Exploratory Testing using Personas

I get asked a lot about Exploratory Testing on agile projects. In my position paper for the Canadian Agile Network Workshop last month, I described Exploratory Testing using personas. I’m reposting it here to share some of my own experience Exploratory Testing on agile projects.

Usability Testing: Exploratory Testing using Personas

Usability tests are almost impossible to automate. Part of the reason might be that usability is a very subjective thing. Another reason is that automated tests do not run within a business context. Program usability can be difficult to test at all, but working regularly with many end users can help. We usually don’t have the luxury of many users testing full-time on projects; usually there is one customer representative. Once we get information from our test users, how do we continue testing when they aren’t around? One possible method is Exploratory Testing with personas.

I’ve noticed a pattern on some agile teams. At first the customer and those testing have some usability concerns. After a while, the usability issues seem to go away. Is this because usability has improved, or has the team become too close to the project to test objectively? On one project, the sponsor rotated the customer representative due to scheduling issues. We were concerned at first, but a benefit emerged. Whenever a new customer was brought into the team, they found usability issues when they started testing. Often, the usability concerns were the same as what had been brought up by the testers and the customer earlier on, but had been contentious issues that the team wasn’t able to resolve.

On another project using XP and Scrum, a usability consultant was brought in. They did some prototyping and brought in a group of end users to try out their ideas. Any areas the users struggled with were addressed in the prototypes. The users were also asked a variety of questions about how they used the software, and their level of computer skills, which we used to create user profiles or personas. As the developers added more functionality in each iteration, testers simulated the absent end users by Exploratory Testing with personas to more effectively test the application for usability. The team wanted to automate these tests, but could not.

Exploratory Testing was much more effective at providing rapid feedback because it relies on skilled, brain-engaged testing within a context. The personas helped provide knowledge of the business context, and the way end-users interacted with the program in their absence. The customer representative working on the team also took part in these tests.

Tension on usability issues seemed to be reduced as well. These issues were no longer mere opinions. Now the team had something quantifiable to back up usability concerns. Instead of having differing opinions from developers, testers could say: “when testing with the persona ‘Mary’, we found this issue.” This proved to be effective at reducing usability debates. The team compromised with most issues being addressed, and others not. There were still three contentious issues that were outstanding when the project had completed the UI changes. We scheduled time to revisit end-users and had some surprising results.

Each end-user struggled with the three contentious usability issues the testers had discovered, which justified the approach, but there were three more areas we had completely missed. We realized that the users were using the software in a way we hadn’t intended. There was a flaw in our data gathering. Our first sample of users tested in our office, not their own. We had them work with the software at their own desks, and within their business context. Lesson learned: get the customer data when they are using the software in their own work environment.

On this project, Exploratory Testing with personas proved to be an effective way to compensate for limited full-time end user testing on the project. It also helped to provide rapid feedback in an area that automated tests couldn’t address. It didn’t replace the customer input, but worked well as a complementary testing technique with automation and customer acceptance testing. It helped to retain their voice in the usability of the product throughout development instead of sporadically, and helped to combat group think.