The Streetlight effect


This phenomenon is called the streetlight effect. I often see this with test engineers, I have caught myself doing it! I find myself testing or exploring some area of functionality because I am familiar with that area, in other words I know how to test it. Or I catch myself spending most of my time focused on a certain type of testing or looking for a certain type of bug because I am comfortable in my skill, knowledge and experience in that type of testing – the light is better here!

Another way to characterise this is that you are staying in your comfort zone. So how do you avoid the streetlight effect or start to move out of your comfort zone?

Step 1 is recognising it. Try to catch yourself looking where the light is better. For example spot when you are testing or thinking about tests to run with a product and challenge yourself to test something you wouldn’t normally test or think about tests that you wouldn’t normally run. Even better challenge your colleagues to spot when you are doing it (and offer to do the same for them).

For example if you are the tester on an agile team and you usually test functionally from the UI, ask your colleagues to review your test cases (you are discussing them with the team anyway, right?), and challenge you if they are only testing the story or feature from the UI. Or if you are a test automator and are familiar with automating tests by driving the UI have your colleagues review your automation code (they are already doing that, right?), and challenge you to test at a lower level interface in the system instead.

Step 2 is to develop the ability and skills required to shed some light on the areas of darkness. Or put another way, to push yourself out of your comfort zone and into the learning zone where you will be exposed to new things and can therefore develop new skills and experiences which will broaden your circle of light.

learning_zoneSo if you are normally testing using the UI with a customer focus, try learning more about the back end code and try thinking about new tests using that new found knowledge, or try thinking about tests to run against an interface into a lower level of code.

I work with teams to broaden their test perspectives and to think about the product or area of code they are responsible for more systematically and holistically. Challenging them to think about what happens at all levels in the code and all the places where things could go wrong. I then help them think about different ways we can test or automate testing those areas that are most likely to be buggy. For example using test tools or automation to create test data, or inject it into a part of the system so we can effectively check how the system transforms or presents it later.

To be a great Quality Assurance engineer or a great tester you also need to be a continuous learner. Are you a genius already? Did you leave school, college or university with all the knowledge you would ever need?learn_more_alpha

There will always be something you can learn about the product you are helping to deliver with quality. Customers will teach you new ways in which they use the product (which can often surprise you). Your colleagues and other thought leaders in the domain and profession you work in will always provide you with new and different ways of looking at something or approaching what you do. So make sure you listen, learn and experiment, looking in places where the light is not so good.

So what will you learn next to increase your circle of light?

Author: Stuart Ashman

I am currently working as the Director of QA at Vision Critical a market research software and services company. I have been working in a variety of roles involving testing and quality assurance for over 20 years. I started off testing flight deck instruments and progressed through GSM network operations software, Unix Operating Systems and Lights Out Management Firmware, into Anti Virus and Anti-Spam software and HW appliances, finally spending a short period of time testing cloud provisioning and control software before entering into my current position.