Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Comedy bug, and upcoming events

So I saw this, and I thought you should, too: Just an Ordinary Day in Skyrim . Particularly funny bug at 20s or so in.

While I'm here*, the Exploratory Testing workshops in Oxford went very well, thankyou. Those of you in the know will already know that I'm organising a 2-day workshop on exploratory testing techniques in Amsterdam on 12 and 13 April. Contact me if you want to be kept up-to-date (and to get the earliest-bird discount). Details to hit the web soon. There's been a bit of a hiatus in the 'lots of ways to manage ET' series, but the rest are in the works. Expect to see one at most this week, none at all next week. So much for writing a new post daily; turns out day-to-day stuff gets in the way.

If I was around, I'd be setting off to one of the following low-cost local events;
Paul Gerrard's UK Test Manager Forum is next week, in London. 2 days (tutes, talks and dinner) for just under £300 inc VAT. Maybe, on reflection, that's not a particularly astonishingly low-cost event. The TMF's track format has a keen eye for conversation rather than lecture, which is all to the good, and so it's hard to pick out a particular recommendation. In the tutorials, look out for Dave Evans' hands-on workshop 'Specification By Example, in Practice'.

Chris Ambler is organising TestFest in Brighton on Feb 22. Tickets are £60. As he describes it, it will have not one, but two parallel interactive elements demonstrating test tools and approaches. Twin TestLabs anyone? The event has a clear focus on Brighton (and the UK's) gaming industry, and is as far as I'm aware the first time that a testing conference has paid the large and creative community much attention beyond a couple of track sessions. There's lots to discover from game testing (see bug above), and it looks great. Anyone with an interest in where we've come from will want to know that Geoff Quentin** will be in evidence.

++Missed this in the initial posting... ++
TCL is running a Zappers event in London, also on February 22nd. Zappers is a great opportunity to meet and talk and test. The event is free, and TCL don't simply lay on food and beer, they also set up a software/system target or two, and award prizes for finding bugs. TCL organise regular Zappers events all over the world, and huge kudos to them for doing so.

++Missed this too... ++
Tony Bruce and Nathan Bain set up the Agile Testers meetup a few years ago, and Tony's persistence has made it a monthly must-do. The next is on Feb 27th. Breaking the mould, (the meetup is generally in a pub, and is more about talking to each other than being spoken to) it's at SkillsMatter in London, and Chris Guest from Microsoft will be talking about Powershell.

++And another...++
The Agile Tester's Meetup is back to its usual format a couple of days later. From 5:30 on Wednesday 29 Feb (leap evening, so perhaps there will be a tale to tell about bugs of the day from iPhone owners) at the Shooting Star opposite Liverpool Street station. Free entry, good chat. Sign up on LinkedIn or (my preference) Meetup.

The SIGiST is doing its thing on 7th March for £132. Thankfully, this time you've got Lee Copeland, Julian Harty and Lloyd Roden, all of whom are worth your time. As a special treat, the usually-fascinating Allan Kelly gets a 15 minute slot too.

Ministry of Testing (the ever-present STC in ninja disguise) are running TestBash in Cambridge on March 23rd. It's a day long, and costs £99-£150 depending on how fast you move. Among the excellent selection of speakers, Steve Green and Alan Richardson are two of the best practicing and practical testers I've worked*** with. Not only this, but both have a keen focus on the exploratory end of the spectrum, and both have novel and well-thought through things to say.

* I'm not going to be nerd-sniped into diagnosis, but it seems that you won't have seen this posting until Monday 6th, though it's dated and was written January 31st. Dave's probably already packed his bag for the tutorial.
** Geoff played a vital part in initiating a number of things that now seem a necessary part of our industry (the SIGiST, EuroSTAR, BS7925 and the awful exam, various training organisations and approaches). If that list seems a little old-school, remember that's what initiating means. One reason for the longevity of these bodies is that Geoff built their sustaining communities by seeking out participants whose views were at odds with his own, but who in some sense matched his keenness to communicate and engage with other testers. If the SIGiST, exam and so on now seem moribund, that is perhaps because of the lack of diversity of their current participants. Personally, Geoff has been a crucial and much valued influence – and we taught a class together that was built in part around our fundamental disagreements.
*** Worked with as in: found real bugs in real stuff for real money, working with real people for months at a time. That's what they do.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Known ways of managing ET #05 - Off-Piste Testing

