We use pictures to tell stories. We share photos with family and friends to let them know what’s happening in our lives. We use pictorial instructions and how-to videos to learn new skills and we inform our Agile teams and stakeholders of progress and delivery with our visual management boards.
Many of us learn new ideas and information best when they are presented visually. However, in our workplaces, much of the information and guidance is only available in written form. While there are people who prefer to learn from written documents, for visual learners these documents can be impenetrable or just plain boring. Significant time and effort can go into writing strategy and planning documents which fail to engage their audience and the intended outcomes are never fully realised. We need to use a variety of techniques and media to take as much of our audience on a journey as possible.
I worked with the talented Fairfax Product Technology team as Test Chapter Lead last year. In collaboration with their Agile coach Jaume Durany, we ran two visualisation experiments which proved more successful than we ever anticipated in communicating our test strategy and gaining engagement across our teams.
Background to the test strategy
At Fairfax, I developed and implemented a strategy to guide testing of our features and stories. The strategy was for all of the Product Technology team, testers and non-testers alike. It was aimed at encouraging greater agility and cross-functionality in testing.
The testing approaches needed for new features or stories are contextual to the combination of products, features, technologies in use and the team members involved. Implementing a prescriptive, process-oriented test strategy for Fairfax would neither have suited the wide range of testing approaches needed, nor encouraged increased communication and collaboration within the teams.
Working with the testers and with feedback from Assurity colleagues such as Aaron Hodder, I pared the strategy back to a set of five principles to guide Fairfax’s skilled and collaborative teams in testing.
The central principle in the strategy is ‘Testing as a Team’, with the other principles (‘Shifting Left’, ‘Test Lean’, ‘Shifting Right’ and testers providing ‘Quality Assistance’) supporting delivery of it. The aim is for teams to be thinking and talking about testing throughout development and for every team member to be able to contribute to testing. This principle recognises that testing is collaborative and that many skill sets can be involved.
Using guiding principles also recognises the testers’ talent and experience, empowering them to determine the best approach for each testing task and trusting them with the responsibility to guide their teams to delivering better quality products.
The strategy is covered in more detail in the test strategy video below or in the Making Stuff article on the strategy.
Experiment 1: The visual test strategy
With ‘Testing as a Team’ being central to the Fairfax test strategy, there needed to be buy-in across the Product Technology team for the strategy to be successfully implemented.
I wanted to experiment with different delivery approaches beyond just writing a strategy document and was inspired by Lynne Cazaly’s work to try to visualise the strategy. Visualising the strategy would communicate the principles that make up the strategy in an engaging and easy-to-understand way.
While I am limited in my own artistic skills, I was able to sketch out basic visual representations of each of the principles. I then collaborated with Jaume Durany on refining the visual ideas and producing the finished illustration. Jaume is a Fairfax Agile coach with a passion for visualisation and strong drawing skills.
The visual test strategy captured our guiding principles for testing in a one-page illustration – the idea being for the test strategy to be displayed on team walls and other shared team spaces, enabling it to be used as a reference in stand-ups and team discussions on testing.
The visualisation communicated enough about each of the principles, such that team members could work with the strategy without having to have read the detail behind it. This was an important factor for engaging the non-testers, who may have been otherwise reluctant to try to understand and use the strategy.
The visual test strategy has been well-received by the Fairfax teams. It has informed and reminded the teams of the strategy principles and helped with conversations and collaboration on testing.
In particular, the central concept of ‘Testing as a Team’ has been adopted by the teams, with everyone getting actively involved in testing to some degree. This involvement has ranged from crowd-sourced help with mobile device testing, to non-testers leading test delivery for stories (with tester support) and whole product teams testing together for complex releases.
Experiment 2: The visual test strategy – a short film
The visual test strategy helps to communicate the test strategy, but it doesn’t capture everything. My article introducing the strategy covered much of the background and this information is also on the team’s wiki. However, this won’t be the best form of communication for everyone.
As the visualisation approach with the test strategy had proved to be engaging, Jaume and I experimented with another visual medium – video – for communicating the next level of strategy detail to a wider audience.
We were inspired to take this approach by the concept of ‘micro-learning’, which focuses on delivering education in small, accessible and easy-to-digest chunks. In micro-learning, the focus is on delivering learning in mediums that your audience readily uses. With video, we could keep the test strategy visual and communicate detail in a format that would be more appealing than a wiki document.
We wanted the video to be visually engaging for viewers and hit upon the idea of recording the illustration of the strategy and have the illustration emerging as narration was covering the background of the strategy. The end product was a six-minute video introducing the strategy.
The video has been well-received by those who’ve viewed it so far, both inside and out of Fairfax. Perhaps the most enthusiastic reactions have been from my Assurity colleagues. Many of these colleagues work outside of testing, but after they watched the video we’ve been able to discuss the strategy in some depth. This has demonstrated to me that the key messages are getting communicated in a way that genuinely captures people’s attention. By introducing the strategy in this way, we’ve reached and engaged people both inside and outside of Fairfax who were never likely to willingly read a testing article or document.
There’s also been real excitement about the micro-learning approach we took with the video and we’re looking at sharing other ideas and learning across Assurity using this type of approach. This ranges from technical training to company communications.
Looking back on the experiments
I believe that both the visual test strategy and its accompanying video have been successful experiments in communication and engagement. The visualisation experiments have enabled more widespread interest, understanding and buy-in to the test strategy than the written documentation alone would have.
Having the strategy based on a set of straightforward principles helped to make it accessible, understandable and, most importantly, drawable! However, I believe you could distil most strategies to a set of core messages which could be visualised. Even if this visualisation only skims the surface, it should help to capture the attention of a wider audience and encourage these people to learn more about the strategy.
The success of our visual work does not mean we should neglect written documentation. There are many learning styles and, just as there are people who learn best from visualisations, there are also people who learn best from reading written documentation. We need to understand our audience and how they prefer to learn. To effectively engage with a diverse group of people, we’ll need to use a range of communication and learning approaches.
The strategy and the visualisation approaches have moved beyond testing. At Assurity, we’re now using the visual strategy as an example of how testing fits into a DevOps world and some of our other clients are starting to experiment with similar visualisations.