Category Archives: user profiles

User Profiles and Exploratory Testing

Knowing the User and Their Unique Environment

As I was working on an article for Better Software magazine, I found consistent patterns in cases where I have found a repeatable case to a so-called “unrepeatable bug”. One pattern that surprised me was how often I do user profiling. Often, one tester or end-user sees a so-called unrepeatable bug more frequently than others. A lot of my investigative work in these cases involves trying to get inside an end-user’s head (often a tester) to emulate their actions. I have learned to spend time with the person to get a better perspective on not only their actions and environment, but their ideas and motivations. The resulting user profiles fuel ideas for exploratory testing sessions to track down difficult bugs.

Recently I was assigned the task of tracking down a so-called unrepeatable bug. Several people with different skill levels had worked on it with no success. With a little time and work, I was able to get a repeatable case. Afterwards, when I did a personal retrospective on the assignment, I realized that I was creating a profile of the tester who had come across the “unrepeatable” cases that the rest of the dev team did not see. Until that point, I hadn’t realized to what extent I was modeling the tester/user when I was working on repeating “unrepeatable” bugs. My exploratory testing for this task went something like this.

I developed a model of the tester’s behaviour through observation and some pair testing sessions. Then, I started working on the problem and could see the failure very sporadically. One thing I noticed was that this tester did installations differently than others. I also noticed what builds they were using, and that there was more of a time delay between their actions than with other testers (they often left tasks mid-stream to go to meetings or work on other tasks). Knowing this, I used the same builds and the same installation steps as the tester; I figured out that part of the problem had to do with a Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) offset that was set incorrectly in the embedded device we were testing. Upon installation, the system time was set behind our Mountain Time offset, so the system time was back in time. This caused the system to reboot in order to reset the time (known behavior, working properly). But, as the resulting error message told me, there was also a kernel panic in the device. With this knowledge, I could repeat the bug about every two out of five times, but it still wasn’t consistent.

I spent time in that tester’s work environment to see if there was something else I was missing. I discovered that their test device had connections that weren’t fully seated, and that they had stacked the embedded device on both a router and a power supply. This caused the device to rock gently back and forth when you typed. So, I went back to my desk, unseated the cables so they barely made a connection, and—while installing a new firmware build—tapped my desk with my knee to simulate the rocking. Presto! Every time I did this with a same build that this tester had been using, the bug appeared.

Next, I collaborated with a developer. He went from, “that can’t happen,” to “uh oh, I didn’t test if the system time is back in time, *and* that the connection to the device is down during installation to trap the error.” The time offset and the flakey connection were causing two related “unrepeatable” bugs. This sounds like a simple correlation from the user’s perspective, but it wasn’t from a code perspective. These areas of code were completely unrelated and weren’t obvious when testing at the code level.

The developer thought I was insane when he saw me rocking my desk with my knee while typing to repeat the bug. But when I repeated the bugs every time, and explained my rationale, he chuckled and said it now made perfect sense. I walked him through my detective work, how I saw the device rocking out of the corner of my eye when I typed at the other tester’s desk. I went through the classic conjecture/refutation model of testing where I observed the behavior, set up an experiment to emulate the conditions, and tried to refute my proposition. When the evidence supported my proposition, I was able to get something tangible for the developer to repeat the bug himself. We moved forward, and were able to get a fix in place.

Sometimes we look to the code for sources of bugs and forget about the user. When one user out of many finds a problem, and that problem isn’t obvious in the source code, we dismiss it as user error. Sometimes my job as an exploratory tester is to track down the idiosyncrasies of a particular user who has uncovered something the rest of us can’t repeat. Often, there is a kind of chaos-theory effect that happens at the user interface, that only a particular user has the right unique recipe to cause a failure. Repeating the failure accurately not only requires having the right version of the source code and having the test system deployed in the right way, it also requires that the tester knows what a that particular user was doing at that particular time. In this case, I had all three, but emulating an environment I assumed was the same as mine was still tricky. The small differences in test environments, when coupled with slightly different usage by the tester, made all the difference between repeating the bug and not being able to repeat it. The details were subtle on their own, but each nuance, when put together, amplified each other until the application had something it couldn’t handle. Simply testing the same way we had been in the tester’s environment didn’t help us. Putting all the pieces together yielded the result we needed.

Note: Thanks to this blog post by Pragmatic Dave Thomas, this has become known as the “Knee Testing” story.


Dehumanizing the User

As Mike Cohn points out in Advantages of User Stories for Requirements, writing requirements documents with the phrase: “the system shall” causes us to lose focus on the user. We aren’t writing something to satisfy the system, we are writing something to satisfy the needs of the user, the customer.

Maybe this is another encapsulation endeavor. Is using this kind of language an implicit (or unconscious) attempt to hide the complexity of working with people into a simplified interface called “the system”? As we encapsulate the needs and wants of the user within this black box, is this system an accurate representation of the customer’s original knowledge? Does it meet their needs? How can we tell?

What do we lose when we shift focus from being customer-obsessed to talking more in terms of the system? It’s one thing to satisfy a system, and quite another to satisfy the customer. Language is very important, and if the “user” or “customer” are being talked about less on a project, there is a danger that we may think about the customer and their needs less. Furthermore, if we refer less to the user and more to the system we are developing when looking at requirements and needs, we dehumanize the user. The context of satisfying a requirement at the system level and at the customer level can be two very different things. Customers worry about how usable the software is, sometimes more so than the fact that the requirement exists in the system concept.

If we dehumanize the user, why shouldn’t the user dehumanize us? Instead of a development relationship based on collaboration focused on meeting the needs of the customer, we run the risk of becoming commodities to each other. What’s to stop the customer from treating us as a commodity if we treat them as one? If communication breaks down and we dehumanize each other, how can we meet the needs of the customer? How can they be sure their needs are met? Can we trust each other?

Even when we use methodologies that are based on collaborating with the customer, we should be careful not to force them into a position they aren’t comfortable with. A key for overcoming technical bullying is effective communication. We need to treat the customer as a human being who has needs and feelings like we do, and communicate with them. With proper two-way communication, we can make sure they understand what we are doing, and enable them to ensure we are meeting their needs. Words are important, and listening to the customer is even more important. If we really listen, we can find out what the customer needs and develop that. The customer needs to be satisfied, not necessarily the system. Our language should reflect this.