Sunday, April 21, 2013

Elvis, Project Frankenstein and the Linux experience ...

Warning - this entry contains naked computers ...

There is no feeling quite like bringing home a brand new computer, and getting it plugged in and working for the first time.  Over the years I've noticed that "settting up a new machine" has gone from being about a day's work of driver installation and fiddling around to under an hour's effort to "set up the essentials".

And that old machine of yours?  Well that's dated and of no use to anyone now ...

Actually, hold that thought.  Unlike the 80s where we started out with home computers with 1KB memory running on tape, and finished with 1MB memory machines running on diskette, in recent years although computers are getting smaller and more powerful, it's not been anywhere near the dramatic shift in performance.  There is still life in your old dog yet.

Windows it has to be said is an amazing piece of software, and later versions have got better and better.  The reason it's so amazing is that the range of hardware it can cope (pretty well) with is vast - just about any form of PC, with different memory units, hard disks, processors, games cards etc.  I know Apple at the moment has a far superior reputation - but remember that with Apple iOS, Apple owns the hardware and the software - meaning the software has to run on much less variety of hardware.  So kudos to Windows, it does a pretty good job on an ocean of hardware, a Herculean feat in itself.

But because of this, Windows can sometimes become quite bloated, and after a couple of years of updates, your system is starting to feel like Elvis playing at Las Vegas, some of it's sparkle seems to have gone ...

This is usually the point you start shopping for something new, in the years since you bought your computer Elvis, the hardware has got faster and a little leaner, so though you're "All Shook Up", you buy yourself a new machine.

With that new computer smell firmly installed as your "Latest Flame", with your email, Facebook and internet needs addressed, is it time for Elvis to leave the building?  It may feel like it "Ain't Nothing But A Hound Dog", but "Don't Be Cruel", there is indeed still life in this canine yet ...

If you have no technical skill what-so-ever, and plan on doing nothing more to this machine, consider just this ... normally when you have a computer, you use it under the watchwords of "Love Me Tender".  Your computer contains your contact details, social networking, photos - you need to take care of it.  But a spare computer ... if that goes down, does it really matter?  No, because you have a backup.

All of a sudden you have a machine which is much more about trying things out, going "I Wonder" what happens if.  Trying things out, because if you send it to a permanent blue screen of death "I was only going to throw it out eventually anyway".  Our computers at home we need to take care of, but the best experimental testing comes from trying things out.  But at home, few of us have the technical skill to keep it restored.

Feeling more adventurous?  I hoped you were ...

Beyond just using your machine as simply an experimental computer, you can look into reviving it as a Linux machine.  Linux overall is a lot more lightweight than Windows, being based on a Unix operating system (much like iOS).

Back in 2005 I bought a replacement computer in a scenario similar to the above, and found myself left with an old PC.  A developer friend of mine, Michael McConnell (author of the dubiously titled MailStripper application), suggested I use my old machine to play around with Linux.  Michael was a passionate evangelist for Linux, and provided me with the RedHat disks I needed to get started.

Post-installation, I was seriously impressed with the speed the machine worked at, although even as a Unix engineer I found the command line fiddly at times.  Since then, I haven't been without a Linux machine in the house.

Todays modern Linux is fully GUI driven, and my son uses a version of it without needing the command line (he doesn't know Unix commands ... yet).  It's developed by programmers in their spare time as a world project, and many variants are free to download.

And when it works, it works beautifully.  On Vista, when I tried to open some videos from my camera a few years ago, I got an error message that the video file was not supported.  So many hours on Google later trying to download Codecs, I finally got it working (I'd also in the meantime downloaded a lot of crap).  The same situation on Ubuntu of the time, I double clicked the video file, and it said "you do not have the codec file to run this".  But then connected to the internet, and analysed the file, suggesting the codec I would need, and asking my permission to download it - a whole other user experience yes?

My friend Violet was a passionate advocate for Ubuntu.  Until recently this was the Rolls Royce of Linux, however I've found the latest version has felt a bit slow (on my circa 2003 machine).  This variant runs on my son's netbook machine after I accidentally compressed the main drive on his XP computer and couldn't restore it (Ubuntu to the rescue), and he loves using the Unity command system - the icon bar to the left of screen,

Fedora I've had on an old machine for a while.  It's a good, solid product, but nothing to get too excited about.  It's a bit like owning a reliable, low-maintenance Shire Horse over a highly-strung racing stallion,

I've recently built a Mint machine after hearing the raves about it.  Raves which are truly justified.  It's a beautiful operating system, that feels very sleek and quick, and easy-to-use.  The "leader" in the Linux race is constantly shifting, but at the moment it looks to be Mint,


Linux machines can be used to run Samba, which is a file sharing program - meaning you can use your central machine in your home network

Get involved?