tl;dr – scripted guides may not help exploration

Team leaders tell me ‘My testers use manual testing scripts*, but I want them to do more than just plod through – I want them to find problems’. This seems a reasonable idea, but is fundamentally incoherent; ‘Finding a problem’ is not necessarily a complementary goal to the action of ‘following a script’. However, it happens. Let’s look at two common approaches. I’ll call them Iron Script, and (by way of contrast) Marshmallow Script.

Iron Script
The scripts remain authoritative. Testers are expected to deviate at agreed points, typically by changing their data within reasonable limits. Adding new events or changing the path is frowned upon; in extremes, a bug that is found using a non-standard path may be rejected, and the tester asked to reproduce the bug on the accepted path. If you can get some kind of pre-approval for diversions taken through error states and validation checks, you’ll open up a bunch of interesting routes whose valuable information might otherwise be used against you by project pedants.

It’s my experience that scripts in these situations frequently mirror end-user activity, and that the steps focus on triggers at the expense of observations. If your testers must run through the script, then they must, but don’t let them get dull. Remember that you are a team of testers, not users, and that you can still get unassailably-helpful information from querying the database, watching the CPU, intercepting transactions, using a diff tool on the filesystem, or any other neat trick that takes your fancy. Constraints breed creativity.

Marshmallow Script
The scripts are a guide, a collection of hints or waypoints. Testers can deviate wherever they want, using the scripts to get to interesting points, or as a checklist to verify their expectations. The scripts act as fat charters, and by giving their names to paths, help testers to talk about what they’ve done and what they’ve found. This isn’t bad, as far as it goes.

However, the approach puts happy paths – reliable routes that demonstrate limited capability – at the core of decisions about what to test and how to test it. This emphasis can be a terrible drag on the swift revelations that might be desired from unfettered ET. It can wastefully restrict your testers’ imaginations, and seems to reinforce manual testing at the detriment of small cheap tools.

I tend to find that these approaches exist in parallel, but may not be acknowledged as such. It is powerful – sometimes, too powerful – to wonder out loud whether the team as a whole is looking to move away from their scripts or to add to their scripts. This can turn out to be emotive enough to be ignored in polite company; bringing it up in public can make people very impolite indeed.

One might question why the team is writing scripts at all. Scripts are expensive to make and hard to maintain. If they exist to give the testers a framework to explore requirements and product use while writing them, other frameworks might work just as well. If they are primarily a guide for novices or a crutch for the feeble, then perhaps one needs to rethink one’s approach to learning, and possibly to hiring. If they are primarily a way of recording work, then why not record the work with something more unambiguous, or more searchable? If they exist because an environment is hard to automate, then I would wonder if everything scripted is quite so hard to automate. If they exist to keep testers on a leash, then I have no further questions.

These are, however, rationalisations of a generally irrational position. I think the answer lies not in conscious choice, but in habit. The approach seems common in situations where budgets are only available for work that can be measured with reference to requirements and scripts, yet where the test team and its decision makers know that their survival-in-current-form requires fast information about emerging trouble. Maybe it’s endowment bias; if no one wants to chuck away all those scripts they’ve been working on so hard, then the scripts will remain central to the work no matter what the work is. In the first, future plans don’t match current practice. In the second, neither does the past. I often see both. Is it any wonder that the team lead’s goals might not match their means?

As a skier**, I’m drawn to the term ‘Off Piste’, and the term ‘Off-Piste Testing’*** seems a popular metaphor for this approach. Between the mountain top and the snug chalet in the valley floor, there are many paths: some groomed, marked and filled with tourists; others quiet or exposed, with cliffs and bears. There is an implication that off-piste is only for the most skilled, keen and well-equipped skier. The implied kudos is eagerly lapped-up by testers, and off-piste testing can be used as a motivator with two caveats; status should be earned through good work, and good information can gained from diverse approaches. Whatever the rules of the mountain might be, it is perilous to restrict off-piste testing to your elite.

