Category Archives: Heuristics

ER: acting as a Rapid Software Testing Explored “peer advisor” – again! (16-19 January 2023)

It had been almost a year since I first acted as a Peer Advisor for an RST class with Michael Bolton. When Michael reached out to offer the opportunity to participate again, it was an easy decision to join his RST Explored class for the Australia/New Zealand/South East Asia timezones.

The peer advisor role is voluntary and comes with no obligation to attend for any particular duration, so I joined the classes as my schedule allowed. This meant I was in all of the first two days but only briefly during the second two days due to my commitments at SSW. Each afternoon consisted of three 90-minute sessions with two 30-minute breaks.

The class was attended by over 15 students from across Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia. Zoom was used for all of Michael’s main sessions with breakout rooms being used to split the participants into smaller groups for exercises (with the peer advisors roaming these rooms to assist as needed). Asynchronous collaboration was facilitated via a Mattermost instance (an open source Slack clone), which seemed to work well for posing questions to Michael, documenting references, general chat between participants, etc. It would be remiss of me not to call out the remarkable work of Eugenio Elizondo in his role as PA – he was super quick in providing links to resources, etc. as they were mentioned by Michael and he also kept Michael honest with the various administrivia required to run a smooth virtual class.

While I couldn’t commit as much time to the class this time around, I still enjoyed contributing to the exercises by dropping into the breakout rooms to nudge participants along as needed.

As with any class, the participants make all the difference and there were a bunch of very engaged people in this particular class. It was awesome to witness the growth in many of the more engaged folks in such a short time and I hope that even the less vocal participants gained a lot from their attendance. I enjoyed being on the sidelines to see Michael in action and how the participants engaged with his gifted teaching, and I hope I offered some useful advice here and there along the way.

I first participated in RST in 2007 in a chilly Ottawa and have been a huge advocate for this course ever since. The online version is a different beast to the in-person experience but it’s still incredibly valuable and it’s great to see the class becoming accessible to more people via this format. We continue to live in a world of awful messaging and content around testing, with RST providing a shining light and a source of hope for a better future. Check out upcoming RST courses if you haven’t participated yet, they remain the only testing classes that have the Dr Lee stamp of approval!

Maier’s “two cord puzzle” and testing heuristics

Norman Maier was an experimental psychologist at the University of Michigan. In 1931, he was interested in exploring how people solve problems and came up with a puzzle which has become known as the “two cord puzzle”.

He attached two cords to the ceiling of his lab and asked people to come up with ways to tie the two ends together. The two cords were placed just far enough apart that, while holding on to one cord, you couldn’t reach the other cord (it wouldn’t be much of a puzzle otherwise!). Some objects were placed around the room – such as extension cords, poles, clamps, and weights – and participants could use any of these items to help them solve his puzzle.

While most people worked out quickly that attaching an extension cord to one of the cords would solve the problem, as would using a pole, these obvious answers didn’t satisfy Maier – he was looking for a different, simple and elegant solution. He would keep asking the participants to come up with new solutions, doing this until they ran out of new ideas.

The elegant solution Maier was looking for was to attach a weight to one of the cords and set it swinging. Then you grab the other rope and can reach the swinging rope when it comes towards you. Very few participants worked out this solution – until they were given a seemingly accidental clue.

Throughout the experiment Maier would wander around the lab until, when people had run out of ideas, he would apparently accidentally brush against one of the ropes and set it swinging. Within a minute of this apparently accidental clue, most people would then come up with the solution.

This experiment shows how easily we can be primed with a solution to a problem – without even realizing it. When the participants in Maier’s experiment were asked afterwards, only one-third of them realized they’d been given a massive clue by him setting one of the ropes swinging. The remainder had stories about how they came to the solution for themselves and, while these stories might have been representative of their conscious experience, they were clearly not the real reason why they solved the problem.

This story got me thinking about testing and, in particular, heuristics. I see heuristics as being these clues to help us as testers find problems in the products we’re testing. While they are not unconscious or accidental when used, experienced practitioners who’ve been using heuristics (and constantly developing their own new ones) over time probably get to the point where their use does become unconscious (“unconscious competence”).

I’m sure you’ve had that feeling where you look at a feature or product and you just know there’s a bug? Maybe that’s a heuristic gently brushing against the product and handing you a clue.

For more about heuristics and their power in testing, try these resources:

(I came across Maier’s two cord puzzle while reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. This is a great book with lots of testing takeaways, maybe more blog posts to come when I finish reading it.)