Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Talking to Non-Testers

Tests and test results are wonderful and interesting things... for testers. Eventually, though, you'll have to report your data to other parts of the organization. And herein lies the trouble: how do you effectively communicate with a non-tester?

Communicating test results within a test organization is easy for one reason: shared context. You all know what you're talking about. Sure, other groups and other companies may use different jargon, but within your group there is a shared definition of terms that facilitates discussion.

Non-testers don't have context. Non-testers don't know the things you know, and don't use the same terms you do with the same meanings. So how do you communicate effectively when you're talking with someone who doesn't quite speak your language?

When you're creating results or putting together communication to non-testers, there are a few things to remember:

Don't Talk Down
You're in a professional organization, likely a professional software organization. The people around you are almost certainly educated and spend their days thinking, just like you do. Don't talk down to them; being condescending is a really good way to make people stop listening. Sure, the marketing director doesn't understand your test report at anything other than a shallow red/green level. I'd wager you don't understand the marketer's SEO report to any deeper level. Neither of you is dumb for this, just uninformed, so don't talk like any moron understands a test report and it takes a special marketing moron to really not get it.

Avoid Jargon
Jargon is a fancy way of doing two things: (1) making someone else feel excluded; and (2) advertising your brilliance. When you're trying to communicate with someone, both these things are bad. Trying to make someone else feel excluded by throwing around fancy phrases is just another way of talking down to that person. And making yourself look smart is all well and good, but you'll look smarter if you can do AND teach. So instead of saying, "we did equivalence class partitioning", say, "we classified all the data into groups and made sure we tested something from every group." For the level of test results reporting, these are saying the same thing, and the latter uses words that your marketer or sales guy or product manager can understand. Now the 17 columns of green marks start to make sense: "oh! Those are your groups!"

Provide Background
Don't just say that the tests failed and now we really need to push back that marketing campaign. Provide context. It doesn't need to be much more than a couple of sentences, but it does need to describe why the test was done and what on earth it is. And keep in mind, no jargon. Don't even call it a functional test or a performance test. Just say, "we were checking out the banner feature for the next release and...." or "Our reference customer does X a lot, and before the beta goes to that customer we want to make sure that their experience doesn't deteriorate because we really want to keep this customer as a reference."

Be Relevant
Your message needs to matter to your audience. Telling a sales person about queue lengths will get you a glazed look. Telling a developer about queue lengths, on the other hand, will both reiterate your technical credentials and will provide something tangible the developer can use to look into the system. So tell people the aspects of the test that they care about. Tell marketers how their banner features and big ad campaigns will be affected. Tell sales people how safe their software is and how you're thinking of their current customers and their prospects. Tell developers what the problem really is and where to start looking for a solution.

Cede Power
Ideally as you communicate, you hand power over to the other party with whom you're communicating. When someone feels powerful they're more likely to communicate effectively. You're trying to explain a foreign concept to someone, and they're already going to be uncomfortable. Giving the person (or group) the power to control the communication alleviates that discomfort somewhat. This will also help you understand what the person you're talking to really needs to know.

Conclude First
Once you have a basic context, lead with the good stuff - your conclusions. The person or group you're communicating with can ask questions as long as they like or they can walk away (back to the power thing above), and either way, they got what you really needed them to get. The ultimate thing you're communicating is the outcome of your tests. If they care about how you got there or the next set of tests or anything else, that's great, but if there's only one thing that you can communicate, then it should be your results.

So, long story short, when you're communicating with non-testers you can't just dash off a quick email and expect everyone to both understand and care. Recognize that they don't want to enter your world (probably no more than you want to enter their world!) but they do want to know what you know, at least as far as it matters to their day-to-day activities. Take the time to tailor your message for your audience and watch how much farther it goes.

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