Friday, December 10, 2021

Testing and Words


The other day I got tagged on a Twitter thread started by Wicked Witch of the Test about people with a background in linguistics who’ve ended up in testing. That prompted me to think about the language concepts I've found valuable in my day job, then I started listing them, and then realised how many of them I've mentioned here over the years.  

This post is one of an occasional series collecting some of those thoughts. 


In The Complete Plain Words, Ernest Gowers notes, acidly, that:

What appears to be a sloppy or meaningless use of words may well be a completely correct use of words to express sloppy or meaningless ideas.

It surely sounds trite to say it but our choice of words can make a significant difference to how well our message is understood, and how we are judged.

We choose from amongst those words we know, our lexicons. The more my lexicon agrees with yours, the greater our chance of us achieving a shared understanding when we converse.

But lexicons are also gatekeepers. As Russell Brand put it so succinctly on the Comedian's Comedian podcast:

Only things that there are words for are being said. A challenge ... is to make up different words if you want to say different and unusual things.

To improve collaboration, then, find a common vocabulary which covers all the concepts you need. 

Sounds simple, but giving serious thought to specific terminology choices is also important. Carefully selected names and naming conventions can make understanding a problem space straightforward. Not taking care can have the opposite effect, particularly for newcomers.

However, even if you've achieved a comprehensive vocabulary that is clear, logical, and known to everyone who needs to know it, don't relax. Why? Because language does not stand still.

Definitions change over time because the words that make them up change in meaning over time. But those definitions are definitions of words which are used in definitions of other words, so the meaning of them changes too. 

Words do not exist in isolation. They are part of a wider system, a wide and complex system, one in which words and the things they describe both change in more or less predictable ways over time. They also interact with and are altered by other parallel systems. Tough, but c'est la vie.

How does this knowledge help me as a tester?

When I joined my current company I talked to lots of people and read a lot of wiki pages. What I noticed, as I tried to build a set of coherent models, was the variability in the descriptions of the same software components, projects, or organisational structures. The axes that these varied along include:

  • time: how it was, how it is, or how it's going to be
  • perspective: actual, perceived, or desired
  • proximity: in our team, in our group, or in the whole company

To give just one tiny example: my team's component imports another team's code as a library. Variable and object names are very inconsistent between them despite many concepts overlapping significantly. It probably was closer early on but has diverged over time. Needless to say, this does not help us to collaborate.

Day to day, I try to stay alert to the fact I can't rely on the words meaning what I think they mean, or should mean. I will deliberately ask for clarification, I will summarise back to check my understanding, and I will choose a subset of my lexicon carefully to suit the people I am conversing with.

I also consciously date stamp and contextualise much of what I write down so there is at least a chance that the next reader along can know that Project X isn't some skunkworks secret from the past, just an earlier iteration of what they already know as Project Y.

If "contextualise" sounds like extra time and effort then you're right, it is. But I aim for it to be as little as writing a one-line Background section at the top of a page with links to material that already exists, or using tag, labels, or whatever metadata options are available to me in the system I'm working on.

I am also cautious about using certain kinds of words, particularly in bug reports. Compare these two sets of reproduction steps:

* Create one thingy
* Increase the X-parameter
* Create another thingy
* Move the thingy with the increased X into the panel for the first thingy

* Create a thingy (T1)
* Increase T1's X-parameter
* Create a thingy (T2)
* Move T2 into T1's panel

Which would you rather (a) write and (b) follow?

It can be tempting to go on a mission to squash all ambiguity, but sometimes a little greyness can encourage collaboration and move initiatives forward, so there's a judgement call to be made. My approach is to follow Postel's Law and strive to be strict in what I produce but accommodating to what I receive.

Finally, at CEWT a couple of years ago I attempted to argue that testers often don't know what they're doing, and that's fine. To illustrate my point, I asked the other workshop participants to give definitions of quality, bug, and testing. It probably won't surprise you to learn that they orbited around common cores but also differed significantly. We still managed to spend a day talking about those topics to one another!


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