Testers, how good is your waggle dance?

Since returning from Europe, I’ve been enjoying a new commuting option in the shape of a ferry service across the bay and this relaxing 90-minute trip is proving to be a great alternative to my only previous option of a 30km drive plus one-hour train journey.

Cruising to Melbourne in this way has opened up some more time for reading and I’m just finishing The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki.

The book explores a simple idea: “large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, now matter how brilliant – better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future.”

It’s enjoyable stuff and, of course, I can’t help but draw connections between some of its content and software testing.

The following paragraphs from the book describe how bees go about finding good food sources for their hive (emphasis is mine):

Bees are remarkably efficient at finding food. According to Thomas Seeley, author of “The Wisdom of the Hive”, a typical bee colony can search six or more kilometres from the hive, and if there is a flower patch within two kilometres of the hive, the bees have a better-than half chance of finding it. How do the bees do this? They don’t sit around and have a collective discussion about where foragers should go. Instead, the hive sends out a host of scout bees to search the surrounding area. When a scout bee has found a nectar source that seems strong, he comes back and does a waggle dance, the intensity of which is shaped, in some way, by the excellence of the nectar supply at the site. The waggle dance attracts other forager bees, which follow the first forager, while foragers who have found less-good sites attract fewer followers and, in some cases, eventually abandon their sites entirely. The result is that bee foragers end up distributing themselves across different nectar sources in an almost perfect fashion, meaning that they get as much food as possible relative to the time and energy they put into searching. It is a collectively brilliant solution to the colony’s food problem.

What’s important, though, is the way the colony gets to that collectively intelligent solution. It does not get there by first rationally considering all the alternatives and then determining an ideal foraging pattern. It can’t do this, because it doesn’t have any idea what the possible alternatives – that is, where the different flower patches – are. So instead, it sends out scouts in many different directions and trusts that at least one of them will find the best patch, return, and do a good dance so that the hive will know where the food source is.

I immediately saw similarities with exploratory testing when I read this.

When we’re looking to identify interesting or risky areas of a product under test, our initial charters are quite loose, since we don’t necessarily have a good idea of where to look yet. Debriefing our sessions gives us the chance to narrow in on where to look next or where to return to as fertile ground for finding interesting information about the product.

So, as a tester returning information to your team, how good is your waggle dance?

(The Wisdom of Crowds is an interesting read – and not just for the story of the waggle dance!)

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