Planning and managing my learning… at least trying to

The truth is that when I think of all the things I want to learn (or think I HAVE to learn) about testing… then I want to go HOLY CRAP!!!! THERE IS SO MUCH TO LEARN! I FEEL LIKE I HAVE TO RUN IN EVERY DIRECTION!!!!!!!1!!!!

Yes, really.

And of course I’ve realized multiple times that I need to plan my learning and manage it. Somehow.

Tobbe Ryber’s keynote at Nordic Testing Days in June this year about what he did to become a better tester was inspiring. But I also felt ashamed that I actually HAVE NOT transferred my plan from the back of my head into reality. So I vowed myself that after I have been able to catch my breath (I had just defended my thesis in May), I’ll get to work.

It’s freaking October now, and I can’t say I have made much progress.

And then I thought it’s so true that nothing changes if you’re comfortable. I think I should go DIY and make posters with this message, and plaster my home AND my desk at work.

So I can freely admit that I had been comfortable for a while. And tired, too. It’s only recently that I feel like I can probably switch to top gear and do a lot of stuff like I used to. It’s not like I’ve done nothing but if I compare myself to what I was like earlier, I see the difference.

So after Nordic Testing Days I was brooding over where to start. I got involved in some programming (just a bit) and it was very interesting. Even from this bit I learned a lot about my thinking.

I do a lot of thinking at the back of my mind when doing other things… so my brain hasn’t been completely idle.

Then in September I read the post by Rosie at Software Testing Club (

The question is simple: what do you do and how you do it?

Now I have my mind set to “do something about it”. But then I got stuck with the the “how”. I know that I have the tendency to overthink things (sometimes :))… but it seems like the execution part IS very important to me to get right. The truth is that I have tried it before. So what I’ve ended up with are:

  • notes about articles in my notebook
  • notes about these articles on the printouts of those articles
  • bookmarks to these articles in my browser
  • some notes on ideas in some file on the hard drive
  • some notes on a random piece of paper
  • some ideas lost…
  • some organized and some disorganized mindmaps
  • files scattered between my work laptop and personal one
  • bookmarks in another browser
  • stuff in Google reader
  • some random Google docs

You get the picture.

I can be systematic and organized with other things…. or maybe this is what I like to think of myself… But here the problem seems to be that there are many different sources of information that it probably takes a lot more discipline to get it organized than I have exercised so far.

What to do about it?

File distribution between computers is not really a problem. I’ve been using dropbox for years, and now there are other solutions available that are even more convenient (such as SugarSync). So I just have to start using it for storing and organizing my files, articles, mindmaps, etc. PERIOD.

Notes are a different matter. I like to take notes while reading but I read online, I read books, I sometimes print stuff out so I can curl up on the couch with it. Soon I’ll have a Kindle, so that will complicate it even further. I guess I should choose one method, and then if I use another one, be disciplined about transferring information.

I have used Notepad++ but then saving the files was uncomfortable and I had to remember where my stuff was. I have used mindmaps but they don’t always work for note taking. I like to scribble things using my pen as I go.

Recently, I have started using Evernote. I like the way I can easily create new notes, I see what I have created and I can switch between them without opening a file from hard drive. I love that I don’t have to worry about saving stuff anywhere. So I guess I will stick with this one for a while unless somebody can recommend me something better.

I’ve also seen people use Sublime Text for note taking. Not a bad idea, actually, considering this example: I haven’t used it for notes but I like it in general. I think it has great features (and I like their color schemes for code…).

Bookmarks seem to be a trivial topic and I think I just haven’t researched enough to find a good solution. For some reason, I haven’t used Google Bookmarks so far. I’ve tried Delicious but this wore me out. So now I have looked into some options, and I have started organizing the links in Google Bookmarks by tagging them. Other suggestions are also welcome.

Mindmaps are a tool I like to use for different things… Brainstorming, planning, note taking on some occasions… It’s their vice and virtue that they can be used for so many different things. So I’m thinking it may make sense to use them for specific things such as building a model of something I have thought about but not for note taking so that I could keep my READING notes in one place only.

Blogs are a massive source of information, inspiration, and ideas and I usually keep them in my Google Reader. I suspect I have quite a few links among my bookmarks as well. Sometimes I don’t want to subscribe but just store this one entry, hence the bookmarking. I should also make it a task for myself to comment more on the blogs. Sometimes I read a blog and think “hmmm…. this got me thinking”. But then I’d have to sit on this for a while to be able to think it through… and by that time… I’ve forgotten or I don’t go back. Or I’ve lost the link.