More importantly, off-piste is still downhill. Scripts, whether used as hard or soft guides, bias testers towards a set of activities that most typically follow whatever actions are expected to be valuable to the user, system or owner. These activities are not the only ways to find problems. Those who manage exploratory testing by running after scripts will handicap their team.

* For this blog post, script means a step by step set of instructions to be read through and followed manually by a tester. Some of you may be aghast that such things are still in use. Some of you may see no alternative. For each of you, please believe that each position exists.
** Note to prospective clients – if you're near a properly-skiable mountain and book me to come to you close to a weekend during the season, I may have a seriously-tasty winter offer for you.
*** ‘piste-off testing’, anyone? Just me? Hey ho.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Uncommon Ways of Managing ET #04 - Post-partum Labelling

tl;dr – tl;dr your ET notes to see where you've been

I’ve worked with plenty of testers who don’t timebox their time, don’t set out a charter before testing, and don’t do formal debriefs. Clearly, they’re not following session-based testing, but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily doing bad exploratory work. Indeed, some of the most brilliant exploratory testers I’ve worked with are fully able to do all these things yet choose not to for much of their exploratory testing.

Personally, I almost always have a timebox, and find I prefer my results (but not my activity) if I make good notes. I can find charters trivial or restrictive, and debriefs can lead me to remember only the edited highlights of my exploration – so if my debrief sucks, my memory can be less useful than if I’d not debriefed at all.

Charters, timeboxes, notes and debriefs have a value to the team and the project as well as to the tester. If the team habitually relies on them, but an individual works best without them, then you’re faced with a choice of whether to force that tester towards an ineffective discipline, or whether to damage team performance. Which is no fun.

This then is a simple and obvious alternative, but I’m not aware of much that has been written to describe it. Nonetheless, I’m sure that many readers will recognise the activities below, and I can’t claim that this is in any way novel. Perhaps if no one’s written about it, it doesn’t seem legitimate, so no one writes about it. Perhaps I’ve just forgotten what I’ve read. Anyway, the following is a collection, and to that extent an imaginary extension, of stuff that has worked for me. I’m going to call it Post-partum labelling*. If you’ve got a better name, or know where someone else has named it, super. Comment away.

After a chunk** of testing, the exploratory tester describes their work in a sentence or two. They write this up in public. For example:
8 Jan – 60 minutes: Ed used a javascript profiling tool to analyse the web app.
8 Jan – 120 minutes: Sue spent 2 hours exploring reported instabilities related to switching sort order while autosaving.
9 Jan – 180 minutes: Brin and Rudi spent 30 minutes watching two users interact with the demo app for the first time, and spent the next 60 minutes reviewing and annotating video of the sessions.
10 Jan – 180 minutes: Jonno spent 3 hours on batch input, generating 3088 files that together contained all possible orderings of 5-step transactions.

This works well if you’ve set aside time for experienced and self-directed explorers to test. If you’re expecting a terse diurnal list like the one above, you might find it to be a good fit with daily news. It’s perhaps not such a good fit if you’ve got testers who have problems with focus, or if your test approach means that your list grows by more than half a dozen lines a day.

The list won’t help you know where testing is going, but it’s great to help you know where it’s been. Everyone in the team can see who explored what and when, so you know who to talk to, you know what’s been hit recently, and your memory and understanding of the system’s recent history has enough to help fill in the blanks. The team knows what it is paying attention to, and knows where individual interests lie. I think this is generally more useful than having an obscured testing genius bringing the system to its knees in interminably unfathomable ways.

Writing a post-partum label helps me put most recent test activity behind me, and allows me to think diversely as I enter the next round. I like knowing that I’ll need to write a public one-line summary of my hours of discovery; it helps maintain focus.

While I like a timebox, you might not. I wouldn’t insist on timeboxes if I was doing post-partum labelling. The people in the team know the budget, and they’re already trusted. The exploration is done when it’s done; forcing a timebox is a silly micromanagement. However, if people on your team are prone to pissing away their time and don’t embrace timeboxes or similar tools as part of their personal discipline, they’re probably not the best people to be doing post-partum labelling.

