Friday, 4 May 2012

Great Expectations

I recently spent some time running exploratory testing workshops in India and found I had some free time to start to reduce the mountain of books I have on my Kindle. I managed to read two books by Dan Ariely

Predictably Irrational, Revised andExpanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions

The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home

Within these books there are some great insights into how we think we behave and how we actually behave, Dan calls the work he does behavioural economics.  There are many interesting article he talks about in his books and most of them I can relate to software testing.  The one I want to pick up on for this blog article is how we can be easily influenced into following a certain path and making us act in a predictably way by manipulating our expectations.

The worlds of advertising and marketing have very clever ways in manipulating us into buying their products.  One of the ways they can do this is to ‘Prime’ us, by doing this they make us think of a subject or a product so that we unconsciously act in a way that makes us want that product and only that product.

For example if right now I asked you to come with words that are associated with being elderly, what words would you come up with?  If for the next 10 minutes I said think about this and you came up with a list of positive and negative words for elderly.  After you have done this I then ask you to perform some tasks.  When you perform this tasks you will be slower, take more time and notice little aches and pains you have.  All this is from just thinking about the term elderly.   The use of association has a very powerful effect on our unconsciousness.  Taking this a stage further if you have been primed your expectations have been manipulated so that you tend to have a bias towards the initial priming.  For example if you are told beforehand that a certain type of coffee is unique, expensive, has a secret ingredient and tastes wonderful.  You will at some point have to try it and once you do because of all the priming you have to like it (If you like coffee that is – replace coffee with chocolate, beer or whatever your favourite thing is) your expectations have forced you to enjoy it.  Even if your taste buds are saying it tastes vile, if you have paid a lot of money for it and have been told many times how wonderful it is it.  You will tell yourself it is wonderful and amazing.  Priming your conscious is a powerful bias that can override many other indicators.

Now what if I tell you that the secret ingredient is elephant dung now you have this knowledge your mind will be changed, what if I told you this before you decided to buy the product, would you still buy the product?

So how does all of this relate to testing?

Imagine if all you are doing when ‘testing’ is validating the requirements, your expectations have been primed and managed.  If you keep hearing that the software is bad by the development teams, that the model being used is poor. Then these all force you to be primed and you automatically assume the product is poor and that the requirements are what we should expect the product to match.  Can you see how dangerous this would be?  You are priming yourself to only confirm what the requirements are or what people are saying. 

One of the ways to help resolve this is by using an exploratory testing approach, which can help to reduce your expectations and assumptions of the product under test.  It tries to achieve this by the use of models, oracles, and heuristics to ensure that your beliefs, biases and expectations are constantly being challenged as you are testing. 

Michael Bolton at Developsense has recently wrote some articles on oracles and heuristics on his blog page.


  1. It's a fascinating topic. I'd go a bit further. Requirements are usually too vague, and stated in such a way that it encourages testers to tick them off. If you combine poor requirements, with a priming, script-driven approach then you get poor quality testing. Sadly that is often acceptable to project management.

  2. Thank you for the comment James.

    I agree with each of your points and I could have gone further within the article but wanted to keep it concise. I have another article in the pipeline about writing test cases - hope to have it ready either today (10-May) or by the weekend. So watch this space.

  3. More books for my wish list.