Good old notebook is what I like to use from time to time. Yes, it’s a Moleskine. It’s black. I can take it with me wherever I go. Sure, I have the Evernote app and MS Office on my Windows Phone but you know… sometimes, just sometimes it’s good to be offline and not at your computer. I feel that I should cut the time I spend at laptop. I work hard, and then I need to read about stuff… so it’s easily at least 12 hours a day that I spend staring at the screen.

Also, I like to go to a cafe and sit down with an article or a book on testing and read it, and take notes, sip my coffee and let my mind wander. So my notebook is not going anywhere.

Planning my learning is something for which I haven’t used a specific tool yet. Pekka cut to the chase and created a mindmap:

Another pretty cool tool I learned about from a colleague (she uses it for managing the writing of her MA thesis) is Trello:

So I haven’t decided on this one yet but it would be nice to use something to track the progress (which would allow me to feel good about myself, of course).

Reflection. Thinking about my thinking and discussing it with someone is by far the most important learning activity I can think of. This is what I need to take time for more often. I need to reflect on my experiences, what I do, how I solve problems at my job. My mentor says that I have quite a bit to share. However, I don’t tend to see it that way most of the time as I perceive the things I do as… usual, regular, not newsworthy in general. One of the reasons, though, can be that I don’t distance myself enough from the daily toil. So to reflect, I need to take the time, talk to people, take notes on my thoughts, and I need to blog more often!!!

Anyway, if you got to the end of this rant (thanks for bearing with me), I’d like to hear your thoughts about how you organize your learning.

I think the best thing about writing this blog post is that it enabled me to organize my thoughts and realize that I shouldn’t be sitting on my hands. Even if I feel fed up and tired I should remember that nothing changes if you’re comfortable.

Nordic Testing Days 2012: Keynote – How to Become a Really Great Tester by Torbjörn Ryber

When checking in to the conference, I was handed Tobbe’s “Essential Software Test Design” along with the rest of the conference stuff. I smiled because I remembered the hours I had spent reading this. It was one of the first books (if not THE first book) I ever read on testing back in the autumn of 2010. This was just a couple of months after I had started as the team lead of the testing and documentation team.

I re-read some chapters several times, I tried out different bug report stuff customizing to my context; I photocopied some sections so I could scribble my notes and go wild with my highlighter (I had borrowed this book from somebody working at a different company) and I shared this with my only tester on the team. Thinking about it makes me nostalgic, actually. I had just started, gone through Rapid Software Testing course, seriously started reading and researching and practicing… I have come a long way since then.

Yet, Tobbe’s keynote reminded me that I have a VERY long way to go. So much for feeling good about myself.

I don’t have many handwritten notes from this presentation because my pen went on strike, so I have lonely words and desperate scribbles in my notes (so I probably have forgotten some punchlines).

However, what I took with me and what stuck with me was the following (Tobbe’s points + my musings):

  • above all, you need to be motivated to become a great tester. One might say it’s a given or stating the obvious. But well, sometimes the obvious things must be stated to trigger recognition. The ever-frequent moment of recognizing old truths is what this statement was good for. And then you have all the more reason to dig into your motivation: what is it that really drives you? If that is not easy to answer, I suggest thinking about what are your values in life. I learned that at a training. Knowing what is important in your life in general also means you know what motivates you (hmm… maybe I should write a blog post about it later…).
  • just wanting to be a great tester is not enough.  You must have a plan. And then you need to execute it. Obviously, execution is the hardest part (no pun intended), and this is what separates wannabes from serious folks.
  • practical stuff: if you delve into something, then a good way to solidify your learning is to write a paper. I am planning to do that. Also, I am planning to ask my team members to organize their learning into papers.
  • I took a note to find out what is effect mapping .
  • I also promised myself that I would create a plan (more on this in next blog posts).
  • Thinking critically is something a tester cannot do without, obviously. I think I’m doing that as I tend to analyze stuff (all kind of stuff) but I think I need to learn to communicate the results of my analysis better sometimes (especially to people who know little about testing).
  • “Say NO to bad stuff”. YES! I want to say “YES” to that. This is something I feel strongly about. When I started, it was one of the first things I had to learn to do. A lot. I agree with Tobbe that it is absolutely necessary because then you have time for the “good stuff”. I’d also add that then you’re going to have time to do what matters, and have an impact instead of doing what you’re told and not being able to apply yourself. However, learning how to say “no” to people you’re working with (in my case, Americans who often misunderstand Estonian bluntness) is also important. I had to learn it the hard way but I have got better at it.
  • “Testing should be fun”. I totally agree and I have tried to make work fun for my team. We actually laugh a lot during the day as jokes fly around about bugs or whatever comes up.

