Friday, 16 July 2010

The Emotional Tester (PART 1)

This blog is going to be in two parts, the first will focus on the question of do emotions affect the quality of testing. The second will look at ways in which we can gather information about how we feel about the product we are testing to see if there is any value in capturing this information.

I have an amateur interest in psychology and how some of the ideas and thoughts from this area of science can be used in software testing. I was reading ‘The Psychology of Problem Solving’ by Janet E. Davidson & Robert J. Sternberg and it had a section on how emotions affect the way we think and focus.

So I decided to tweet a question based on some of the information I had read:

Emotions and #Testing:-Do we find more bugs when we are in a bad mood? Psychology research shows we are more negative when in bad mood.

It would be interesting to have feedback from #testing community on this - Does this mean a good tester has to be a grumpy so and so... :o)

It was not long before I started to receive replies on this.

@Rob_Lamber: @steveo1967 I don't really attribute negativity to being good at finding bugs. Positive attitude, passion, inclination...not negativity

@nitinpurswani I @steveo1967 i cannot think when i am in bad mood and i guess sapient testers think

@ruudcox @steveo1967 This article might help: Mood Literally Affects How We See World.

This turned in to a lively debate on which mood is better for testing.

After reading various articles there appeared to be some common ground on how we think and see things based upon our emotions and mood.

Looking at the article suggested by @ruudox this suggested that when in a good mood we can see the whole picture and when in an unhappy mood we narrow our focus.

This appears to be backed up by research from Foless & Schwarz

Individuals in a sad mood are likely to use a systematic, data driven bottom-up strategy of information processing, with considerable attention to detail In contrast, individuals in a happy mood are likely to rely on pre-existing general knowledge structures, using a top-down heuristic strategy of information processing, with less attention to detail (foless & Schwarz, 1999;).

This now leads to some complex dilemmas, and the whole point of this blog.

Which mood is best for someone whose is a professional tester?

Which mood is more than likely to find more bugs when testing?

What other influences can affect our ability to test well?

My thoughts indicate from the information and research I have read that to be really good at testing and finding defects we need to be in a sad or unhappy mood.

Research concludes that when in a sad or unhappy mood we are more than likely to focus in on the task and step though in a data driven way. When happy we are more than likely to see the whole of the picture and look at the task from a top down approach.

Now in my opinion both of these traits are needed to be excellent testers. So do testers need to have split personalities that they can switch on or off?

The point made by @nitinpurswani about being in a bad mood stops him thinking and that to be a sapient tester he needs to think. This got me thinking and I asked him a question back.

@nitinpurswani I like that idea. However if you're in a bad mood with what u are #testing would it make you want to break it more?

My thought behind this is that if something is annoying me or irritating me I feel I am more than likely work harder to find out why it is annoying me. I become deeply focused on the problem in front of me. Does this mean I am in a bad mood? Not necessarily so – it could be I am annoyed at what I am testing but not in a bad mood in general.

When in a happy mood when testing it is easy to just let things go, we unconsciously think well that is not too much of problem we can forget about it. This is a dangerous attitude to have as a tester because this simple little problem can come back to be huge problems. Someone in an unhappy mood is more than likely to investigate why this thing is annoying and find the underlining cause.

@Rob_Lambert made a very valid point that there are environmental issues that could come into play. How many testers when testing listen to music? Rob suggested that the type or style of music you are listening to can influence the mood you are in and as a side effect the way you are thinking. I had not thought about this very much but going deeper than this – if you are working in a open office and everyone around you is having a laugh and joking would this make your testing better or worse? What if a tester and a developer are having a heated debate about something that has just been tested? Will this influence your testing?

Does any of this article back up my earlier tweet that testers need to be grumpy so and sos?

However I think this view is too simplistic. I am often asked about testers and how they are different from developers. (There is still a big drive within testing that developer and tester can be the same person and be able to switch between the different roles). I have a feeling that some of the best testers can switch between different psychological emotional states when testing. They have the best of both worlds. Able to remain focused when something is bugging them and then when they have solved what is bugging them able to switch to a whole picture view of the system they are testing.

