Ep 53: You have no control who lives who dies who tells your story

Thiiings: I have 3 potential interviews coming up for the podcast and I am excited! More details when I get them. I am panicking about Testbash Manchester as I said I’d do a practice talk at the local Drupal User group in August and lols I’ve not even written the thing yet. Ministry of Test is doing a series of webinars, facilitated by Maaret Pyhäjärvi, which I’ve asked to take part in, so I need that topic as well.

Sooo, I want to talk about storytelling.

I’ve always been fascinated by stories. I was a reader as a child, I got lost in words more often than anything else. I read the fifth Harry Potter book the night before my Physics GCSE, staying up until the early hours because the alternative – not reading it – was unthinkable). I always thought it was some kind of magic, storytelling. Later, hearing stories became my obsession, through Ted talks, podcasts, and conference talks, and it’s still my obsession now.

Stories keep you engrossed, invite you on a journey. You’re not just telling someone something, you’re informing them, showing them, bringing them with you on something.

When I started hearing about testers as storytellers I sat up, and paid attention. I don’t have the imagination to write fiction – I’ve tried and I can’t hold a plot with two hands and a bucket, but writing has always brought me joy, and I am always trying to write and speak better, tell my own stories in a way that’s useful and engrossing.

And I realised, as I was reading about storytelling in testing and software development just how much space there is for storytelling in our work. I knew and had used personas before; and how this persona interacts with a product. What I hadn’t thought about is how writing bugs reports is storytelling.

Part of a tester’s job is to advocate for bugs. We report the bugs and in our reports are the whys and hows of raising them, and why we think they should be fixed. Sometimes this is nothing major – this doesn’t work at all, or doesn’t work in this environment. Sometimes it’s a bit more nuanced, “I would expect this here” “I shouldn’t see this because of this reason” and getting the details across fully and in a compelling way is important, because it will get the bug across to people who are in charge of fixing or scheduling the fix.

Sometimes it’s not a bug as much as it’s something that’s not been thought of, or something has been missed, and you need to explain why we need to include the change you’re asking for. Stories can help advocate for things.

So how can we make our stories compelling? First it needs to have a structure: a beginning, a middle, and end. This person went to here and did this and this happened. This is what we thought was going to happen, this is what should happen, this is what we need to happen, and this is why we think this should happen.

Tell the report to someone. This is one reason I’m inclined to talk to developers first when it comes to an awkward bug, or a bug that’s not obvious. I can talk through things and get a feel for what details are needed. If I can’t, or it doesn’t make sense to, I’ll write the bug out in bullet points, with an introduction and end to structure the bug. I make the title relevant (no puns in ticket titles, no matter how tempting. I save all my puns for you, listeners <3), and I make sure I include a desired resolution. Never leave a story on a cliffhanger, people will hate you. A pox on bug reports that are literally ‘the menu doesn’t work’.

Choose your evidence – annotate and refer to the images, videos, numbers you include, don’t just include them without explaining (this is something I am guilty of a lot). Otherwise it’s just decoration and something making the ticket bigger.

Exposition is allowed, and is preferred to a light touch when it comes to details. At the same time, we’re not Charles Dickens and none of us are being paid by the word (this was not actually true, but I like the idea of it). Choose your details wisely.

Write first, then edit before sending it to a developer. Choose what details make sense when you review the entire report.

When the bug comes back to you, detail the resolution – say x was done, or on reflection, y was done because of reasons a, b, c. Finish the story, close the loop. Start again.

We should tell clients more stories. Instead of saying ‘this will do x and y, say, this will allow you/your customers to do x and y, but not a, or b.” or, “we chose to implement this because of these advantages.”

And we should listen and help clients form their own stories. Point out plot holes, and suggest how to tighten the plot up. Offer different opinions, viewpoints, and expertise (you’d send a novel to a copy editor before printing, right?). Help them guide their clients or users or stakeholders through the journey of the site or the app, and make that journey part of a story. When something becomes part of your story it becomes something you care about, and engage with, which is important when it comes to developing successful software. Speak in a common language, and make sure the goal is the same on all sides.

Your user story statement should in fact tell people the story of the feature. As this person, this character, I want to do this thing to reach this goal. Break with the format if needed, but make sure the story elements are there.

Practice. I really like internal sprint walkthroughs. These happen prior to the sprint demo to the client, and it means that the team as a whole gets to look at the work we’ve done. We take each feature ticket, and demo how we meet that criteria. It’s practice for one; the lead dev can find the most sensible way to demo the entire sprint (to tell the story of the sprint, maybe?). It gives the team a chance to review progress as a whole, and make sure everything fits together well.

Hell, storytelling could be a good way of substituting metrics for useful data. Metrics don’t tell you much of anything, but you can at least supplement them with words. X% of stories were rejected with bugs, this is because of x, y, and z, is much better than x% of stories were rejected. Even better would be ‘we had issues with a few stories because of these reasons’, and then move forward, but that doesn’t fit into a graph nicely.

There’s a million things I haven’t done – I’ve not spoken about what happens when the story is taken out of your hands, or talking to people you don’t work with (interviewers, other testers, people who aren’t techy), but I wanted to focus on the sprint cycle.

The whole agile process it an exercise in storytelling, and I think we need to get better at telling them, and about helping other people develop them. Stories are fundamental to human nature – humans are rooted in narrative; we form lives and memories around stories, There’s no reason we can’t continue this in software development, and bring a bit more of the human into the software.

Further reading