Thursday, 28 May 2015

Dominos to illustrate communication in pair testing

I recently ran a one hour workshop to introduce pair testing to my team. I wanted to make the session interactive rather than theoretical however, having done the research, I struggled to find any practical tips for training people in how to pair effectively. Having created something original to suit my purpose, I thought I would share my approach in case it is useful for others.

I coach a large team of 20 agile testers who are spread across several different teams, testing different applications and platforms. Though I wanted the workshop to be hands-on, the logistics of 10 pairs performing software testing against our real systems was simply too challenging. I needed to go low-tech, while still emulating the essence of what happens in a pair testing session.

So, what is the essence of pair testing? I spent several days thinking on this and, in the end, it wasn't until I bounced ideas around with a colleague that I realised. Communication.

Most people understand the theory of pairing immediately. Two people, one machine, sharing ideas and tackling a single task together. It's not a difficult concept. But the success of pairing hinges on the ability of those who are paired to communicate effectively with one another. How we speak to each other impacts both our enjoyment and our output.

With this goal in mind I started to research communication exercises, and found this:


One of the listening skills activities that I do is that you have people get in groups of 2, you give one of them a pack of 8 dominos and the other a shape diagram of rectangles (dominos) in a random pattern. Only the person without the dominos should see the pattern. They sit back to back on the floor or the one with the dominos at a table and the other in a chair back to back. The one with the diagram instructs the other on placing the dominos to match the diagram. The one with the dominos cannot speak. They get 2 min. I usually do this in a big group where they are all working in pairs at once.
Then they switch roles, get a new pattern and do the exercise again, this time the person with the dominos is allowed to speak. 2 min. usually successful.
Then we debrief looking at challenges, jargon words used, analyze how they provided instructions without being able to watch the person, tone, questions asked, etc. ( I have this all in a document if you want it) It is quite fun and enlightening for those who are training to be able to be in a support role with technology.

Though it wasn't quite right for my workshop, this was an exercise for pairs that was interactive, communication focused, and involved toys. I decided to adapt it for my purpose and use dominos to illustrate two different types of knowledge sharing -- "follow me" and "flashlight" -- that hoped to see occur in our real-life pair testing sessions.

Follow Me

The workshop participants were placed in pairs. One person in the pair was given a packet of dominos and a diagram of 8 dominos in a pattern. They were given 2 minutes to arrange their dominos to match the diagram while their partner observed.

I asked each pair to push all their dominos back into a pile. The person who had arranged the dominos was asked to pick up the instruction diagram and hold it out of view of their partner. The person without the instructions was then given 2 minutes to repeat the same domino arrangement with limited assistance from their partner who was forbidden from touching the dominos!

Though the person with the dominos had seen the puzzle completed and knew it's broad shape, it was clear that they would need to talk to their partner and ask a lot of questions about the diagram in order to repeat the arrangement precisely. It was interesting to observe the different approaches; not every pair successfully completed the second part of this exercise within the 2 minute time frame.

After the exercise we had a short debrief. The participants noticed that:

  • pairs who talked more were able to complete the task quicker,
  • there were advantages to using non-verbal communication, particularly pointing and nodding, to help the person arranging the dominos, 
  • though it seemed easy when observing the task, attempting to repeat the same steps without the diagram was more challenging than people expected, 
  • it was frustrating for the person with the instructions to be unable to touch the dominos, and
  • keeping an encouraging tone when giving instructions helped to focus people on the task rather than feel stressed by the short deadline.

I felt that there were clear parallels between this activity and a pair testing scenario in which a tester is exploring a completely unfamiliar domain with guidance from a domain expert. I emphasised the importance of being honest when help is required, and keeping up a constant dialog where people are uncertain.


In the same pairs, one person was given a diagram of 8 dominos while the other was given a partial diagram that included only four. The person with access to only the smaller diagram was given 2 minutes to arrange the full set of 8 dominos.

Example of a full map of 8 dominos (left) next to a corresponding partial map of 4 dominos (right)

In this iteration the person who was arranging the dominos was given some understanding of what was required, but still needed need to ask their partner for assistance to complete the entire puzzle. As previously, the person with the complete picture was not permitted to touch the dominos and kept their instructions hidden from their partner.

Again we had a short debrief. The participants felt that this exercise was much easier than the first. Because the person arranging the dominos was bringing their own knowledge to the task it meant that almost every pair completed the arrangement within the 2 minutes.

As a facilitator I noticed that this little bit of extra knowledge changed the communication dynamics of some pairs quite dramatically. Instead of talking throughout, the observers remained silent as their partner completed the arrangement of the first four dominos. Only once the person with the dominos had completed the task to the extent of their abilities did they ask their pair for input.

The pairs who worked in this way were ultimately slower than their colleagues who kept talking to one another. One way that talking made things quicker was in eliminating double-handling of dominos -- "You'll need that one later".

Having shared this reflection, the two people switched roles and, with new diagrams, repeated the activity. With the expectation set that communication should remain continuous, it seemed that the pairs worked quicker together. The second iteration was certainly noisier!

I felt that there were clear parallels between this activity and one in which a tester is exploring a domain where they have some familiarity but are not an expert. It's important to remember that there is always something to learn, or opportunities to discover the ways in which the maps of others differ to our own. This exercise illustrated how important it is to continue communicating even when we feel comfortable in our own skills.

I was happy with how the dominos activities highlighted some important communication concepts for effective pair testing. If you'd like to repeat this workshop in your own workplace I would be happy to share my domino diagrams to save you some time, please get in touch.

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