Wednesday 2 September 2015

Important defects or significant information?



As a tester I feel I am a provider of information, information that allows others to best judge quality and risk. If this is correct, should I merely report all information with no care for judging importance or priority? If I filter the information to what I think is important, surely I'm influencing the decision process of others? I feel this is, as ever, a murky gray area that has no easy answers.

Who decides importance?

Project Managers, Product Owners, Business Analysts, stakeholders - whoever determines what is worked on - decides importance. There is absolutely no question of that. As a tester I am not the one who decides what is worked on. I am not usually in a position where I am in conversation with the entire business or have sufficient knowledge of ‘the big picture’ to make these decisions and it isn't the job I'm hired to do. Of course, there may be circumstances where these jobs are blurred (there are Project Managers who test). Still, in a typical company set up, I'm rarely hired as a tester to manage projects.

However, that doesn't mean as a tester I can’t have some knowledge of the wider project or business concerns. It vastly improves my testing ability to have this knowledge! So, I do have the information to assist others in measuring or deciding importance. I am a gatherer of information, and it is how I communicate this which is all important. In doing this, I will need to use careful language to ensure that I am not under-emphasising or over-emphasising particular parts of that information.

For example, a product owner is gathering metrics on how a system is used. They measure how often particular features are used by customers and decide how important bugs or problems affecting those features are, based on this metric. If I have found a critical bug with a feature I have to be very careful to highlight and justify the critical nature of the bug. If I only described the bug as “There is a problem with this feature”, the product owner may choose to dismiss the bug if it’s a relatively low-use feature. But what if the bug corrupts the database? This surely has to be fixed? This is why careful use of language is important. A tester needs to understand the significance of the information they have gathered; and convey this in a balanced way

Informing not blocking

So if a tester helps decide significance, how far should they go in justifying significance? This is the tricky part - you must ensure you are not blocking the business, or even more importantly, you must ensure you are not seen as blocking the business. You need to balance providing useful information, which allows others to make decisions, with the language you use in describing that information. For example, if I find a defect which I believe is very significant and I feel I need to highlight, I could use the following kind of language:

“There are lots of important defects, affecting all sorts of areas. We must fix them immediately and we cannot release until they are fixed!”

This is very poor use of language and isn't providing any useful information. Firstly, I'm declaring the importance with finality - I am not the one to judge the importance of the defects. Secondly, I'm telling people what to do and then failing to provide any justification. This also gives an impression that I am demanding the defect is fixed.
Now consider if I worded it like this:

“There are two defects that are significant. The web application server fails to start because it is missing a configuration file and the database updates have deleted the accounts table. I also have a further list of defects that I think are significant but these two I think need attention first.”

Here I am highlighting what I know are significant defects and providing information about them so that people can make their own conclusions. By highlighting the significance, I focus people’s attention on those defects. By providing summaries of the defects, I allow people to make their own judgement of whether the defects are really important. So here I am not declaring importance, but I'm suggesting a course of action backed up by the information I have. This helps promote an image of my testing as being informative, rather than demanding.

And the blocking? Surely I can’t let a defect go live?!

Its also important to therefore have an attitude which allows you to accept and understand the decision that is made. Even when you have presented this information, the business may decide to accept the defect and not fix it. At this point you have done your job and should not feel responsible for the decision. Testers are not the gatekeepers for defects going live. Testers are more like spies - gathering intelligence to inform decisions made from a strategic level. Just like a spy, you may commit significant time and energy to delivering information you may have felt is significant - sometimes beyond what you were asked to do. But the spy doesn't act on the information, they merely deliver it. 007 is not a good spy in this respect, he’s trying to defeat the defect all by himself and it may only be another henchman. We want to be a team player, provide information to others and help attack the boss pulling the strings!

So I just let someone else decide, so I shouldn't care?

No you absolutely should care! You should be passionate about quality and take pleasure in delivering clear and accurate information to the relevant people. Recognising someone else takes the decision is not a sign that your information, your work, doesn't matter. Its a sign that there is more to consider than one viewpoint - the business or organisation cares about the wider view. But it can only make the best decisions if the smaller views that are communicated up are given care and attention. The value of any group must surely be the sum of its parts, so by caring you are implicitly helping the wider group care.


  • Testers don’t decide importance, however, they can influence importance by providing information on significance.
  • The language you use shapes how others perceive significance, so your words must be carefully chosen - they should be objective, not subjective.
  • Testers should help the wider business to make informed decisions, not become the gatekeepers for defects.

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