pair testing adventures

Last week, I finally did what I’ve been wanting to do for months (years) and engaged in pair testing three times with some differing results.

what is pair testing?

Pair testing is a lot like pair programming, where you have two sets of eyes and two minds engaged in the same problem. There can be a lot of benefits to it (Lisa Crispin talks about it here), such as increased creativity, better quality, and more exploration, but, just like pair programming, it can be difficult to start and requires a lot of focus and energy. I wanted to learn strong-style pairing, as it seems to involve the most engagement from both people.

learning with Maaret

First up was a lesson with Maaret Pyhäjärvi, and absolutely amazing and well-known tester who publishes and speaks on testing regularly. I had confessed to her that most of my bugs feel like the result of serendipity rather than skill, and I told her that I wanted to work on my exploration as well as pairing. She was kind about it, even writing a post about serendipity.

We started at 7am my time, and for the next hour, we talked and tested a “simple” application that consisted of a text box, a button, and text outputs. As we tested, we talked about assumptions, tools, resources, and how outputs are inputs and can be manipulated (using tools or fiddling with the html itself).

Maaret taught while she tested with me, and, I have to admit, I was rather star-struck and honored that she gave me her time (do I sound too much like a fangirl?). It was a wonderful experience, and I left for work on a high that lasted all morning. I felt energized to bring what I had learned to my team at work immediately, and I convinced the other tester on my team to pair test with me in the afternoon.

practical application

In spite of the high from the morning, work was not stellar that day, and by the time the afternoon rolled around, I was slightly grumpy, my normal afternoon walk with a colleague-turned-friend had been canceled because of meetings (and I guess I was reluctant to go alone for no good reason), and I was low energy. But I decided to push through it and pair test with my colleague.

It was rough. I did a poor job of explaining why I thought we would do a better job testing together. It was a form in one of the features I’m responsible for testing (which is a topic for another post), so we tested inputs and buttons. I felt like I was generating all the ideas, and though I was trying to nudge towards more creativity, the testing felt flat and generic. When I asked what my colleague thought about it, the response was, “I think you could have done the same work on your own and much faster, and because we have a deadline, this wasn’t really a good use of time.” I came away from that experience disappointed and disheartened. (Maybe I’m too easily swayed by experiences and need to work on emotional resilience, but that’s a different post as well.)

a “stop” with Lisi

Anyway, not one to be defeated by something, I had signed up for a “stop” on Lisi Hocke‘s testing tour. Saturday morning, I worked with her for 90 minutes, and it turned out amazing as well. We tested a sketching program, an application neither of us had seen before. We started out broadly, exploring what happened with various features, and focusing for probably 10-20 minutes on areas where we saw weird things. We talked the whole time about what we were seeing, both unexpectedly positive things and “weird” things. It started out looking like a good application that I might consider using, but then we saw the save function, and that made the entire thing seem like a terrible user experience.

I liked the positive energy that both of us had, and Lisi is such an engaging person. I also liked that we used a timer to switch off who was driving and who was navigating. We had 4 minutes at a time before we switched. It relieved a lot of the pressure, because towards the end, as my mental focus was waning, I knew I just had to think of ideas for another minute or two before I would get to drive and let Lisi tell me what to do, which then opened up new areas for exploration and such. I felt like we were really working together, and I felt the benefits of pair testing in a new way.


I think one big difference was that Maaret and Lisi are so experienced in pair testing that they made it easy to include me and guide me when I needed it. I’ve now done it formally a total of three times, and for one of those, I was the one responsible for keeping the energy up and extolling the benefits of it. That was rough, as I am both inexperienced in the practice and somewhat insecure about my own testing abilities, and thus apprehensive about letting colleagues see what I perceive as my ineptitude.

One thing that I have been unable to figure out is how to effectively take notes through a mind map when we’re working on the same machine. I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of the session to work on the map, but I also didn’t want to just write down notes on paper and then have to transcribe those into a consumable digital format later. This will be something to experiment with.

Next time, at work, I will use a timer and not be so timid. I may also press for testing together in the morning, before the day has a chance to get to me. I’ll be more attuned to my mood and energy, and I may try to write down some ideas before we start so that I at least have some direction or goal for things that really have to get done, not just areas that seem neat.

All in all, I’m really glad that I finally dove into this. I’m proud of myself for asking for help and for trying something new, and I want to continue learning and experimenting. Stay tuned.

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