To improve testing, snoop on the competition

Apr 23, 2015

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Testing articles

A more polished version of this article is in my book Fifty Quick Ideas To Improve Your Tests

As a general rule, teams focus the majority of testing activities on their zone of control, on the modules they develop, or the software that they are directly delivering. But it’s just as irresponsible not to consider competition when planning testing as it is in the management of product development in general, whether the field is software or consumer electronics.

Software products that are unique are very rare, and it’s likely that someone else is working on something similar to the product or project that you are involved with at the moment. Although the products might be built using different technical platforms and address different segments, key usage scenarios probably translate well across teams and products, as do the key risks and major things that can go wrong.

When planning your testing activities, look at the competition for inspiration – the cheapest mistakes to fix are the ones already made by other people. Although it might seem logical that people won’t openly disclose information about their mistakes, it’s actually quite easy to get this data if you know where to look.

Teams working in regulated industries typically have to submit detailed reports on problems caught by users in the field. Such reports are kept by the regulators and can typically be accessed in their archives. Past regulatory reports are a priceless treasure trove of information on what typically goes wrong, especially because of the huge financial and reputation impact of incidents that are escalated to such a level.

For teams that do not work in regulated environments, similar sources of data could be news websites or even social media networks. Users today are quite vocal when they encounter problems, and a quick search for competing products on Facebook or Twitter might uncover quite a few interesting testing ideas.

Lastly, most companies today operate free online support forums for their customers. If your competitors have a publicly available bug tracking system or a discussion forum for customers, sign up and monitor it. Look for categories of problems that people typically inquire about and try to translate them to your product, to get more testing ideas.

For high-profile incidents that have happened to your competitors, especially ones in regulated industries, it’s often useful to conduct a fake post-mortem. Imagine that a similar problem was caught by users of your product in the field and reported to the news. Try to come up with a plausible excuse for how it might have happened, and hold a fake retrospective about what went wrong and why such a problem would be allowed to escape undetected. This can help to significantly tighten up testing activities.

Key benefits

Investigating competing products and their problems is a cheap way of getting additional testing ideas, not about theoretical risks that might happen, but about things that actually happened to someone else in the same market segment. This is incredibly useful for teams working on a new piece of software or an unfamiliar part of the business domain, when they can’t rely on their own historical data for inspiration.

Running a fake post-mortem can help to discover blind spots and potential process improvements, both in software testing and in support activities. High-profile problems often surface because information falls through the cracks in an organisation, or people do not have sufficiently powerful tools to inspect and observe the software in use. Thinking about a problem that happened to someone else and translating it to your situation can help establish checks and make the system more supportable, so that problems do not escalate to that level. Such activities also communicate potential risks to a larger group of people, so developers can be more aware of similar risks when they design the system, and testers can get additional testing ideas to check.

The post-mortem suggestions, especially around improving the support procedures or observability, help the organisation to handle ‘black swans’ – unexpected and unknown incidents that won’t be prevented by any kind of regression testing. We can’t know upfront what those risks are (otherwise they wouldn’t be unexpected), but we can train the organisation to react faster and better to such incidents. This is akin to government disaster relief organisations holding simulations of floods and earthquakes to discover facilitation and coordination problems. It’s much cheaper and less risky to discover things like this in a safe simulated environment than learn about organisational cracks when the disaster actually happens.

How to make it work

When investigating support forums, look for patterns and categories rather than individual problems. Due to different implementations and technology choices, it’s unlikely that third-party product issues will directly translate to your situation, but problem trends or areas of influence will probably be similar.

One particularly useful trick is to look at the root cause analyses in the reports, and try to identify similar categories of problems in your software that could be caused by the same root causes.


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