I recently read an * article by Danah Boyd in which they described a problem in the way in which software is developed without much thought being placed upon what the user needs or practices. This article was first published in 2004 and I still feel it is very relevant to software development today.

More and more software is being developed which requires interactions with humans and of course as we as software testers know humans are fallible and unpredictable. The problem with developing software is that it is very simple and easy to do the complex mathematical formula stuff since this is what a computer is good at, in reality a glorified calculator. As testers finding problems in these logical areas should be simplistic. This is not to disrespect the skill of testing, but knowing the formula used and without any UIs it is a fairly easy task for a skilled tester to determine if a problem exists. IMO the problems start to appear when we develop software that requires interaction with humans. I am not aware of any research done in this field of software development but I wonder how much time is spent creating and fixing UI systems. If we look at the characteristics for a given piece of software we can see that it is very good with numbers but has poor social interaction skills. This is very similar to the characteristics of autism:

• "Socialising doesn't come naturally - we have to learn it."

People with autism often have difficulty recognising or understanding other people's emotions and feelings, and expressing their own, which can make it more difficult for them to fit in socially. They may:

• not understand the unwritten social rules which most of us pick up without thinking: they may stand too close to another person for example, or start an inappropriate subject of conversation
• appear to be insensitive because they have not recognised how someone else is feeling
• prefer to spend time alone rather than seeking out the company of other people
• not seek comfort from other people
• appear to behave 'strangely' or inappropriately, as it is not always easy for them to express feelings, emotions or needs.
• Difficulties with social interaction can mean that people with autism find it hard to form friendships: some may want to interact with other people and make friends, but may be unsure how to go about this.

So as testers what can we do to try and improve the poor human interaction skills of software? Are there any approaches that can help this? Another area I have been researching is Ethnography ( and how similar this is to software testing. (More on this in a future blog)

One of the many things I liked in the article by Danah was how the software was being designed to encourage people to have different identities so that they could protect their identity. This is so much against human nature and Danah expressed their concerns with the following:

Why on earth should we encourage people to perform a mental disorder in the digital world?

Quite a statement!!!

I think from a testing perspective that we need to ensure that software being developed meets the practices and needs of the user rather than the technology needs of the software. We really should be trying to make the software more socialable and be able to interact with a variety of different human types. We should look to understand the user and what their needs are rather than force them to work in a particular way. We should look at what is most suitable for the user. If we can manage to do this then we can start to produce and release software that does not frustrate and annoy users. This maybe a Utopia belief but as testers I feel we are the ones that need to drive this way of thinking. So the next time you are testing a UI and it starts to frustrate you ask yourself why. Do not put up with autistic software, teach it to become more socially aware.

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