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.