Communicating Testing through Stories: An Interview with Isabel Evans


In this interview, independent quality and testing consultant Isabel Evans explains how to tell testing stories. She details the power of telling stories within software and shows how being able to effectively listen is just as important to communication as talking.

Josiah Renaudin: Hello, and welcome back to anther TechWell interview. Today I’m joined by Isabel Evans, an independent quality and testing consultant and keynote speaker at our prior STAREAST conference. Isabel, thank you for joining us today. First, before we dig into your keynote, could you tell us a bit about your experience in the industry?

Isabel Evans: I have been in IT for a long time ... I last programmed in earnest in the 1970s. I came into testing in the 1980s and since then have been working in testing, quality improvement, and related areas. I've continued to work as a practitioner whenever I can, and also have had management, mentoring, coaching, and consultancy roles.

Josiah Renaudin: Why do you think software practitioners often see their messages garbled or unheard by management?

Isabel Evans: Yes, that does happen, doesn't it? And vice versa—managers' messages are garbled and unheard by software practitioners.

There are several reasons.

One is that the meanings of words change between IT usage and the rest of the world: Even the word communication. I remember once I had been asked to look at the way people on a particular IT project related to each other. As part of this (taking the direct approach), I went to the different teams on the project and asked "Do you think there are communication problems on this project?” Many people outside the technical IT team said they thought there were misunderstandings and failures to communicate. When I asked the technical IT team, they said, "No, the network has been 99 percent available."

People's personalities affect their preferred communication styles and media. Some people prefer diagrams to text. Some people prefer text or cannot access diagrams. Some people like explanations and are happy to read long documents—I'm among them. Others don't have time, or patience, and need a message on a page, or even three bullet points. Many IT people feel the need to explain what they are doing in detail to people who just need a headline.

Josiah Renaudin: Has effective communication within a team become even more critical with the pervasiveness of agile?

Isabel Evans: It has become more obviously necessary. One of the benefits of agile approaches is that they mean any flaws become harder to hide and they manifest as problems more quickly than they would in a long, traditional project. That includes communication problems; they become so obvious. Effective communication is always critical.

Josiah Renaudin: You mention in your abstract for your keynote that everyone has a built-in receptiveness to narratives. Why do you think that is?

Isabel Evans: It is deep in our psychological makeup as animals—we want sequences of events to have meaning. We see stories even when they are not there. Experiments done with pigeons show even a bird will try to make a meaning narrative out of its environment. I show some of this (not the pigeons) in my keynote.

Josiah Renaudin: Is this story-telling just as effective, in your mind, through written means as it is oral? If you’re trying to tell a testing story, is there a “best” way to do so?

Isabel Evans: Oral, written, pictures, music, mime, and dance ... whatever catches your audience and puts the message over. The best way is what works at that time. You need to enjoy that method yourself, and your audience needs to enjoy it. Sometimes a serious learned paper is best, sometimes a cartoon, and sometimes a spoken story. Often a mix. Look at Rob Sabourin's wonderful book I Am a Bug.

Josiah Renaudin: I like how you bring up that we should use the analogies of novels, short stories, picture books, poems, and songs to tell testing stories. Can you give an example of a few of these? Maybe a time you used elements of a poem to get your testing point across?

Isabel Evans: I'll show in the talk some examples of testing haiku I wrote, and I'm also working some poems to describe software test design techniques by using metaphors from the real world.

I was lucky enough to take part in a communication workshop run by Lisa Crispin and Emma Armstrong, where I quoted a poem by the Sufi poet Rumi. He rewrote "the blind men and the elephant," put an elephant in a darkened stable and sighted people struggling to understand what it is, until they realize they can bring lighted candles into the stable and see the whole thing together. The analogy for IT project communication is vivid. Do I need to spell it out?

Josiah Renaudin: We’re becoming more and more trained to respond to quick, direct messages, from tweets to images with just a few words on them. Have we lost an appreciation for stories at all due to our reliance on social media?

Isabel Evans: Brief can be good, and so can extended story-telling. I think there is a hunger for longer stories as well as shorter stories, and for multi-part stories. Look at the current number of long stories and serials being told in in book, TV, or film formats. Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, Hunger Games, and many others. But at the same time, yes, short stories, Twitter, and so on. Of course, there have been serials issued on Twitter. I will talk about communication in a long project, delivering messages in small chunks using story-telling in serial form with examples from the 1001 Nights. Scheherazade only had a few minutes each night, just as we only have a few minutes in a report meeting to engage people's attention.

Josiah Renaudin: For this younger audience, do you need to adapt your stories so that they want to listen more to what you have to say?

Isabel Evans: "Younger audience"—you cheeky thing. I may be sixty, but I am twenty-five in my head! I have told the stories to younger people and older people—the reaction coming from the person does not seem to depend on their age. Some people love them, some really don't. Recently I told one of the folk tales in the keynote to two young men aged twenty and twenty-four, and they were either polite, good actors or completely engaged by it. For the technology parts of the stories, I think the communication messages are universal.

Josiah Renaudin: There are two sides to the coin here, in my mind. You have to learn to tell better stories, but it’s just as critical to become a stronger listener. What advice do you have for testers or managers to learn how to listen more effectively?

Isabel Evans: You are right, listening is very important, and IT people are not always good listeners—we start to build our counter-arguments instead of listening to the other person, we make assumptions about what they need from us. I will use one of the folk tales I tell to illustrate the importance of listening. But we need to each individually improve our own listening and story-telling; we cannot expect others to do that for us.

Josiah Renaudin: More than anything, what central message do you want to leave with your audience at STAREAST?

Isabel Evans: Have the courage to show others you are listening to them, and have the courage to tell your own story.


Isabel EvansIndependent quality and testing consultant Isabel Evans has more than thirty years of IT experience in quality management and testing in the financial, communications, and software sectors. Her quality management work focuses on encouraging IT teams and customers to work together via flexible processes designed and tailored by the teams that use them. Isabel authored Achieving Software Quality Through Teamwork and chapters in Agile Testing: How to Succeed in an eXtreme Testing Environment; The Testing Practitioner; and Foundations of Software Testing. A popular speaker at software conferences worldwide, Isabel is a Chartered IT Professional and Fellow of the British Computer Society, and has been a member of software industry improvement working groups.

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