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CHATing about CAST 2009: Software testing and cultural history

If you’re looking for a cross-discipline topic related to software testing, Rebecca Fiedler’s and Cem Kaner’s upcoming talk at the Conference for the Association for Software Testing (CAST) – July 13-16th in Colorado Springs – might just be for you. Their talk on “Cultural-Historical Activity Theory: Framework, to characterize the activity of software testing” takes a look at one of the most difficult tasks in software testing – discovering and applying contextual information. Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (or CHAT) has been applied widely to software usability analysis, but not so much to testing. Fiedler and Kaner are hoping to change that.

“Cultural Historical Activity Theory provides a clear structure for applying a systems theory-approach to human activities. In particular, it is really useful for looking at change on a human system. Perhaps you’re trying to understand a change that has caused your project to go off the rails or maybe you’ll use it to analyze the introduction of a new tool or technology you’re trying to implement. The Computer-Human Interaction and Computer-Supported Cooperative Work crowds have been using Activity Theory for years. More recently, they’ve begun shifting from user-focused design to context-centered design. It seemed natural, given our advocacy for context-driven testing, to use CHAT to think about the context of testing as well as the context in which the software we’re testing will be used. CHAT helps with that.”

Rebecca Fiedler is an Assistant Professor in the Curriculum, Instruction, and Media Technology Department at Indiana State University. She’s interested in how people learn and how technology can make educational efforts more effective and more accessible to more people. In the testing community, she works with Cem Kaner on the Black Box Software Testing (BBST) courses and AST’s Education SIG. She is also a regular attendee at the Workshop on Teaching Software Testing.

Cem Kaner has pursued a multidisciplinary career centered on the theme of the satisfaction and safety of software customers and software-related workers. With a law degree (practice focused on the law of software quality), a doctorate in Experimental Psychology, and 17 years in the Silicon Valley software industry, Dr. Kaner joined Florida Institute of Technology as Professor of Software Engineering in 2000. Dr. Kaner is senior author of three books: “Testing Computer Software,” “Bad Software,” and “Lessons Learned in Software Testing.”

Fiedler says the idea for the talk started when she was doing her dissertation research a couple of years ago:

“I’m interested in how technology can help people learn and so I spent a lot of time at two different institutions watching college students use a specialized software tool for a high stakes task – high stakes as in their graduation depended on it. Academics love theory so I decided to use CHAT to sharpen the focus of my observations, interviews, and analysis. As Cem and I talked about what I was finding in my research, we started asking, ‘Where was their test group? How could they defer that bug? It does what?’ and other tester-like questions. It wasn’t long before Cem realized this would be a great model for testers to use. We started floating this with some of his testing colleagues and got more and more excited about it.”

Here are a few examples of challenges faced by testers that a CHAT-based analysis might help us better understand and thus more effectively work within:

  • Introducing a new metric
  • Introducing a new test tool
  • Interviewing stakeholders to gather their requirements and to discover the conflicts among stakeholders’ requirements
  • Designing tests that are tailored to expose highly important problems
  • Describing failures in ways that are intended to motivate specific stakeholders to demand fixes
  • Gaining insight into the dynamics of a failing project

Fiedler and Kaner have some concern that some people might find CHAT too complex to master in the short time available. That’s one of the reasons they choose CAST as the venue for their talk.

“I like that the CAST format requires audience and speaker interaction. Attendees get to explore a topic until they’ve heard enough. I also like that the conference isn’t over-scheduled so that you can have lunch or dinner and an extended conversation with speakers and other attendees. I’ve presented CHAT before. On the speaker side, I can tell you that it takes a while to convey the richness of the model. On the listener side, it takes a while to appreciate how it can be used. CAST gives us the time we need to talk about this.

In addition, Fiedler and Kaner indicated they would be willing to take the discussion online after the conference if there were enough interest. “If enough people are interested,” Fiedler said, “we could participate in a discussion forum at AST or TestingClub in which participants apply this to their real examples/situations.”

I asked Fiedler where testers who might not be able to attend the conference could go for more information. She listed off a handful of papers and books that she’s used to help her develop her understanding of the method.

“Yrjo Engestrom (from Helsinki, Finland) developed the CHAT model and first wrote about it in a paper called ‘Learning by Expanding: An Activity – Theoretical Approach to Developmental Research.’ That’s the seminal work but I thought it was a tough read. A few years ago, Sasha Barab, Michael Evans, and Un-Ok Baek wrote a chapter on using CHAT that appeared in the ‘Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology.’ That chapter was very helpful. […] Right now I’m reading two books and I think I’m going to start recommending them to anyone interested in CHAT. They are ‘Activity Centered Design: An Ecological Approach to Designing Smart Tool and Usable Systems‘ by Geri Gay and Helen Hembrooke and ‘Acting with Technology: Activity Theory and Interaction Design‘ by Victor Kaptelinin and Bonnie A. Nardi. Both are grounded in the HCI field, but I think they’ll be helpful to testers, too.”

For more on the upcoming show, check out the CAST conference website. For more on Rebecca Fiedler and online teaching and learning, you can follow her research on her website. For more on Cem Kaner, you can check out his website, or one of his books on software testing.

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