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Apr 26, 2006 - 5 minute read - Blog CompendiumDev

Can the words that we use affect our thinking

Original Blog Posting on [compendiumnews.blogspot.com]

Can the words that we use affect our train of thought?

How do the different words we use to describe a system, change the way that we think about that system? Can we describe the Application Under Test differently and change the way that we think about it?

One exercise I tried recently was to think of different words to describe the software that I was testing and to see how that affected my thinking about that software.

I found that I was able to take different views of the software when I applied a different description. And different views allowed me to quickly identify different aspects of the software to test.

This was different from a heuristic approach as I was inferring, from the description, aspects of the software which I could then use to trigger thoughts about testing. It seems to me that this is one way to identify heuristics from first principles.

Example words I used : Application, System, Software, Solution, [Name], [Name Version X]

  • Try the words out for yourself and see what happens.
  • Identify more descriptive words and phrases for the software and see what happens

A classic piece of humorous writing on the use of words and language can be found in ‘Through the Looking Glass’, by Lewis Carroll. I find chapter 6, with Humpty Dumpty, to be particularly entertaining. There are plenty of editions online and I’ve linked to just one, purely arbitrarily, at literature.org [http://www.literature.org/authors/carroll-lewis/through-the-looking-glass/chapter-06.html]

‘My name is Alice, but -’

‘It’s a stupid name enough!’ Humpty Dumpty interrupted impatiently. ‘What does it mean?’

Must a name mean something?’ Alice asked doubtfully.

‘Of course it must,’ Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: ‘my name means the shape I am - and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.’

Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll, CHAPTER VI, HUMPTY DUMPTY Through the looking glass Chapter 6

I’m Testing …

Below are notes on what some of the descriptive words that I use to describe systems do for me. They may do a very different thing for you. And I guess that is to be expected, words are ambiguous. When I say that I’m Testing [Insert Name of Software Here], that may not mean very much. It may not mean much to other people if they don’t know the name, and it certainly doesn’t expose the level of knowledge that I have about the system. What it can do for me is get me thinking in terms of the superficialities, of the first things that come to mind:

  • the adverts,
  • the basic feature set,
  • what general kind of things need to be tested
  • basic requirements

If I extensionalise the name and give it some extra meta-tag information (in this case the version number): I’m testing [Name of Software] version A.B. Then I start to think about:

  • changes in this version,
  • what needs to be tested specifically in this version?
  • what the requirements were for this version?
  • have all the necessary changes been made?
  • Delivery dates and timescales.

When I call the Application a ‘System’ I start to think about

  • an integration of parts,
  • interfaces,
  • data syntax,
  • flow through the system

When I call the Application ‘Software’ I start to think of it as a thing:

  • which runs on an operating system (what versions),
  • interfaces with hardware (disk),
  • data semantics
  • common elements to software (instruction manual, box, help file, install routine).

When I call the Application a ‘Solution’, I think:

  • for whom?
  • for what problem?

And when I say ‘Application’ I’m thinking:

  • apply it to what?
  • Use it for what?
  • How can I apply it?
  • What functionality does it have?

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master - that’s all.’

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. ‘They’ve a temper, some of them - particularly verbs: they’re the proudest - adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs - however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’

Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll, CHAPTER VI, HUMPTY DUMPTY Through the looking glass Chapter 6

No Answers, Just Exercises

As an exercise for the reader… Now, what happens when you add some positive and negative phrases about the software to your descriptions?

  • Festering pile of bad code: are you positively motivated to test it yet?
  • Fantastic piece of software with just a few minor flaws: are you working hard to stress the software yet?

Answer the following questions and see what happens:

  • Can the state that you approach the thinking about software change the way that you think about the testing of it? I think that it can.
  • What words are you using to describe software?
  • What states are you in when you use those words?
  • How linked are the states and the words?