Defending the Qualitative Approach against the Quantitative Obsession

image credit: http://j.mp/NsbeVj

Some years ago I studied Sociology and General Linguistics at the University of Zurich. That was before my time as a software tester and I enjoyed Sociology a lot. Well, at least part of it. Quite interestingly, Sociology and - in my observation - many of the human sciences, display a minority complex towards the so called hard sciences such as Physics.

This leads to a sad obsession. Make everything quantifiable.

But I was much more interested in qualitative studies. There is a brilliant sociologist from France - Jean-Claude Kaufmann - who studied and described many of the deeply human activities and behaviors. For instance, how men behave on beaches where women do topless sunbathing. The book: Corps de femmes, regards d’hommes - La sociologie des seins nus (women’s bodies, mens looks - the sociology of naked breasts). A fascinating read!

Also, one of my lesser known heuristics is, that men with extravagant mustaches are interesting people who have captivating stories to tell. Jean-Claude Kaufman has an extravagant mustache. Judge yourself:


On the other hand, I have always found that quantitative Sociology has only boring stories to tell. Its findings tended to be things that everybody already knew. There is hardly any discovery. Not even mentioning the fact, that the whole complex of validity of what has been found out through measurement, leaves some questions open. Measurements often give a false sense of certainty.

Our good old friend Availability Bias enters the scene: "if you can think of it, it must be important”. And we are already deep in the domain of software testing.

It is not difficult to count something and put that counting result into relation to something else. And - hey! - we are already 50.4576% done. Only that this has no relation to any relevant reality. It is utter nonsense. It is dwelling in fantastic la-la-land. And our users couldn’t care less about 50.4576%. They want a joyful experience while using our application.

Peter Drucker - the famous management man - once said: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”. A simple sentence that stuck in the simple brains of too many simple contemporary managers. That statement is of course not true, as every parent on earth knows from empirical experience. You do not quantitatively bring up a child. You don’t draw progress charts. You tell stories and pass your time playing and laughing.

But because many managers are too busy collecting meaningless data, they no longer find time to read books and have missed that Peter Drucker later in his life had serious doubts about his initial statement. It is not only us testers who suffer from that lamentable laziness.

I’d rather go with Albert Einstein instead: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”