3 Tips To Help Testers Ask Better Questions

By Katrina Clokie

When asked about essential skills for a tester, many will mention the ability to ask good questions. They might say this explicitly, or use phrases like strong communicator, inquisitive or collaborative to encompass this trait among others.

However, very few people talk about what makes a good question. I don’t believe that any question is a good question, or that any time is a good time to ask. Questions are a powerful tool that we can use to uncover information, control the flow of conversations and create strong relationships within teams.

I’d like to share three things that I consider when trying to frame good questions as a tester.

Open or Closed Questions

Learning the difference between open and closed questions, and their impact on a conversation, was a revelation to me. Open questions are those where you want to elicit more information. Closed questions are those where you seek an answer from a limited set of responses e.g. yes or no.

I am prone to frustration with people who are reluctant to offer details beyond succinct responses, I often want them to give me more information. Similarly, I get frustrated with those who like to wax lyrical about all sorts of topics beyond what I need to know, I just want my answer! Understanding open and closed questions has meant that I am able to re-frame what I want to ask based on who I am talking to.

To illustrate the contrast between open and closed questions, I often re-frame how I ask the audience for questions at the end of a presentation. Consider the difference between:

“We have a couple of minutes left. Do you have any questions?”

“Now is our opportunity to discuss the presentation. What questions do you have?”

I’ve prefixed each question with a sentence that may have helped guide you towards the conclusion that the first example is a closed question and the second example is an open question.

In the first case, I want to offer an opportunity for the audience to ask questions, but I’m also aware that I’m running out of time. “Do you have” is a closed framing that encourages a yes or no response. In my experience, when putting the audience on the spot at the end of a presentation, most people will tend to think “no”.

In the second case, I want to prompt people to think of their questions in efforts to start a discussion. “What do you have” is an open question. Though people might not have anything to ask, their first instinct is to consider whether they do have a question rather than immediately jumping to a negative response. The open framing is more likely to elicit audience involvement.

In meeting environments and individual conversations, I consider whether to frame a question as open or closed based on the audience and the type of response I’m looking for.

Gateways

An open question that encourages someone to speak freely is often the start of a thread of questioning. From the wide ranging general answer, I usually have a variety of follow up questions.

Probing questions can be used to uncover more information. Clarifying questions help to confirm my understanding. I use both types of questions for narrowing in towards the root of a problem or the essence of what I’d like to know.

Using open questions as a gateway to deeper discussion is common in interviews:

“Could you tell me about an interesting bug that you found recently?” [open question]

“Was this problem happening on all browsers?” [clarifying question]

“How was this resolved?” [probing question]

Though it’s common to consider open questions as a tool to open an area of discussion, it’s also possible to use closed questions as a gateway.

Getting a definitive answer to a closed question that I wasn’t expecting, or that I disagree with, can feel like someone has put up a wall. I thought the conversation was heading in a particular direction and it can be disconcerting to feel that I’m blocked from that path.

I recently learned to see a doorway in those walls. The answers to closed questions allow me to have a conversation about why someone made a particular decision.

Using closed questions as a gateway is a common in negotiation, for example:

“Would you accept $50?” [closed question]

“Why do you feel unhappy with that figure?” [probing question]

When choosing which conversation gateways to pursue, I often visualise being in the middle of a maze. Gateway questions are the tool with which I choose my course: exploring unknown areas, following a pathway to its end, or breaking through walls.

Reverse Questions

Reverse question is the phrase I’ve heard used where a question is answered with a question. For example:

Q. “What browsers should we support?”

A. “What browsers are most popular in our user analytics?”

Reverse questions a form of dodging, where the response is a deflection of attention. They are useful when the person being asked the question does not have enough information to respond, is unwilling to commit to an answer, or does not be wish to offer their thoughts without first hearing from others.

If we consider that the person who is asking the questions has control of the conversation, then reverse questions can be a way to take back ownership. I have seen testers using this technique when they feel that they are being interrogated or attacked.

Within the analogy of a conversational maze, I consider reverse questions as a U-turn. They may be interpreted as evasive or confrontational, particularly when used repeatedly. I try to use this type of question sparingly as I believe reverse questions ultimately breed frustration on both sides of the conversation.

These three suggestions are the tip of an iceberg; there are many more subtleties to asking good questions. I have focused on how our questions shape a conversation because I believe that when people say that asking a good question is a skill that testers should have, what they actually want is a tester who can elicit a good response.

For further information on this topic, I would recommend watching the recording of Karen N Johnson’s presentation at TestBash 2015 – ‘The Art of Asking Questions’.

About Katrina Clokie

Katrina serves a team of more than 20 testers as a Testing Coach at the Bank of New Zealand. She is an active contributor to the international testing community as the editor of Testing Trapeze magazine, a co-founder of her local testing MeetUp WeTest Workshops, a mentor with Speak Easy, an international conference speaker, frequent blogger and tweeter.