When I started to write this article I thought it would be very simple to come to a conclusion about how emotions can affect our ability to test and what is the best mood to be in to get the best out of testing. It has proven more difficult than I thought and I still have not come to any firm conclusion about which is the best.

The one interesting point that should be made is that as professional testers we need to be aware of our emotions and how they can affect the quality of the testing we are doing. Part 2 of this blog will be looking at how we can capture our emotion and feelings about the product we are testing and see if this could provide useful information.


  1. Hi John, Good post!

    I was thinking about posting an article about a defocus heuristic along the lines of 'driving my car'. As I seem to come up with test ideas whem I'm driving to work. (i.e. out of the work environment) I asked another tester, and he said he came up with good test ideas when in the shower. What i'm now thinking is, is that linked to mood? When I'm driving I generally have my ipod on listening to music. I also used to have some wicked test ideas just before I went to sleep (I must be getting old or living fast - I don't seem to get that anymore!)
    Or is it just that we're getting out of the 'prison' as James Bach calls it, during those moments.

    But also can you have blended moods?...eek..

    I have experienced situations where test labs can be isolated environments with no natural light, and hot or cold because of the amount of machines, so you could be grumpy that you've got no natural light but happy when your testing...Not sure if that makes any sense? or is that too different states of mood?


  2. Hi, John...

    Good work on the set and settings angle. With respect to oracles, you might be interested in this:

    Do we find more bugs when we are in a bad mood?

    When we're testing and we suddenly find ourselves in a bad mood, that's an indication that we may be experiencing a bug.


    ---Michael B.

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  4. Thanks for the comments Michael & Peter.

    I find this area very interesting and I think it might have been a chat we had on SkyPe Michael where you was showing me these slides that made me research more into how important our emotions can be when testing. - So thanks for the idea :o)

    I think your ideas Peter are great - they are about our thoughts and emotions away from testing. Another very interesting topic - I look forward to your blog on this. I sometimes wake up at night and think..... I should have tried this way to test x,y and z today. Then gone back to sleep - A sign of old age indeed.

    I am just trying to get the wording (when I get some time spare....) to put together the next part which looks at if we should record our emotions and our gut feeling - based upon Blink (M. Gladwell) and the Handbook of Psychology (vol 4-5) which are heavy reading. Can our emotions give us some indication as to how good is the thing we are testing.

  5. I look forward to your next post!
    I have also been interested about what we are looking at on the screen when we test, like what we scan, what we miss, through eye scanning.

    Like we do this to people when we do usability testing, could we extend it to all testing, i.e. what we are scanning, could you also detect our mood through facial expressions? Although that might be ambiguous and over the top.


  6. I like the way that you kept this post open-ended - not starting from a conclusion and "writing backwards" but keep an open mind throughout - just the way an intro to a discussion should be!

    Mood might be something that affects our work ability. But even if we're in a good or neutral mood - the work we do is likely to be affected by priming - starting work after reading a strenuous article and thinking about its consequences and application will certainly open a mind in that direction...

    So, maybe it's about how we as testers frame or prime ourselves for the work at hand. I must admit, I sometimes find it hard to switch off when confronted with a problem - the subconcious takes over some of the strain even when you're "off-duty". In fact the sub-concious mind is usually doing a lot of post-processing - this in itself will sometimes a eureka moment whether at work or not - and so act as a primer also.

    I'd definitely say that being in a mood that affects your focus and is not necessarilly the best for attention - whether it's really good or bad news before turning up to the job - anything that stops you focussing...

    So, maybe the best "mood" is a neutral mood.

    Being in a bad mood when your test mission is not focussed on "breaking something" might not be productive - it then becomes a potential distraction that you're stepping off your immediate focus. True, you might discover something new - every cloud has a silver lining!

    Mood and priming effects mixed with past experience - a complicated mix!