Crowdtesting is like sex: it's in the DNA

Starting this article with the question — Why do organisms have sex? — might seem like shameless clickbait.

But bear with me: That simple query turns out to be the perfect introduction to the emerging trend of crowdsourced software testing or crowdtesting.

Crowdsourcing Meets Cloud

There are more formal definitions, but think of crowdtesting as the love child of crowdsourcing and cloud technology — raised from birth to search out and consume a steady diet of usability glitches and software bugs.

Like citizen scientists, crowdtesters are inquisitive problem solvers from all walks of life who relish the challenges of performing exploratory tests on software to expose weaknesses and bugs. These testers don’t simply follow scripts the way an automated test would; they use their human discretion and accumulated knowledge to discover functional and user experience flaws in products and platforms.

Sex Spells Survival

Now, back to the sex part.

Evolutionary geneticist Graham Bell famously called the “why do organisms have sex?” question “the queen of problems in evolutionary biology.”

The answer is complicated, but it boils down to this: Asexual reproduction only works in stable environments without predators. Those of us who aren’t flatworms or jellyfish must survive under more Darwinian circumstances where natural selection favors gene-sharing because it creates the diversity that spells survival.

Shared Company DNA Spells Success

By now the parallels between software development and crowdtesting should be obvious: in the ultimate competitive environment, sharing DNA gives companies a leg up, too.

Consider a brief example: In her 1994 book, Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128, AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Information, examined the diverging fates of the San Francisco Bay Area and Boston’s Route 128 tech economies. Both regions were equally strong during the 1980s, when Massachusetts made the decision to enforce non-compete agreements at the same time that California declared the same laws to be unenforceable.

The result? Silicon Valley employees remained free agents, able to cross-pollinate their entrepreneurial DNA easily between companies, while employees in Massachusetts were limited in their employment options. Only now, over three decades later, is Massachusetts finally in the process of changing its laws.

How Crowdtesting Avoids Inbred Thinking

How can your organization encourage the kind of skill-and knowledge-based DNA swapping that will bring out the best in your software development team over the long haul? The obvious way, of course, is by hiring from companies you want to emulate, the way Facebook hired engineers who had worked at Google.

But one downside of hiring from companies you admire could be inbreeding: you may end up selecting people with such a specific set of experiences that you unwittingly inherit their cognitive biases.

That’s where the benefits of crowdtesting become very sexy indeed.

Crowdtesting and Pattern Recognition

Consider this: When thousands of people test software for hundreds of companies, they spread their “testing genes” around. They do this by spotting similar patterns across multiple companies, even companies with completely dissimilar products. And since they might work on behalf of several companies in a day, this process can be remarkably fast.

Say, for instance, a crowdtester notices that a new update to iOS or Android is causing problems for Company A’s app. That same tester will know to look for similar problems in Company B’s app.

In that way, the testing crowd thus becomes a robust, shared software “immune system” working on behalf of dozens of companies.

Finding Bugs and Anti-Patterns

In analyzing bug patterns for our company, test IO, we have found that our testers routinely discover so-called anti-patterns in the functioning of unrelated apps developed by separate companies.

Think of anti-patterns as common but defective patterns of software implementation within a company. For example, one of our testers found the same problems with the zoom and flyout modes in five companies’ apps after Windows began supporting touch events.

Crowdtesters Find the Hotspots

Of course, it’s possible that in-house testers would also find these problems, either through their own efforts or by combing through Stack Overflow to find similar examples. But in practice, overextended internal QA teams often lack the time to seek out new anti-patterns. They benefit from external testers’ abilities to uncover hotspots that may require more investigation or test coverage.

One reason we discourage our clients from overscripting their crowd tests is to avoid reproducing your organization’s cognitive biases. We have found that if you provide crowdtesters with complete, click-by-click instructions for every aspect of the test, you often restrict the paths they take rather than allowing trained testers to follow their noses in sniffing out anti-patterns.

Seeing Past Sources of Bias

Introducing diverse viewpoints is also key in the area of usability feedback. When your in-house team has spent time designing and developing a piece of software, they can easily become so accustomed to how it works that they come to see its idiosyncrasies as natural.

Enter crowdtesters who not only approach the software without those biases but may even bring the added bonus of different cultural or socio-economic points of view.

Everybody Wins with Crowdtesting

If my company is any indication, only about half of the crowdtesters have full-time jobs in the technology industry. The other half moonlight as crowdtesters with the full knowledge and approval of their employers.

Why do employers enthusiastically support this outside work? Because crowdtesting gives their employees exposure to new technologies, techniques and designs —a transfer of knowledge that’s a win-win for all concerned. What’s more, by exposing their own employees to external DNA, they’re protecting their software from anti-patterns.

Crowdsource a Fast Track to Wisdom

The moral of this salacious story? While it’s great to hire people from companies you admire, crowdtesting can often provide a faster, lower-risk way of bringing new DNA to your organization — and with it, the aggregate wisdom of many developers’ vast and diverse experience.

Title image by Josh Felise