Pen on Paper

This one is a bit of a classic, it pops up in interviews for a variety of positions even those outside of testing.
So how DO you test a pen? Or I suppose in its usual context the emphasis is usually, how do YOU test a pen?

When I first heard it posed to someone I laughed, I knew the hiring manager and thought is this guy just literally looking at his desk and asking random questions? I can only imagine how unexpected it might seem to the person actually being asked.

The trick with all these test this arbitrary item questions is their subtle complexity. The first step is really getting past the curve-ball nature of the question. Then just dive in and let the ideas flow. This is where using a Mind Map is super helpful. If you haven’t tried them, I really encourage you to do so, the process is less linear than using a list so it is a closer match to the human thought process.

Mind Map of a Pen

Never Ignore Obvious

My first inclination when you give me a pen is to squiggle circles to paper to see if it works. So lets examine that process a little closer. That tactile experience is much richer, it provides much more information about the pen than the binary response to does it work. You get a sense for how it feels to use the pen, and you are already making decisions about it. Do you like it? Is it nice to write with? Is it cheap and disposable, a status symbol like a Montblanc?

We can’t skip the obvious and jump to the complex and extraordinary conditions you may want to test, instead use it to immerse yourself in the process.

Types and Purposes

Pens come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Some are disposable and some are reusable or even gift worthy. In each of these cases the pen must match the consumers expectations. A pen might look nice but if it doesn’t write well I am going to think its a cheap knock off. If the pen is just an everyday disposable, I really only expect that it will work and not leak profusely.

Specialized or decorative writing often requires a different pen. Artists using pen and ink also use specialized models. Testing is about understanding the domain of the user, so before making assumptions on the pen start asking clarifying questions.


People of all ages use pen’s every day, for all kinds of activities. The everyday office work is probably the least of a pens worries.

Students might be some of the hardest users or abusers of pens. Tossed around, stored loose in backpack and pockets, chewed on, converted into spit-wad bazookas and still expected to perform admirably.

The famous stars and athletes in addition to the people that seek their autographs have high expectations for pens in unusual circumstances and materials. All that while still expecting that signature to stand the test of time.

The advertiser, we all have a couple pens we picked up from some business or event as a promotional item. Here the pens functionality may come second to its novelty or advertising space.

The artist, from doodles to comics to museums this is a different very different style of use. The variety of paper types and other surfaces may vary wildly for this user. In addition to material differences, the user will expect a better experience through a more diverse range of use.

James Bond or MacGyver, these guys always seemed to be using a pen for some other purpose than intended. Can you diffuse a bomb with a pen or use it as a weapon of mass destruction? These guys can!

Other Functions And Conditions

Pen’s do have functionality outside putting words on paper. Pens may have added features that increase their convenience or comfort. Ever been frustrated because the cap on a pen is so tight you have to twist, claw or bite to try to pry it loose? What about the opposite, the cap is so loose it keeps falling off and eventually you lose it? These are cases to consider for you testing. The same line of think applies to things like clips, or grip enhancements.

Conditions of use matter also. Pens may be used on different types and weights of paper, canvas, walls or other less usual surfaces. The pen and surface may also be affected outside influence, things like weather, moisture, and temperature. Even the angle at which the pen is used or has been stored at could play a factor.

NASA tested a special pen developed for writing in space, might be interesting to see those test notes!

Just Scratching the Surface

Just like in software you can’t test everything, not even for something as small as a pen. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to dig deep into a subject just for the sake of seeing what insight you might find. If nothing else you might begin to appreciate the complexity of even seemingly simple items.

If you interested in more on mind maps or other posts from the Testing the Arbitrary series check out: