Focusing The Mind’s Eye: A Metaphor From Optics

(This text is adapted from an extemporaneous lightning talk I gave at CAST 2013. It attempts to follow the structure of the original, not the lamentable second performance. Naturally, it was this second performance which was captured on video; you can see it here.)

A Useful Metaphor

This is an article in two parts. This first part is about a metaphor I’ve found very useful: the tester as a photographer. This came up during the session on defocusing techniques Anna Royzman hosted at Test Retreat (which was great as a whole, by the way). Focusing and defocusing are terms I first encountered playing testing dice with James Bach, but it seems they’re fairly established, and I find them very useful.

So! Photographers. This is a class of people engaged in capturing specific information in a context that creates or emphasizes its meaning. For a professional photographer, adjusting focus is as much a part of taking a photo as pointing the camera and framing the shot is. As integral to the process as bringing the viewfinder up to the eye. It happens in the same moment; this is the level of skill and integration we need.

For a photographer, focusing is actually two problems, one of which is basically solved. The open problem is the matter of determining what focus is desired. This is a complex matter of skill, experience and aesthetics. The solved problem is how, mechanically, to implement the desired focus. This is a point of divergence for the testing metaphor; while photographers have devices of carefully marked rotating controls and precise lenses to implement their desired focus, testers focusing the mind’s eye are without any such complete, reliable solutions.

The Mechanics Of The Mind’s Eye

This second part focuses on the open problem I’ve just described: techniques for adjusting the focus of the mind’s eye. Our minds are not simple machines, and adjusting our focus can be very difficult to do, even assuming you know what you want to focus on (or stop focusing on). I am basically good at this, and I still have problems with it from time to time; for some, difficulty defocusing and refocusing is a dreadful problem.

I’d like to briefly share two of the techniques I use when I find I am having difficulty adjusting my focus. Things that help you focus can also help you defocus, which leads to a quick technique I learned from Star Trek: reverse the polarity. That is: wherever you find yourself drawn, whatever you are stuck looking at and thinking about and experimenting on, let it repulse you instead. Try specifically to blur it out. Whatever you were repulsed from, leaving blurry, try specifically to sharpen it.

Unfortunately (unlike in Star Trek), this quick trick does not always work.

The the more powerful focusing/defocusing/refocusing technique here is abstraction. When you are stuck seeing the world a certain way, with a certain focus, adding a layer of abstraction gives you controls you didn’t previously have. When you feel you’re out of options, metaphor gives you more (credit where credit’s due – this is something Jon Bach said when we were discussing the original lightning talk). One concrete technique I use to use abstraction on the focusing problem is to draw a card from The Oblique Strategies. I've got a deck of my own that I've made, but there's also a very handy online version. Here are a few examples:

Intentions -nobility of -humility of -credibility of
work at a different speed
The Inconsistency Principle
Don’t break the silence

Some of these may directly solve your problem by shifting your mind to a new (useful) point of focus. But it’s almost better if they don’t; for instance, how does that last one directly inform testing? Your mind will have to create a metaphor in order to use “Don’t break the silence” to inform your testing, and the creation of that metaphor will give you the tools exert more control over your focus.

If you’re stuck or trapped or having difficulty refocusing your mind’s eye, the most powerful tool I can offer you is metaphor, however you choose to invoke it. Creating or understanding a metaphor requires your mind to systematically abstract things that might previously have only occured to you as concrete; in that moment of abstraction, you are free.

(Since I had ten seconds left at the end of my talk, I found it a useful time to note that it is in fact possible to hire me to do testing on your product. It seems prudent to repeat that note here.)

Points Of Articulation

  • Consider also: auto-focus. (Jon Bach asked about this after the initial lightning talk; I consider auto-focus to be highly analagous to noticing. There’s a lot of nuance to be explored there, though.)
  • The optics metaphor extends beyond photography; the lenses used in rifle scopes, astronomy, microscopy, lasers, etc. can all be useful analogs.
  • One issue with this metaphor is in its complexity; when we talk about focus, are we really talking about zoom? If not, what is the relationship between zoom and focus in testing? Exploring such questions can make the metaphor either more interesting and useful or confusing and meaningless.
  • “The Mind’s Eye” is homonymous with “The Mind’s I” which is less about vision than identity. Perspective and context are also largely about identity, so this is interesting and appropriate. Doug Hofstadter edited a compilation that takes this homonym as its title. I recommend it.
  • “The Mechanics Of The Mind’s Eye” has some awesome ambiguity; perhaps (in addition to the intended meaning) this could be a term for people teaching testing skills? Observation skills generally?
  • This whole metaphor is applicable to many things besides testing, being useful to basically anything I would describe as art; someday this point will link to a post discussing the definition of art and its relationship to testing.
  • Really, abstraction, metaphor and model-building drive the Star Trek technique, too, if you think about it.
  • I owe a debt to the old computer game Marathon for the closing wording here.
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One comment

  1. Pingback: Five Blogs – 5 September 2013 | 5blogs

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