Remember, Linux is a free product, and as well as programmers, it also needs testers.  The various variants of Linux depend on people cataloging the defects they encounter, and there are wide communities out there around the product looking for contribution.

I suggest to people new to testing, download a Linux system, and get trying.  Plug into the communities, build networks, and get used to finding bugs, but also reporting them.  I suggest exactly the same to more experienced testers who want to try their hand to expand their skills.

On Ubuntu, I helped my son write his first ever bug report - yes it was a proud moment!

Goodbye Project Frankenstein

I mentioned my "Frankenstein machine" back in Welcome To The Testing Mancave.  Originally I had an old computers power supply burn out, so bought a cheap old machine from TradeMe (New Zealand's eBay) as a replacement.  What ended up happening is I "combined parts" to machine a new machine from the two - mainly by trial and error in seeing what would work, and what wouldn't.

Good hint here, but it takes aaaages.  Start from a machine that works, then change one piece of hardware at a time, booting it up each time.  That way if for instance you have two memory cards which can't stand being in the same machine, you'll work it out.

Anyway, the machine was originally designed to be for my son for his secondary school work - just enough to internet search and do word processing.  In the end I so enjoyed fiddling with it, it became my main computer, and he eventually inherited my old netbook instead.  Amongst it's many uses, I run the file sharing system called Samba on it, which means we have a central depository of films, photos, documents in the house.  Useful as even my wife's iPad can browse through the photos in here (handy as she has only the 16GB model, and she loves photos).

But mainly it's been used for writing - most of this blog and indeed the Software Minefield was written on this machine.

Unfortunately lately it's not been performing so well on Ubuntu, and lacks the fancy graphics card that would make it work optimally.  So I took the somewhat heart-wrenching decision to merge 3 of my Linux boxes down to just 2 (with better all around spec), and Frankie (as I call her) is being decommissioned.

However true to the tale of "Frankenstein", this is not the end, as parts of her are going into another machine (nicknamed Zen from Blake's 7), which is now running my version of Mint, and benefiting from Frankie's hard disk, memory and interface card, whilst giving an extra experience through the graphics card, the slightly faster processor (2.4 GHz) and increased memory from the original Zen (3GB memory all up from 1.5 GB - not bad for an 8 year old PC).

Zen - my new main computer.

But yes, Frankie has been a good friend ... but I can't wait to see what I'll learn through Zen.

Farewell Mike Powell - a gentleman and a scholar ...

This weekend I sadly learned of the death of a friend of mine from University.

Back in 1994, both me and Mike Powell were technically "mature students" at the University Of Essex.  I was 24 and studying for a Masters degree in laser physics, he was in his 40s and studying a philosophy degree.

Our paths crossed through a campus drama group we both became involved in - "A Flash Of Inspiration Productions".  The group, far more than any I've been involved with before or since, really aimed to bring out acting ability within people - yes even physicists!  We would rehearse for a play under producer Abigail Cheverst, but she would lead us in workshops to do so much more.

Being in "A Flash Of Inspiration" was not about sticking to the script and learning your lines.  Workshops would have you acting out "like your character" in different improvised scenes to really get under the skin of who your character was.  One of the activities I remember the best was where we'd have to act through a scene, and a couple of fellow actors were given deliberate instructions to attempt to ruin it.  With a couple of people forgetting lines or giving the wrong lines, it was up to you to improvise your way back towards the story "without making it look like anything was wrong".  It's probably this training which means as a tester I'm quite comfortable to use the scripts we might have as guidelines and "explore off script when needed", but more importantly look for the pieces of the script which matter and have to be there and the stuff that's just "fluff".

At 6' 2", I'm a pretty big guy, but I was dwarfed by Mike Powell, who we all called "Big Mike".  He was a clever person, and quite a character - part revolutionary, part hippie - who seemed to know rather too much about political history, and was an influential figure in the campus Fifth Monarchist "Anarchist Society".

