Testers’ Communication Revisited


For various reasons I have abandoned a series of posts I had been planning about my daily work hence all has been quiet here of late.  However a story line this week on Dilbert (http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/2010-06-23/ and http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/2010-06-24/) has got me thinking again about communication in the workplace.

Clearly Wally does understand what is being asked of him but he pretends to have misinterpreted what was said.  It got me thinking again about testers reporting defects to programmers and/or the business – are we being as clear as we need to be in the ways we express ourselves?  Conversely do we, testers, listen and properly understand the feedback we are being given?

Very often testers form the middle ground between development and the business and it is crucial that we are able to deliver our message appropriately.  Rob Lambert blogged last year about three of the crucial things to be aware of when we are communicating:  Purpose, Audience and Context (see http://pac-testing.blogspot.com/2009/01/what-is-purpose.html) and their relationship to testing.  I believe it is worth revisiting this topic because changing communications media – and attitudes towards them – open up new possibilities and challenges that we need to be aware of.  In this post I take a brief look at ‘Purpose’ before focussing on ‘Audience’.  ‘Context’, I believe is so vital it deserves a post of its own.

Purpose

As testers we often have to inform different stakeholders about issues so they can made decisions based on that information.  We also need to learn about the System under Test (interestingly we can also summarise some of the things we are trying to learn as the system’s Purpose, its Audience and the Context in which it will be used).

Audience

Our audience can be diverse: ranging from programmers and systems analysts through to the end users of the system.  Each group in the audience has different needs.  If we use the same language in talking to the end users as we do the programmers, we may find that misunderstandings arise and we may also alienate a valuable source of information for our own education.

We must also be aware when we are being spoken to by highly technical people that they will use terminology that an end user might not.  Thus when the same word is used by two different groups of people it might just mean something different.  A typical example of this is when a new or emerging piece of technology is being used.  There is tremendous scope for confusion as people become familiar with the new technology.  Do we really understand the message we are being given?

When talking to people face-to-face we need to be on the watch out for body language and other visual and audible clues as to how our message is being received.  If our audience looks bored – they probably are!  Albert Mehrabian did a study on this and found that only 7% of the impact of our face-to-face communication is the words we use: http://www.businessballs.com/mehrabiancommunications.htm.  With e-mail – and this blog – the words used are the only means we have to express our meaning.

Our audience can also give us valuable clues as to whether or not they are the right audience to receive our message by their body language.  We can avoid wasting a lot of time if we get the appropriate audience right at the beginning.

Next time, I will post some thoughts on Context…  In the meantime, your thoughts and comments would be most welcome.

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9 Responses to “Testers’ Communication Revisited”

  1. Tweets that mention Testers’ Communication Revisited « Stephen Hill's Blog -- Topsy.com Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Markus Gärtner, Stephen Hill. Stephen Hill said: New blog posting: Testers' Communication Revisited: #in #testing http://wp.me/pRZ0L-n […]

  2. Rob van Steenbergen Says:

    I started out as a tester because I wanted software to be of good quality. The way to reach that goal was to hunt for bugs. Nowadays I can improve the quality of software systems much more effective is the way I comunicate with the people in the organization. Effective, but more difficult than working with ‘machines’.

    Communication the right thing to the right audience is one aspect. I surely will be thinking of this the next weeks at work. Thanks for the post.

    • Stephen Hill Says:

      Thank you for commenting, Rob. Communication is a huge subject and one that we neglect at our peril. Finding the bugs is only half the battle; the other half is getting the message across to the stakeholders. You are right, too, that the communication part is far harder than the computing part!

      I will cover more aspects of communication in later posts; it is a subject that fascinates me.

      Thanks again for the comment.

      Stephen

  3. Rob van Steenbergen Says:

    Sorry for the bad grammar, but my phone tries to improve it, with no success at all as I see now.

  4. James Christie Says:

    It’s interesting how people often fail to tailor their communication according to their audience. As children we all learn to do this. We know that if we use the same language in the classroom that we use in the playground then there will be consequences. Most of us don’t follow that lesson all the way through into adulthood. Our words mean whatever our audience understands them to mean. There’s no point moaning that our audience is thick, or pedantic or whatever. If our purpose is communicating rather than picking a fight then we have to accept that the responsibility for clear communication starts with us. Many people just don’t get it. Maybe that’s just as well. Smart testers can often exploit that gap and make themselves valuable as mediators. ;-)

    • Stephen Hill Says:

      Thank you for commenting, James. It does surprise me the number of people who really don’t “get” communication.

      On my flight home from holiday this afternoon I again had cause to reflect on this very issue. There were some very irrate people at the airport I was flying from and it was educational to see how the airport staff dealt with the matter. I wish I was always so calm when everything around me is going wrong and I have people shouting demands at me left, right and centre because it would help me give a coherent and consistent message without losing ground.

      Thanks, again, for the comment.

  5. Mohinder Khosla Says:

    Good post.
    Communication is a tool when used effectively is very powerful and not everyone is born to use it correctly so it can be handicap for some. We learn to communicate in our own ways and learn and observe others to improve it. In the context of a tester, it is vital that we do communicate our findings (bugs, faults, issues with software) accurately to our audiences whether it is a stakeholder, developer or another tester and make sure they are not distorted so we avoid jargon. You ensure that your message gets communicated loud and clear and the recipient is not intimidated. You should be a lean thinker so that everything you want to say is done in short and sweet sentences rest in body language. I believe in using body language a more and appropriately.

    • Stephen Hill Says:

      Thanks for commenting, Mohinder. We need to keep reminding ourselves of the importance of getting our message across clearly and also recognising what good communication looks and feels like. I am going to be writing the next post over the next couple of days. Thanks again.

  6. Testers’ Communcation Revisited – Part 2: Context « Stephen Hill's Blog Says:

    […] Stephen Hill's Blog The musings of a pedantic tester from the UK « Testers’ Communication Revisited […]

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