It’s time to change approach when your post-partum labels turn into “looked at login, again” or “checked out last week’s bugfixes”. If your label can be made before exploring, then it probably should be. Post-partum labels arrive after, and may not fit what you would have expected at the start. If you’re exploring, this is often a good thing.

Please, don’t get the impression that the label is an adequate substitute for notes. Sometimes, awfully, unfortunately, that’s what it is. Try to avoid this.

I’ve used similar approaches when I’ve been the exploratory addition to a team that has been relying solely on scripted or massive and confirmatory tests. I found it helpful when we had more test ideas than we could easily manage, and yet had target pathologies, observations and triggers that urgently called for our attention. Post-partum labelling helped me fit my work with other explorers and the rest of the team, helped me gain trust by offering visibility, acted as a trigger and conduit for other people to bring me ideas. It let my team spin very swiftly back through a couple of weeks of exploration, identifying which set of notes might hold relevance. It gave explorers who weren’t happy with SBT fit into a team that was trying to gain the disciplines of SBT. It wasn’t much good for assessing coverage. It didn’t link to requirements. It was rubbish for steering. But I liked it.

I’m very tempted to extend the idea further. I want to capture the information electronically. I want to add tags, to allow me to analyse where we’ve been spending time. I’m keen to describe problems found. I’d like to try using Stefan Butlin’s interesting TestPad web app (and I shall, it’s neat). However, these adjustments change the emphasis of the list. Have a look:
8 Jan – 60 minutes: Ed used a javascript profiling tool to analyse the web app. [code, performance, UX] We’re spending plenty of time inside check_constraints(), which looks recursive.
8 Jan – 120 minutes: Sue spent 2 hours exploring reported instabilities related to switching sort order while autosaving. [instability, UX, autosave] She found a reproducible crashing bug, logged a couple of UX issues, and identified potential exploitation.
9 Jan – 180 minutes: Brin and Rudi spent 30 minutes watching two users interact with the demo app for the first time, and spent the next 60 minutes reviewing and annotating video of the sessions. [UX]We identified and logged UX Issues around context menus, the hiding menu bar, and error messages.
10 Jan – 180 minutes: Jonno spent 3 hours on batch input, generating 3088 files that together contained all possible orderings of 5-step transactions. [batch, instability] The system correctly accepted 182, correctly rejected 2900, but hung on 2 that it should have rejected. No bugs logged yet, as we think this may be to do with a mistake in the configuration data in the test system.

Do you find yourself skipping over stuff now? I do. It’s as if it’s all too much to hold together. You’ll be keeping this information somewhere else, too, I expect – and I think that’s where it should stay. Keep the list single-purpose. You’ll find it lives in people’s heads more easily and more consistently, becoming part of the shared consciousness of the test team. And how cool is that?

* made-up name. Obviously. Post-partum is a latin term used to refer to the mother after giving birth (as opposed to post-natal, which apparently applies to the baby). You know what a label is. I want to get across the idea of a tester giving their work a unique and meaningful title, once it’s done.
** a chunk? What’s a chunk? I find that my mind merrily organises memory and activity, and groups the similar and temporally-close. If you have control over your interruptions, you’ve come to the limits of your chunk when you choose to change task. Sometimes, you don’t choose consciously. It’s still a chunk. My chunks of time testing are often hours. Writing, just minut… hey! A squirrel***!
*** I can see six, right now, in the evergreen oak outside my window. No, seven. Five. A parrot!

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Known ways of managing ET #04 - Set Aside Time

tl; dr – scheduling ET changes the game. This is how to cope.

The team decides to budget a fixed amount of time for exploratory testing. Of course, that’s not the end of the story. This post is about what happens next.

First some background and disclosure: This sort of decision has been the trigger for a fair proportion of my client engagements since around 1998*. So I see this more often than I might. Generally someone on the team has eloquently persuaded a budget-holder that the project will find value in time spent exploring**, and I get to work with fresh, enthusiastic and newly empowered testers. So I find the situation delightful. Who wouldn’t? I’m sure these two complementary perspectives colour my experiences, and I expect they have coloured my writing too.