But most of all I remember through "A Flash Of Inspiration" his amazing ability at improvisational comedy.  Two such sketches really stand out,

  • "Smile For The Judges" was a sketch where a ballroom dancing couple's relationship is crumbling during a dance competition, as each reveals what they know about the other's infidelities.  Their exchanges become ever more bitter about how their marriage has fallen apart, punctuated ever so often with Mike reminding his partner to "smile for the judges" to pretend everything on the outside is a garden of Eden.
  • In "We're Down To Our Last Geologist" an expedition into an unnamed wilderness has gone badly wrong.  The last two survivors challenge each other over the deaths of the rest of the party, as it becomes increasingly obvious the two have been turning to cannibalism to survive.

In recent years, I'd reconnected with Mike via Facebook - he still lived in Colchester around some of our friends from University, whilst I'd spread my wings.  It was good to connect up with him - still as passionate and influential as ever (voles had been a big interest of late).  Although I knew he was battling a tumour, you always hope for the best.  However I learned this weekend that he died a couple of months ago.

Like Violet, Mike is worthy of mention on this blog despite being nothing to do with testing, because he is someone who Mark Steel would identify as "a person with a passion".  Mike through political activism and storytelling was an incredibly passionate person who talked about ideas and ideals, unafraid to compromise.  And yet someone you could disagree with, and still be friends.

We need to grow up around that sort of environment so that we can learn to find our voice as well to speak when we need to over the things that matter.  And as Mike showed us young things to speak intelligently, draw people into your ideas without ranting, and sell it to them.

RIP Mike Powell ...

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Testing with personas ...

Last year whilst i was still at Kiwibank, I was lucky to attend a morning lecture by local company Optimal Usability on "Putting personas to work".

Many people who've worked with me will know I am not a morning person.  However I was glad to make this early morning event, mainly as within Kiwibank I got to network with a whole load of people I'd normally not have a huge amount to do with - Market Managers, Customer Experience etc.

A persona is mainly used for marketing - they are supposed to be a core of about 4-6 characters (who often have a bit of stereotype about them) who represent a cross section.  We had several at Kiwibank, and when we'd look at changing or offering a new service we'd look to see which of those personas would want in, and which might want to go elsewhere.

For both marketing and testing it's a powerful tool - it's where testing steps into the realm of method acting, and you try to see an application through another persons eyes.  This touches an important feature - your software might well functionally do everything that it's supposed to - but is it going to be something that people are going to feel comfortable using?

Personas should be a one-pager, of something people can instantly connect to, because everyone has met a "Pam" or "Tony" or "Chris" in their life (hence why here a bit of stereotype is handy is it's shortcut language).

Personas can be made from detailed market research to tie into a targeted customer base.  Whilst reading Elisabeth Hendrickson Explore It! she mentions personas as a tool for exploratory testing.

Whilst talking to Lisa Crispin about "software culture" recently she mentioned about how many of her team enjoy roleplaying.  In fact "exploratory testing with personas" is very much like role-play testing.  I couldn't resist trying to draw up some character sheets (I'm an ex-roleplayer, so don't act so surprised).

I wanted to imagine I had some form of "software management tool" (which we've all encountered at some point).  Maybe it was HP's Quality Centre.  Perhaps something like Pivotal Tracker.  Or New Zealands home grown Enterprise Tester.

I was going to work from scratch (although I have zero market research budget), then remembered it might be fun to revisit the people I call "the world's worst Agile Team" from An Agile Murder Mystery.   Maybe this group wasn't an idealised group for "understanding your market", but from a testing perspective they would allow you to thrash your software in ways you'd never before imagined ...

Mrs Peacock – Business Owner 

“I just want to know what the current status is” 

Personal Computer 
Mrs Peacock uses a Windows 7 laptop.  She’s out of the office a lot, and uses a variety of wi-fi points (some slow) to login.

Internet Explorer 8

Usage rights 
View ability only

Tool habits
Mrs Peacock is mainly interested in seeing the big picture of the project, and wants to be able to see clearly how things are going, and it be able to take her into any issues.  She wants to see how things have changed.
She uses her laptop a lot on slow connection.  She also depends on the trackpad (she doesn’t carry a mouse with her), so she relies a lot of shortcut keys and wants any icons to be easily clickable.

Colonel Mustard – Project Manager 

“I need to be able to assign work items”

Personal Computer 
Mustard has been upgraded to a new Windows 8 laptop, and has been known to take an iPad into meetings to check updates.

