Brewing Trouble


Admit it: When you're faced with a lengthy checklist for testing, you're tempted to skip steps. Some of the items aren't really necessary, are they? They might be so obvious that there's no need to include them in the list. In this column, Elisabeth Hendrickson offers some advice on constructing useful checklists that are brief but complete.

As I reached for the coffeepot, I noticed a carefully printed sign taped to the cabinet. It read:


  • Don't press the Brew button more than once.
  • Please make sure the urn is aligned under the brew basket.
  • Please ensure the urn is empty before brewing.

The sign struck me because it was such an elegant description of the known risks involved in making coffee. Clearly this organization had experienced coffee disasters in the past. Someone had compiled a list of the most common causes of brew failures and created a checklist of tests. What a wonderful set of guidelines!

Part of the power of such a checklist is its brevity. The author of the coffee-making checklist could have also added items such as "make sure there's coffee in the basket" and "remember to use a filter," but then the most critical items would be lost in the verbosity. It's obvious to even a coffee-making novice that coffee is an essential part of the process. So it seemed to me as I was reading this carefully crafted checklist that the point wasn't to catch every possible error. Instead, I think the author probably thought carefully about:

  • What seems to go wrong most often?
  • What errors are difficult to see at first glance, and thus require concentration to prevent?
  • What causes the most damage when it happens?

I also noticed that the items the author chose to address involved subtleties of the coffee maker interface and the interaction between the urn and the coffee maker. These weren't obvious errors. They're "gotchas": things you learn about this particular coffee maker only after painful experience. They were eloquently worded. They also work. During my weeklong visit at this organization, I didn't see a single coffee brew failure. This was an organization that knew how to learn from mistakes.

Of course, it's easier to create such a checklist for a comparatively simple mechanical process, like making a pot of coffee, than it is for the complex process of building software. It takes much more care to construct similar guidelines for software. Yet it's a worthwhile exercise. By identifying the top five or so things that go wrong in various activities, we might just prevent the most common errors and save everyone a lot of time.

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