Best practices in testing and Galenic medicine

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I try to go to a lot of testing conferences, I think it’s a good way to try to shift your perspective to a higher level by comparing your understandings with someone else’s and challenge them. There’s hardly a single conference, where no one will mention use of best practices in testing or best practices in test automation.


What are best practices in testing?

To me, it looks like best practices are mostly a way for a person to say “Here’s what I do, here’s what I recommend doing”. But there’s a problem with the term “best practices”.

Very often when people speak or ask for best practices in testing, they are looking for methodological shortcut. What I mean by this is, normally novice testers listening about “best practices” get the false idea that there’s a set of “best practices” in testing that you have to learn and you can be good at what you do. And there goes their journey for finding them, which in the end turns into fighting windmills. As a result, at least from what I see, there’s a lot of specialists who lack basic knowledge, but more dangerously, lack the will to obtain it, because of their false belief that “there’s an easier way”.

The marketing value of best practices.

It’s also a good point for discussion to note that many speakers and bloggers try to boost the suggestive power of their content by using best practices as a marketing term.

It works, it definitely works, due to tricks that human mind is playing in order to save some effort from hard cognitive work. If I have to make a quick reference to Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, fast and slow” , he uses the dichotomy of system 1 and system 2 when speaking about cognition (interpretation is mine, I don’t have any background in psychology):

  • System 1 or the “fast” system is responsible for our reactions in dangerous situations, the so-called instincts,very active in traumatic emotional states where we need to make a decision. The biggest problem with system 1, although it’s very quick, is that it lacks connection to our logical self, as well as to our reflective self. It’s also important to state that system one is where bias or cognitive shortcuts live.
  • System 2, on “the other hand”, is the “slow” system which performs the heavy lifting in our cognitive efforts. It’s very good for complex mental tasks and it totally sucks for giving fast answers. It also costs us a lot of effort and energy to engage it.
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The conclusion that we can draw from the above is – we seem to wholeheartedly try to avoid, in our nature, thinking hard and in-depth and we are very happy when we can come up with an easier solution. That’s why terms like “best practices in testing” earn such success when included in blog posts and presentations – because they engage our system 1, which also includes invoking of tons of bias.

comforting best practices

Galenic medicine and best practices in testing

In order to make a better point, I would like to give example of one of the fields that we consider “very serious” – medicine. In medicine, for many centuries up to the 19-th century, in fact, the dominant paradigm was the one developed by Galen from Pergamon, dating back to Hippocrates, about the four humors and their balance in human body – blood, phlegm, black bile, yellow bile. As Galen noted that blood was one of the most important components a “best practice” was introduced – bloodletting – the act of withdrawing blood from different body parts in order to treat or prevent diseases. And this survived to the 19th century.

All of these come to show us that we might be fooled very easily, no matter in what area or profession we perform, but it’s one of our key characteristics as software testers to be professional in doubt and questioning. I think it’s a sin for people in our craft to blindly trust in some practice, out of context and before they even tried it.

If you liked what you read here about best practices in testing, I would love to share your opinion and add some feedback. Any shares and retweets are strongly encouraged.

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I will be also speaking about best practices and the alternative that I offer, called “worst” practices, using my favorite fictional character – The testing troll at Testbash Munich, just couple of days from now. If you have a chance to be there, make sure you take a look and say “Hi”.octobertest logo

Thanks for reading 🙂

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Senior software engineer in testing. The views I express here are mine, they don't represent any position held by any of my employers. Experience in mobile, automation, usability and exploratory testing. Rebel-driven tester, interested in the scientific part of testing and the thinking involved. Testing troll for life. Retired gamer and a beer lover. Martial arts practitioner.

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