How can testers influence design choices?

As a Quality Engineer it’s a great experience being able to plan and facilitate design review sessions with developers and architects. This could either be a formal/informal session. The design review provide hints to the testers that help to foresee potential defects in the system. It comes with huge benefits of learning the crucial design elements especially when the discussion happens in a room of developers. At the same time, the developers also get a chance to brainstorm the design when the testers ask questions which inturn adds great business value to the product.
This article explores how fellow test engineers can contribute and influence the design decisions in a development effort. While the developers are better at Object Oriented Programming concepts, the testers can explore the feature at a deeper level identifying corner cases, exceptional conditions or error cases and recommend designs that are flexible enough to accomodate these behaviors.
Issues costing $300K occur due to bad product design that could have been prevented if there were design reviews with testers.
Below are two techniques that are explained indepth to help testers catch design flaws in a product:
1. Apply 5 basic design patterns
2. Analysis models

1. Apply 5 basic design patterns:

Design patterns are named set of problem-solution pairs for the repeated challenges faced by the programmers in the IT industry. Understanding Design Patterns requires us to “think in objects”. Being aware of the design choices and consciously making the best design choice is essentially a programmer’s skill and requires strong knowledge of Object Oriented Programming. Then, how does a tester add value to the design review of a product?
Testers can perceive where the potential issues and risks might be for a particular product design. Usually the unthinkable risks in the product design are not talked about in design reviews. This is the area where a tester can significantly add value. There are 5 basic business design patterns that can get the testers thinking about the unthinkable risks. Some of you might be already thinking on these terms while evaluating the design of a product. Making it more formal with process flow diagrams can make the design review session more useful to the stakeholders.

 

For understanding each of the below business design patterns let us consider a storyboard of a customer purchasing a product on a shopping website.
Before getting into these patterns first let us define what is an event.
An event defines under what circumstances a particular process/function gets triggered.
We can use logical connectors AND / OR called joins for joining two or more business events.

1) Dissection of events

This pattern helps the tester think: “What are the different starting events that can trigger a function/process?”
For example a Purchase Order Processing function can have different starting events as below:
Customer clicks on add to cart button on a third party shopping website
Customer places order via an email sent to his inbox
Customer places order via mobile phone

 

2) Sequential events pattern

What is the specific order in which the events should occur?
Should customers login before clicking on checkout? Can guest users also checkout?

3) Parallel Split pattern

What are the multiple processes that should be triggered by a starting event?
Lets assume that the customer clicks on the checkout button. Normally the purchase order process is triggered. What if the database crashes during the transaction? To handle this, the application should have two processes running. Periodic data migration of the transaction to backup database/servers so that the backup server can get a handle over the transaction in case of any crash and another is the payment processing function.

 

If the product is not designed to handle this crash then there would be a heavy data loss in the midst of the transaction since millions of customers might be using the site. These kinds of unthinkable risk can be better pointed out by a tester using this pattern.

 

4) Synchronization

When there are a set of activities, which of these must be finished completely before we continue the process?
Fraud check and confirmation of funding source/shipping address should be done before payment is processed.

5) Exclusive choice

What are the different mutually exclusive flows possible for a given process?
As stated in the earlier pattern, to which flow should the program transfer the control in the event of server crash?

2. Analysis Models

Analysis models could be used to probe, critique, review and approve the product design. Asking questions, even the stupid ones, during the design phase of the project can add great business value to the product.
Data models are a visual representation of the relationships between the different entities of a system. During the design phase of a project apart from the requirements specification documents there are class diagrams, use cases and entity relationship diagrams that are usually thought of as programmer’s tools. Similarly, the programmers think of it as a business analyst’s tool. Infact it can be used by both testers and developers to ask good questions that adds new perspectives to the design review discussion leading to the discovery of new facts or pitfalls in the product design.
1. Study the domain\business rules between the different entites
2. Know the right questions to ask
3. Identify pitfalls in the product design
4. Check for missing details in the requirements spec and discover new business rules
5. Filter out requirements that are likely to change

Seperation of concerns

Is the design flexible enough to accomodate the likely future change in the product? I just came across a GTAC (2010) video on Flexible Design? Testable Design? You Don’t Have To Choose! where the developer dumps multiple responsibilities in a single large class because he doesn’t like coding several small distinct behaviors each in a seperate class. This will cause issues in future when we need to change/extend/add one more behavior to the class. Whenever we modify this single large class the developer needs to modify so many methods calling them and so he will resist changes. It requires huge efforts even for a trivial change. This is an example of a bad design.
A tester need not agree with this kind of design pattern. The testers should filter out requirements that are likely to change in future using analysis models and ensure that the programmer implements “Seperation of Concerns” principle to make the design flexible for future changes for these set of requirements.

Bug prevention – the new definition for software testing

“Bug prevention is the testing’s first goal” – B.Beizer

Beizer stated that “the act of designing tests is one of the most effective bug preventers known,” which extended the definition of testing to error prevention as well as error detection activities. This article gives insight into the power of early testing.

Most of the testers find bugs weeks/months after the designers and developers inject the bug into the product. How many testers proactively engage with their development partners to prevent the bug from ever getting into the product in the first place? If we continue to think of testing as an after-the-development process then our role is nothing more than a bug finder.

To advance our discipline of testing, the testers need to partner with the developers earlier in the lifecycle to move quality upstream and prevent issues. One of the most powerful ways of improving the quality of the product and the team effectiveness is to focus the testing efforts on defect prevention rather than defect detection. This doesn’t negate or eliminate the need for testing. Testing for defect detection alone is like simply treating the symptoms of the problem and ignoring the root cause of the real problem. Defect prevention is about addressing the real problem.

Here are some of the ways for the tester to work in a symbiotic relationship with the developer and move quality upstream:

  1. Participate in code inspection
  2. Engage in design reviews
  3. Prototyping with program manager and designers to prevent sub-optimal designs