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How to Improve Testing by Using a Gentle Nudge

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Nudging gives us opportunities to positively influence our behavior. Its principles can be applied in testing to increase attention or to enhance the product’s quality. Ard Kramer will give a talk about nudging in agile testing at the Romanian Testing Conference 2023.

The principle of "nudging" is described by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in the book Nudge: Improving Decisions on Health, Wealth, and Happiness:

A nudge is any form of choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without restricting options or significantly changing their economic incentives.

According to Kramer, nudging makes use of something that is well-known to us as humans: our biases. This term may cause concern for testers as it poses a risk to delivering useful software. However, scientists have also recognized its potential to positively influence our behavior.

Kramer gives an example of how nudging can be used to support testing:

A risk session is a vital starting point for testing. How can we get stakeholders in the right mindset to consider product risks thoroughly? What if we place them in a room with pictures of natural disasters such as typhoons, volcanoes, and earthquakes on the walls? The unconscious behavior will hopefully activate them. They can come up with all kinds of product risks that can occur during the development of that new product. Risks that need to be monitored or mitigated to reach for a better and more reliable product.

To apply nudging in testing, Kramer suggests considering the situations in which you want those around you to increase the attention to testing or to enhance the product’s quality. Then think about which principle will be appropriate and useful to nudge people towards better testing or higher quality. Such an exercise can be enjoyable and valuable.

InfoQ interviewed Ard Kramer about nudging.

InfoQ: Where does nudging come from?

Ard Kramer: Nudging has been in existence since humans started living as social beings, attempting to influence and modify each other’s behavior within groups. However, the awareness of how it works and its applications originated in the social sciences, such as behavioral economics and political theory. Behavioral economists moved away from the concept of homo economicus, recognizing that humans are not always rational (as evidenced by the quality of code).

It is not surprising that marketing and sales have utilized this knowledge to influence people, for example to purchase more of a particular product. In addition, politics has identified opportunities to improve the quality of our society, such as encouraging safe driving or reducing the amount of money students borrow from the government to pay for their education.

InfoQ: How do you apply nudging in testing to improve the quality of software?

Kramer: An interesting example is the principle of "the default option": a bias that we encounter many times a day when they ask you to accept a cookie to enter a website. Because you want to proceed as fast as possible, you don’t look at the different options that are offered to you. And you know what: the default option is often the option with the most interesting cookies for the people of the website. So if we have limited time, we often choose the default option (and sales people know that).

How to apply this to testing? A very simple example is setting the default option if you report a bug to "blocking". If people don’t have much time in reporting, all bugs will be blocking, because they will choose the default option. With this action, you will get attention because there will be a full list of blocking bugs. This will help you, as a tester, to have people around become aware of how many bugs there are that need attention.

This is just an example of one principle, however there are over 15 others, such as "keep it simple," the generation effect, and reciprocity, that can be utilized to nudge people in a particular direction.

InfoQ: What about ethics, is it ok to nudge people to make better choices to improve quality and testing?

Kramer: The foundation of ethics is to determine one’s intentions, and the same holds true for nudging. My reason for utilizing nudging is to improve the quality of testing, thereby increasing the value that a tester can bring. I don’t believe many people would object to this intention.

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