Monthly Archives: May 2016

How the mindset of a gamer helps in testing

My last blog post ended with the comment that I had started out with the intention of writing about how thinking about a problem like a gamer can help you as a tester.

Gamers have goals. It’s basically the defining characteristic of someone playing a game, that they have a goal they want to achieve. It can be to get past a level, beat an opponent, gather materials, beat a certain time, the objective itself doesn’t matter, but the goal oriented mindset does.

When you are testing, what are you trying to do? Much of the time you might be testing a specific fix, or trying to catch any regressions, but is that really the best use of your time? When you goal-set, don’t be too focused on the immediate, and remember one thing above all others. You’re not there to pass tests. Testers are there to make sure things work, not to say “This test passes”. Passing tests is emphatically not your goal, if it is then you’re not testing the product, you’re sucking up to developers and they won’t thank you for it.

So what are reasonable goals? To catch every bug in the software? Not even slightly possible if your codebase is more than a hundred lines of active code, including any library code. To exercise the happy paths? Definitely possible, but try to aim a little higher. To test a feature to as thoroughly as possible in the time allowed? Finally something realistic, but somewhat nebulous. Let’s try and see if we can’t firm it up a little. What are you testing? Because this is the ultimate arbiter of what your goals should be. If you’re testing a simple one line fix, you probably only need to check its immediate impact, if it’s a new feature that reaches deep into the code base, you will need to guard against regressions in more edge cases. A whole new product? You’re going to need a good test plan for that.

Now, how do you organise your test plan? A gamer approaches their goals and they break them down into manageable chunks. You ultimate aim could be to finish the game, but breaking it down, it’s the next level, the right equipment, the hidden side quest. Lots of small goals that together will lead you to the ultimate aim. The same holds true for testing, break it into little chunks and face them head on. Your final boss is your users and they will leap on any weak points you have, so your game is to fix all the holes in your application, coating it in impenetrable armour. You need to work on each area individually before you polish the suit of armour and face that boss.

Breaking it down is easier than you might think, Every piece of software naturally falls into a few categories of pieces, User interface, input/output, data manipulation, dark magic bit. The first three are fairly self explanatory but the dark magic bit is the most important. I’ve called it dark magic because it’s the part of your software that does what no one else does in quite the same way. The dark magic bit (DMB) is your unique selling point and it’s also the part of your code base that you can’t generally use an off the shelf testing solution to approach. It could be a certain algorithm, a method of parallelised processing or some super low level hooks into the kernel or below. No matter what it is, it’s going to be the part of your codebase that needs the most scrutiny. There’re libraries and standard testing tools for things like I/O, Networking and database interfaces and it’s likely that if it’s not your DMB, it’s going to rely on something pretty standard. No one likes to reinvent the wheel for a mundane task when they get to make a triangular wheel which can roll over water for the DMB.
Of course though, your software has to work, even if the DMB is made of purest genius distilled into code, there has to be a way for it to communicate with the outside world and for users to interact with it. So it’s not that you can just ignore the standard parts of your codebase, just that you have access to standard tools and approaches available to you for these tests. It can often be that you spend more time on the actual testing of your standard components than you do on your DMB, don’t be deceived though, your DMB is still where most of your creative effort is spent.

In essence the DMB is the item or person you need to protect to defeat the boss, everything else is testing the entourage and guards. Approach your DMB as you would armouring your most precious resource and you’ll not go far wrong.

Of course if it all gets a bit much then take a break and play a game, it can only help, right?

The appliance of gaming science

Or how playing computer games can help you test.

I’m pretty certain that there’s a large overlap between those who work in IT and those who game, it’s not one hundred percent but the Venn diagram doesn’t have a lot of space in it.So now it’s time to explain how that can possibly help you as a tester.

There’s as many types of video gamer as there are people who play videogames, but they tend to fall into a few major archetypes. There’s the classic power gamer – completist, min-maxer* who will research how to win, learning hundreds of key combinations if that’s what it takes. There’s the roleplayer who focusses more on character and story than on statistics. There’s the casual gamer who plays to kill a few minutes here and there who doesn’t care if they’re not first to do something as long as they have fun. Recently there’s also been the mobile gamer who plays puzzle/social games.

Now of course there’s massive overlap between these archetypes and none of them is going to represent anyone completely, Most people are a mix of all or some of these, but each one can teach us something about how to test, so the more of a crossover you have, the more pools of experience you can bring to bear.

The Power Gamer

This archetype is probably what most people think of when they think gamer, what they might not realise is that the archetype is also the embodiment of the motto, semper paratus**, always prepared. For a tester this means learn your product. What should it do? How should it do it? What should it not do? What external interactions can affect the result? For example, should your messaging app deliver messages within a certain time? Should it always be listening for messages? How does it handle network timeouts? What happens if it gets closed before a message arrives? Is it peer-to-peer or server-client? What are the weakness of each? How do you test them? Is this the most efficient way to test this product? The power gamer looks at all these things before making a move. Planning is key.

The Roleplayer

This is more often associated with tabletop gamers, players of Dungeons and Dragons, or Live Action RolePlayers. This archetype gives us something incredibly valuable to a tester, empathy with the end user. A roleplayer can assume another character and act out their reactions to various events, which is exactly what we need to do as testers. When a new user encounters your product, how do they interact with it? What cues do they have? What does a regular user do most often, is it easy? What’s the least common thing you’d do as a user? Is it OK to bury it in a few layers of menus? The roleplayer in you can help you answer these questions and more.

The Casual Gamer

The casual gamer is the master of making each moment count, Got a spare half an hour? Advance a little way in a game, watch some youtube videos about the game, maybe even read up on what the Power gamers are doing. They bring another useful skill to the table, maximising what you can do in the time available to you. This can mean a bit of exploratory testing when you have a few minutes, but it can also be so much more. Do you have fifteen minutes while that build finishes? Practice a bit of programming and finish your script! Got five minutes before a meeting? Read some of your engineering documents or even a testing blog or two! Casual gamers make the most of the time they have, testers should too.

The Mobile Gamer.
The mobile gamer is related to the casual gamer, but often more heavily focussed on puzzle based gaming. This gives them a keen eye for pattern recognition and the ability to work on problems subconsciously while they focus on other tasks. These are two very powerful tools for everyone, not just a tester, but the ability to spot when something isn’t quite right, before it leads to a problem is the very nature of what it means to be a tester. We’re the stitch in time to save nine. It’s very often the case (at least for me) that the solution to a problem comes to me when I am doing something completely unrelated, learning to allow your mind to work on things in the background is definitely something every tester should work at.

No matter how you game, you’re learning skills you can bring effectively to testing.

This post was originally on how the visualisation techniques of gaming could be brought to bear to help in test strategising, but morphed as I was writing it. I do plan to come back to that theme in the future though.

*a min-maxer is someone who tries to get the most power output from the least input, the maximum from the minimum.

** I would also accept estote parati