Budgeting a chunk of time to explore what you’ve made is a fine idea. As a management approach, however, it’s a bit hands-off. Sometimes, neither sponsor nor enthusiast has worked out the details of what is expected from whom and by when. More particularly, although there’s often a great sense of adventure, there’s not much consideration about the strategies for coping with inevitable change. Here then are some of those changes, a few related pathologies, and some strategic and tactical tweaks that have worked for me.

Dealing with lots of ideas

There will be a monstrous growth in the number of testing ideas; test teams have no problem coming up with new ideas about what and how to test. The practical problems lie in picking the best, dropping the newly-redundant, classifying and slicing and managing the set. Picture people trying to stuff an octopus*** into a rubber sack. This is a natural part of testing; one of the characteristics of wicked problems is that you can’t pin down the solution set.

As with all monstrous growths, the quantity of test ideas will be limited by external factors. If you’re keeping ideas on sticky notes, you’ll run out of wall space – which is perhaps better than putting everything in an expandable database that no one bothers to read. The most usual limits**** are to do with patience and attention span. When working within the set, the team will learn crucial filtering and throwing away skills, but will also run up against endowment bias; it’s hard to let go of something you own, and harder to let go of something you’ve worked hard to gain. There is likely to be conflict or denial – all the more so if the team has to date been under the consensual hallucination of potential completeness which underpins script-only approaches.

The growth in quantity may not be not matched by a growth in diversity or quality of ideas. This is only made worse by a testing guru (sometimes me) who sees it as his or her job to come up with new ideas. A good way to defuse some of this problem is to encourage the team to not only add to the ideas themselves, but to challenge ideas and remove them from play. If you make your influential tester the champion for diversity or quality in the collection, that can help too. I’ve often seen teams hamstrung by an inappropriate attraction to combinatorial collections; given a set of test ideas, someone draws up a table of (say) data type against input, and works through, left to right, top to bottom. Stop this in its tracks; tables and ordered progressions indicate a single real idea, one which is ripe for heavy optimising with a tool. If you can’t automate, decide which combinations are most important to do right now. If you can’t prioritise or optimise, hit the combinations randomly and learn from them as you go.

I like to constrain the numbers of test ideas in play by saying how much time an idea might need, and keeping the total amount of time needed under some reasonable limit. Although I can get as sucked-in by combinatorials as the next tester, I find that I tend to prefer diversity over depth. I try to temper this bias by paying attention to the agreed strategy and the current context – which means it’s good to have talked about what is valuable to the project. If I find myself pouring out ideas in some consultantish denial-of-service attack on the capabilities of the team, I’ll find a corner and write until I’ve calmed down, then see if my list triggers people to put their own ideas up, rather than fill the wall with my collection.

Dealing with fast feedback

Exploratory testing makes some feedback much faster, so a commitment to exploratory testing will change the feedback characteristics of the project. If there is a personal connection between the designers, coders and testers to support this feedback, the consequences can be excellent. Problems get fixed quickly, the team can develop a better understanding of what quality means on the project, and testers swiftly find out what they need to supply in a useful bug report. I’ve often seen palpable increases in respect and communication, which leads to trust and an overall greasing of the machinery of a development team.

Teams who have built massive confirmatory automated test are used to fast feedback, but of a very different flavour from that provided by exploratory testing. Feedback on on novel modes of behaviour and unanticipated failures can deeply challenge a team who thought their design was watertight. I’ve been told that bugs aren’t bugs unless they’re found by a customer, and that any bug without an immediately-obvious fix is a feature. I see both of these reactions as denial, and an indication that I should have prepared the ground better for the kind of feedback I can offer from exploring the product. The situation is made much easier if you are working with a real customer or user, rather than acting as proxy. The cry of pain might also indicate that your testing priorities don’t match the priorities of the people constructing the system – it’s your call whether you need to re-align, or whether you should embrace the difference. I’ve written more about the correspondences and conflicts of exploratory testing on agile teams in Testing in an Agile Environment.

More problematically, some people don’t want feedback when they’re in the throes of making stuff. I’m one; it gets in the way of the fragile extension of the imagination that is at the heart of how I make new things. Some testers are remarkably insensitive to this, others imagine that they need to somehow sweeten the pill. When I have results or questions, I prefer to make it known that I have feedback, and to give that feedback either to a group at a time when everyone is tuned in, or to an individual on invitation. Of course, it’s great to be able to march up to someone’s desk and get an immediate response, but what’s good for you might not be good for your colleague. Decide whether it's the right time to ask before you get between momma bear and her cubs.

