go back to the blog

Discovering Context: Meaning in the Leaning – by Erik Petersen

  • 14/10/2010
  • no comments
  • Posted by EuroSTAR

Look at the picture below, but pretend it is only of the 3 people in the bottom right corner. What would you think they are doing? Presuming they are sane, you might think they are doing some form of exercise. It seems to be co-ordinated but they are not dressed for exercise? Tai Chi perhaps?


Now look at the whole picture. What could they be doing? The large tower in the background is recognisable to most people as the leaning tower of Pisa, in Italy. You probably would guess that they are being photographed, leaning against the Tower. Now look carefully at the photograph. Let us presume it is mid morning on a normal working day. Try to group all the types of people that you can see (or are implied) in the photo. Think about that for a while then keep reading.

The most obvious group is tourists. They seem to be in groups of differing sizes. The group in the middle left are all facing one man. why might that be? He is obviously their guide, He is missing one of the typical identifying marks of an Italian tour guide, a short flag. For that matter, the tourists are also missing a typical identifying mark of tourists in Italy, a sticker on their chests with the guide’s name on. In my case, having just been on holiday in Italy these are patterns I would associate them with. I didn’t get to Pisa, but I can generalize.
A group of people at the far left seem to be standing under a white canopy. This reminds me of a market, so they may be shopping. Are they tourists or not? Hard to say. Two other groups that I cannot see but would anticipate are security guards and professional photographers. There are two more implied groups that I have not mentioned. Any ideas who they could be? Three missing people are implied by the foreground. Can you guess? The photographers taking photos! At least two other groups are implied by the background. Firstly there are buildings surrounding the square that are typically residential so some would have people inside. They might not work, or be sick or be on holiday. The last group has a general description but would also have very specific subgroups. Any guesses? The building site above the poser in the brown jacket.

When we test software behaviour, we typically go through a similar process to understanding the people in the photo. Using patterns and models suggested by the patterns, we attempt to relate the software to different models. Some may be general, some may be specific, some may need subject matter expert knowledge to understand.
It is often convenient to classify users into types based on their level of skill. Lets check the skill level of our posers. One key part of getting a good leaning illusion would be to have yours hands in line as if they are holding the tower. Going from left to right, let’s look at the style. The man in the dark jacket has his hands parallel, nowhere near in line. The woman in the foreground has her hands almost in perfect alignment. The man in the brown jacket also has his hands lined up but his upper hand is off at a strange angle. Who do you think has the best illusion? Think about it then read on.

I hope you didn’t say the woman. While her hands are lined up leaning left, what direction does the tower lean in? The other way. By other criteria though, she could be the best. It is also important to understand the context of your stakeholders. Discovering context is often about amalgamating information, not just looking at the most obvious things.

Often a simple exercise like this could avoid oversights that could be costly in terms of providing a quality product for all your types of users. A story (that could be urban legend) of the testing of the Microsoft tablet operating system comes to mind. Supposedly the testing had been completed and Bill Gates was interested in trying out the tablet, only to discover he couldn’t use it. While there had been intense testing of many variations, the simplest one had been missed – left handed users like Bill. Whether it is true or not, it highlights the importance of good test analysis.

Last question, without looking again was the photo taken on a hot day or a cold day?

Blog post by

go back to the blog


Leave your blog link in the comments below.

EuroSTAR In Pictures

View image gallery