Internet Explorer 10

Usage rights 
Create work items and assign tasks

Tool habits 
Mustard is keen on being able to set work tasks to his team, see what they’re working on/progressing.  He sets pieces for all the team, but never himself works on end-to-end individual pieces.

He likes to be able to perform the same actions on multiple elements over having to keep repeating the same action.

Reverand Green - Architect 

“I wonder what happens if …” 

Personal Computer 
Green has made a big noise about being allowed to have a Macbook Pro, even though most of the company is on variants of Windows.


Usage rights 
Full Administration Rights

Tool habits 
Green often plays around with any new features, and will often try and come up with new ways to do things.
Forever optimising the work-flow.  Often this means changing the flow for which there is currently data in “the old system”, and hits migration issues.

Miss Scarlett – Business Analyst 

“What’s next?”

Personal Computer 
On a desktop running Vista.  Don’t ask her how she feels about that, as she feels she’s due an upgrade.


Usage rights 
Basic user – rights only over tasks assigned to her

Tool habits 
Scarlett doesn’t look at the big picture tool, just goes straight into and views the tasks assigned to her.  If work items aren’t assigned to her, she won’t go looking for work.

Prof Plum – Programmer 

“I don’t have time for this …”

Personal Computer 
Difficult to say – he has a cluster of a lot beneath his desk, running different flavours of Linux, and connect to a bigger Samba server that no-one is quite sure of the location of.  Certainly there are so many monitors on his screen, the company made major savings getting him to turn them off over Christmas … 

Firefox … with so many plugins you don’t want to know.

Usage rights 
Basic user – rights only over tasks assigned to him

Tool habits 
Prof Plum finds spending time updating his tasks an annoying diversion.  He dislikes intently being asked after changing something “do you really want to do this? OK / Cancel”.  He’d much rather it just does it, and there’s an undo button if he changes his mind.

When it comes to filling out any form, he’ll always do it with the minimum mandatory fields possible.

Mrs White - Tester 

“I don’t see what was wrong with the old way of doing things?”

Personal Computer 
Two years ago Mrs White was upgraded to a Windows Vista desktop, which had issues during updates.  She didn’t like it, and rescued her old XP machine, which IT is now struggling to find parts to keep going.
Because her eyesight isn’t the best, she runs the machine on low resolution so it’s easier for her to see the icons (people have tried to tell her there are better ways to do this, but she’s sticking to it).

Internet Explorer 7

Usage rights
Basic user – rights only over tasks assigned to her

Tool habits 
Mrs White spends a lot of time getting things right before submitting (unlike Prof Plum, she tends to fill in EVERYTHING).  Sometimes this means things get timed out.  It’s important to her that she doesn’t lose her work.

She’s also a creature of habit.  She knows a lot about the business area, but she really struggles with anything new.  She will make a lot of noise if changes mean she can no longer do something she used to be able to do.  She doesn’t like naming conventions or icons to change.

A source of testing inspiration?

Reading through that you probably have an idea of a few basic tests you'd like to run - cross browsers and computers for start.

But for Mrs Peacock you want to be able to login and quickly see "the big picture" and drill down.  Whilst Miss Scarlett wants to just be able to quickly see what's been assigned to her.  Can the system do both well without compromise?  Can this release cover Rev Greens desire to experiment vs Mrs Whites need for familiarity?

I found in writing these people out, I obviously went back to my source article on the Agile Murder Mystery.  But the key thing for "filling them out" was to find a picture of someone I felt "had the qualities".  Once I could see "who this person was like", a lot of the other details fell into place.  You will also notice in my choice of photos, I'm also a sci-fi geek (like you didn't know already).

If you want to find out more about personas - how to make them etc, the original presentation slides are still up here,

And Optimal Usability do all kinds of blogs, articles and even a newsletter about areas of usability, including personas.

You may not have a market research budget - in which case, just do what I've done, guess, then put in front of a business owner or marketeer and see what feedback they give ... go broad in your guesswork, and put some things which are deliberately provocative in there ...

  • "do we care about XP users?"
  • "what about all these browsers?  Are we just going to go with IE?  Why shouldn't we just go with IE?"
  • "why would someone want to access from an iPad browser?"
  • "should this be accessed outside an organisations server from public wi-fi?  Should it be in the cloud?  Do we have strong enough security?"
  • "companies don't work much on Linux do they?"
Have fun!