All in all, it’s a keynote I have thought a lot about because it probably put my mind on the right track.

Tobbe’s presentation slides can be found here:

Nordic Testing Days: Workshop – Practical Guide to Usability Testing

Once the conference schedule became available, the workshop on usability immediately caught my eye.

In our company, we haven’t had a usability expert at work. The creation of screens and several input forms is flexible as we have a built-in editor for this. It’s part of the engineer’s task to create and design the “look” of the components of the product. The GUI design lacks consistency, and even if a pattern has been established, it is not followed or the details are “off”.

What I was looking for in this workshop led by Hegle Sarapuu was learning some basics about how to carry out usability testing, what are the dos and the dont’s, and where to start at all. In that respect, the workshop fulfilled my expectations, and I had plenty of food for thought later. Even though the practical part took up just a small part of the workshop (thus, it was more like a track that included a practical exercise), I was very satisfied with it because I felt like a received a good starter kit that I could use at work right away. Next I’ll cover some of the useful bits from the workshop and how I have already applied what I learned.

The opportunity to test a redesigned part of the product came soon enough. This part of the application is used for data entry, so the flow and the fluency of steps is very important. The workflow used to be distributed throughout different screens that popped up but now most of the steps were consolidated into one large screen. Also, the flow had to work both for keyboard and mouse users.

Record It

Hegle showed an example of usability testing where the tester’s reactions were recorded along with their comments. In my context, recording the facial reactions would probably be an overkill since I used my own team members (two testers and a technical writer)  for usability testing. However, I asked them to create recordings of their short test session and also record the audio with their comments. Luckily we have built-in screen recording functionality in our product, so I didn’t have to use any special software for that.

The recordings were a couple of minutes long but they provided a lot of information about the steps that were confusing or they misunderstood. This was great first-hand feedback. Also, I could later go back and compare the recordings of earlier sessions to those recorded after improvements had been made.

Usability Characteristics and Tasks

For me the usability characteristics (learnability, efficiency, memorability, errors, satisfaction) gave a good way to focus the usability testing. Since this part of the product is concerned with financial information, reducing user errors, making it easy to learn, and efficient to use were the most important characteristics to focus on. Knowing what is important for the target audience helps to figure out which characteristics matter the most in your context.

Task selection

As Hegle had suggested, it is beneficial to have the usability testers do specific tasks that focus on a specific aspect. Each tester was already familiar with the older version of the flow. In case of medical billing software, it hardly makes sense to pull someone in from the street. So previous knowledge about and experience with the workflow was a prerequisite to choosing the testers. I had three general methods for going through the workflow: using only mouse, using only keyboard, using both mouse and keyboard. I combined these methods with 2 types of product specific flows (the details were slightly different), so I had 6 tasks in the end. I hoped these tasks would highlight the problem areas the best.


The results were great. We got a bunch of suggestions for changing the layout, order of steps, moving focus through fields, navigation, field descriptions, etc. We also found bugs that would have affected either keyboard users or mouse users separately. Some development tasks came out of this as we found that we need to change some aspects of the application’s behavior.

Another benefit of using “internal customers” for usability testing was that they could compare the patterns and behaviors they have learned to the redesigned part of the product.

Once we had smoothed it out, the new workflow and screens were presented to some customers for additional feedback. They were able to contribute ideas based on their business context. So we made those changes and went through another round of usability testing. We also did some testing of specific areas independent of the original tasks.

All in all, we got very positive feedback on our work. We worked closely with the CEO on this one and he brought this project up in meetings and cast it in positive light. So not only were we able to help with making the product better but we garnered positive attention to (usability) testing.

I hope to use this success as an argument for doing more for usability in the future.

Link to Hegle’s slides (I didn’t want to retell everything):