Software Testing By a Special Needs Employee

One of the things my niece Gaby does for me is test my website. It took some trial and error between the two of us to figure out how Gaby could do this task given some of her challenges.

When I first had Gaby do some website testing, I discovered two things. The first is that her ability to follow step by step instructions (like LEGO instructions) and not get bored doing them over and over was a huge help. She’s great about being willing to run the same test or check every single page of The Trip Clip website, even if there were hundreds of them.

The second thing I discovered is that Gaby really struggles with thinking creatively. Any task, testing included, works great for her if it’s entirely concrete. Asking her to make a judgment call, or think outside the box, though, was beyond what she was able to do.

Just like with other tasks I give Gaby, the trick was just to meet her where she is. With the right setup, Gaby’s Autism can actually help her be a successful software tester, but she needed the right supports in place first.

When I worked at Microsoft, someone who understood the software would think through all the things the software did, all the ways it could break, and then wrote down as thorough a plan as they could to touch every piece of the software to make sure it worked as expected. I found that if I wrote a test plan by using step by step instructions for Gaby, she could execute my plans and there were lots of things she was able to test for me on her own. This still wasn’t a slam dunk. Even using my test plan, I still found some limitations with her ability to judge if something was “wrong” or not. It had to be pretty blatantly wrong for Gaby to be able to understand it was broken. Like many people who are autistic, she is very literal.

Last week, I had Gaby check the links to all of the lists and activities I offer for free. There are about 30 pages on my website that contain links to free content, with around 10 links to free content on each page. This means there are 300 free lists and activities that needed checking. I gave Gaby a list of the 30 pages, and asked her to find and click on every purple PRINT FREE button on each of the pages. These pages all have the same layout, so I gave her a picture of what a “correct” pages looks like, and identified the 7 elements she needed to check. I also gave her some pictures of what a page that is ‘wrong’ might look like.

After years of homework at school, Gaby is a pro at filling in blank forms, and this includes spreadsheets. For each test pass I needed her to do, I gave her a list of things to check, and an empty spreadsheet with the rows and columns labeled, and then asked her to fill it out using my written instructions. For this task, she filled out the entire spreadsheet, and helped identify broken links, links that went to the wrong page, images that were missing a copyright date, etc.

For the most part Gaby stayed true to form and stuck with the exact set of instructions I’d given her, but occasionally she did realize that something wasn’t right even if it’s not on her list. The longer she works for me and the more familiar she gets with The Trip Clip website, the more she’s able to recognize when things aren’t right and let me know. Over the years she has caught some problems with my website that I never would have known about otherwise. I think it’s been interesting to both of us to explore the limits (and depths) of Gaby’s ability to help test my website.

I’ve had Gaby do a lot of different kinds of tasks for me. Some are a completely natural fit, and some don’t work at all. Testing is an intriguing area that I will continue to explore with Gaby. As someone with Autism, there are parts of it that map very well to her skillset. I intend to keep working on finding ways to help her expand the kinds of testing she can do for me. Gaby gets stressed out learning new things, but is simultaneously excited by trying and succeeding at things that stretch her ability. I’m think there’s a lot of room for her to grow as a tester.

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