Autoethnographic research made me look at testing from a new angle

Explore how autoethnographic research techniques overlap with testing behaviors and download a free template to try it yourself.

One of my favorite things about being a tester is the way testers find inspiration and techniques from outside of the testing world and integrate them into their work. In my graduate work I’ve been discovering the many ways that traditional research techniques overlap with testing behaviors, my favorite of which is autoethnographic research. 

What in the world is autoethnographic research you ask? Let’s start by looking at ethnography, the research methodology this technique grew out of. Ethnography or ethnographic research is a research method typically used in the social sciences in which the researcher embeds and immerses themselves in a group, community, or culture. In ethnography we acknowledge that researchers will always have a personal slant or bias and instead of attempting to remove bias, instead seeks to learn and empathize with the subjects of the study. Some of the ways we document our findings using this method include journaling, field notes, and narratives of our experiences and observations.

Autoethnography takes ethnographic research one step further and uses the researcher themselves as a subject in the study. Often used in the social sciences, the researcher interrogates their own feelings and experiences in a group, community, or culture. This technique is often used when a researcher is studying their own culture or community, or when they are conducting research on a study of only themselves. Autoethnographic research also uses journaling, field notes, and narratives to document observations during the study.

A couple of real life examples of this technique used in action are:

  • In James Osben’s A day in the life of a NHS nurse in 21st Century Britain: An auto-ethnography: James wrote a narrative of his day as it happened. He then used critical analysis to find the overarching themes of feelings, tasks, and behaviors in the narrative of his shift. Osben’s aim in his research was to use “reflective practice.” Reflective practice is one of the ways a researcher reflects on, contextualizes, and reframes their experiences for their research.
  • Jay Johnson Theil explored her place in academia using ethnographic methods in her research Working-class women in academic spaces: finding our muchness: Theil used photography, reflective journaling, movie quotes, and storytelling as research methods, then applied critical analysis to better understand how she really feels about her role in academia. 

Autoethnographic research works a lot like exploratory testing

If I’ve explained this well enough you may already see what I saw when first learning about this technique — autoethnographic research sounds like exploratory testing! I’ve long advocated for paying close attention to your thoughts and feelings as you work your way through an exploratory testing session. With this research method, you can take your exploratory testing even further. Here are a few ways to apply this method to your testing. 

Journal your feelings while testing. As you work your way through whatever you’re testing, focus on how you feel and what you think. Do you feel frustrated, delighted, or confused? Whatever feelings the application elicit from you, write them down as you feel them. You may also consider other types of journaling using methods like color coded or face sentiment trackers.

Use voice narration. Narrate your thoughts and feelings to a voice app or Zoom session. To make sharing the narrated session easier for your team, you can use a transcription app or speech to text.

Reflect at the end of testing sessions. If you’re more interested in overall sentiment as opposed to thoughts and feelings in the moment, consider writing or narrating a reflection of thoughts and feelings from the testing session. 

Debrief with your peers. Many teams hold debriefing sessions on a regular basis after exploratory testing. These sessions are the perfect time to share your thoughts and feelings documented in the session.

I will be the first to admit that I can’t remember what I did yesterday. Over time, I tend to forget my feelings towards the application I’m testing, which can hinder quality because my brain isn’t attune to looking for trends. Starting to use these autoethnographic techniques on an individual level will help you uncover trends in your reactions, thoughts, and feelings related to the application while you test. 

You’ll have an even more impactful and beneficial experience if you use these techniques with your team and track over time. Some ways to do so are:

Bug summary journal: Keeping a log of bugs you’ve found and experienced in your application along with sentiment tracking towards each bug helps demonstrate the impact on quality that you feel each bug has. This will also help you see if there are periods when you feel bugs are related to sloppy code or a lack of understanding of the problem the team is trying to solve. 

Daily journaling: Tracking your thoughts and feelings about the application on a daily basis will give you a timeline of your sentiment toward the application. This ongoing log gives you an opportunity to identify trends and track confidence in quality in your application over time.

Daily reflections: Similar to reflections at the end of a testing session, a daily reflection gives you a summary of the day. Over time, these reflections will expose trends and when compared with peers, may expose shared thoughts and feelings about the application that haven’t been identified previously. 

Daily sentiment tracking: A lighter lift than some of the other options that can still expose trends. Each team member tracks their sentiment towards the application each day using either faces, color codes, or other tracking methods. This simplified tracking can help demonstrate changes in confidence in quality over time.

Integrating these techniques is a great way to help your team shift from testing to quality advocacy and demonstrate your ability to identify the quality indicators that have the biggest impact on the overall health and usability of your application.

Give these techniques a try with a free downloadable template from our Github resources.

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