Software developers assess their systems using a variety of different tests. They use unit tests to confirm that each piece works well on its own. They use integration tests to confirm that the pieces still work well when they are connected to the other pieces. With performance tests, developers make sure their software does what it should fast enough and without wasting energy. Because hackers might try to compromise their software, software developers work with penetration testers to identify vulnerabilities so that they can patch them before the ship date. To ensure that the user will enjoy and be able to use their software, they call in a panel of non-developers to perform usability tests, which help them understand whether their intended audience will be able to make heads or tails of the software they’ve created. Certainly, building quality software requires performing a battery of tests.
Add abusability testing to that list.
When we create technology such as a piece of software, we developers become so enamored with process and product that we sometimes develop tunnel vision. We had a very specific purpose in mind when we started developing our latest marvel, and the intended application has come into even sharper focus as we’ve gotten closer to the goal. The more energy we devote to the project, the brighter and shinier and more glorious it becomes. It becomes so brilliant, in fact, that we might be blinded. How could it possibly be misused?
It turns out that most technology can be misused, in small ways and in grand ways, in the near term and for long, in ways that we developers can’t readily imagine because we are too close to our creations.
The notion of abusability, as technology theorist Ashkan Soltani envisions it, involves kicking the tires of an innovation in much the same way as cybersecurity analysts do, looking for the holes and the weaknesses that could prove the technology’s downfall. Abusability testers could be other developers, but the role would likely be played better by people who won’t be tempted to restrain their imagination to the constraints of code. Academics, ethicists, futurists, and even science fiction writers could prove especially adept at visualizing how a technology could be misused, who would be harmed by that misuse, and how the misuse could be curbed. With these voices advising development teams on how to refine their work, we might be able to avoid some of the steadily emerging consequences we’re seeing with social media, always-on connectivity, virtual reality, and autonomous control.
This idea has great merit, and it is a form of testing that would mesh quite well with current software development practices. I hope “abusability testing” will become a field of study and a career in the very near future. It already has a catchy enough name to become something big.