As a test team gets closer to its audience, some will imagine that the test team risks losing its independence, and will resist – for instance – exchanging design information or locating the testers a shout away from the coders. Isolating the testers is an obvious but stupid way of encouraging independence of thought. You’ll find more in The Irrational Tester.

Conversely, test teams who have no existing connection with their designers and coders throw their feedback into a void. Swift, accurate and targeted information might seem valuable, but is worthless to the builders if it is delayed by procedure and snowed under by noise. The feedback in this case is primarily for the users (and sometimes the sellers) of the software. It’s crucial to understand your audience.

Some legally-minded people (and some sellers) don’t want information about new failures and will restrict or censor feedback. Some need plausible deniability, and don’t want to even look. If you have this situation as a test manager, messing about with ET won’t fix your problems.

Dealing with decisions and organisational oversight

Groups that are new to ET tend to see a large expansion in the number of problems found before they see a reduction in the number of problems made. More than once, when I’ve been dropped into an agile team as an exploratory tester and customer representative, I’ve had to take the judgement about whether to horribly disrupt the vendor team’s workflow by filling it with bugs. Clearly, if relations are good, blowing the workflow is bad – even if it is an indication of a crisis ignored. So far, I’ve managed to avoid purposefully blocking the flow. However, although it is a decisive and disruptive step, new exploratory testing groups can fatally disrupt the flow easily, unconsciously and even gleefully (which is nauseating, but happens). When bringing ET into a project, it’s vital to have awareness of this dire ability throughout the project team. If the workflow is king but the quality poor, decision makers will need to prepare for compromises on all fronts.

Once exploratory testing is chugging along, you hope to reach a point where fewer bugs are being made. I’ve had complaints from metrics people that fewer bugs are being found. This is a fine demonstration of failure demand, and I find it easier to set it as desired goal at the outset, rather than have to explain it as a side effect. I’ve found it useful to put this in terms of ‘we will not necessarily find more problems, but we will find more useful problems and find them faster’. Similarly, some metrics people count a day when lots of problems have been found as a bad day; it’s easier to help them deal with their pain if you’ve already had a chat about how much worse it would be if all that trouble was revealed later.

A decision to be hands-off can make some managers feel insecure. This feeling may lead them back towards the test team with unexpected needs for oversight and control*****. To avoid this, any team that has been given a degree of autonomy needs voluntarily to help their sponsor feel secure. I find that it helps to make a clear agreement not only about responsibilities, but about material deliverables. For instance: “We will keep a steady pace of exploration, shown by a public counter of time spent. We will display our test ideas and will be able to discuss them at any time with anyone on the project. We will make a visual distinction of those ideas which we have explored, those we are about to do, those we will probably do, those which we have recently eliminated, and those which have recently arrived. All time spent exploratory testing will be documented, and the documentation kept at <link/location>. All bugs logged from exploratory testing will be cross-referenced to their discovery documentation. Where we cannot keep to these commitments, we will make a collected note of the exceptions. We will come to you at the start, end and at regular intervals throughout significant testing efforts to keep you up-to-date. We will come to you with requests for help with obstacles we cannot overcome ourselves and with decisions about changes to budget and staff, but not with decisions about test direction and prioritisation. You will allow time for our regular reports and requests, and will champion our autonomy as set out here. If you are unable to give us the help we ask for, you will let us know swiftly and with reason.

Budgets change. Sometimes a project wants more exploration, sometimes there’s less available to spend on it. While the test team may have started out with a fixed exploration budget, and may be comfortable cutting or expanding its testing to suit, there may be questions around how it would drive a change and require more (or less) from its sponsors. This is to misunderstand testing as a service – the people to whom one provides a service will be the people who ask for more, who want less, who adjust the balance. Clearly, the test team will be engaged in the negotiation, but I would question the motivation of a test team that prefers its own budgetary decisions over the informed decisions of its customers and sponsors.

Lots of teams seem scared of putting exploratory testing in front of auditors. I’m not sure why; the auditors I’ve met seem to do a lot of exploration in their work, and I’ve always found it helpful to ask the appropriate auditors about what they might expect to see from exploratory testing before we start exploring. If there is, for instance, an unadjustable regulation that stipulates that all tests must be planned, the auditors are not only most likely to know about it, but to be able to give you an indication about what they might accept (i.e. charter+timebox in plan post-hoc). I understand that session-based testing was developed in part to allow exploratory testing to be audited. If auditors have a place in your organisation, then it’s better to expect them****** than to hide; talk to your auditors and negotiate what they need for assurance. I wrote a note about this here on the blog in June 2011: How to Assure Exploratory Testing.

Crisis reveals underlying truths. I can't recall a project that has identified every necessary task, or given each task the time that was needed or budgeted. Testing, especially when considered with a potentially-unlimited discovery element, is eminently squashable and so is usually squashed – which tends to reveal uncomfortable truths about how the overall organisation understands testing. If exploratory testing is squashed out of existence when testing as a whole is squashed, your decision makers see ET as a luxury. If exploratory testing takes the whole pie when (but only when) testing is squashed, decision makers see ET as a short cut. Both these positions are pathologies. You might be able to spot them early by indulging in a spot of scenario planning, or you might trust your instinct. I work from the position that testing is a service – mostly optional, generally valuable – which I find both reasonable and benign, but my position could be a pathology in your organisation.

As a team grows into exploration, it will develop a library of tools. By tool, I don’t mean a downloadable executable, but something that arises from the combination of mindless machinery with data, configuration and conscious application by the minds of the team. A chainsaw needs a lumberjack*******. Some tools arise as testers automate their manual, brain-engaged testing – and as the automation takes over, the tool will change the way a tester triggers problems and their ability to observe surprises, not always for the better. Other tools arise because they enable a whole new class of tests, and using the tool even briefly exposes a new perspective with its own easily accessible bugs. A tool armoury is one of the core assets of an exploratory testing team; exploratory testing without tools is weak and slow. As with any library, it needs to be organised to be useful. If I can, I keep a public list of tools, techniques, tricks and test data, perhaps tagged with general useful areas and knowledgable users. I encourage people to name and share their approaches. I try to get individuals to pair on tool use, or to hold swift training workshops.

One of the strengths of session-based testing is the way that it uses brief and frequent retrospectives to move skills through the team. Any exploration has learning at its heart, otherwise discovery builds nothing. Apart from skills in tools and test approaches, a test team needs to build knowledge of the system they are testing. We all know the truism that by the end of a project, the testers know a system better than anyone else. Exploratory test teams also build their awareness of how the system is used (and abused), and have broad connections throughout the users of their system and across the various sponsors and stakeholders. The edges of the team blur as people are seconded in and out; not all exploratory testers will identify themselves as testers. I have occasionally found easy acceptance of exploratory testing way outside the test team, which can give a neatly circular confirmation that the team made a good decision to set time aside for exploration.

In conclusion…

Test teams setting out to explore need to have a conversation with the overall project that acknowledges that this discovery activity cannot be completed, and seeks to find out what the project most values so that the test team can align its work to the overall desires of its customer and the goals of the project. It’s good to have a one-page strategy outlining goals and responsibilities. Internally, the team will need to work out how to make its work visible and trustable, and how to support its exploration and learning. It will need to organise and constantly refine a collection of tools and test ideas, drawing inspiration from diverse sources. As exploration becomes more understood, used and valued, the test team will broaden its skills and blur its edges, bringing its services closer to the coders and the customers.

* Not that anyone in my circles at that time saw – or named – exploratory testing as a distinct thing.
** I’ve mentioned one way that teams arrive at this point in Known ways of managing ET #03 - The Gamble
*** You’re here? Good for you. Welcome, friend. I know that you are interested in details and diversions. As am I. Between us, I don’t mean an octopus. Imagine Cthulhu.
**** because they’re the smallest, and so are arrived at first.
***** which sounds to me like Marshall McLuhan’s reversal effect. You’ll want to read Michael Bolton’s article for more.
****** It’s not like they’re the Spanish Inquisition.
******* and transport infrastructure, logistics plan, pulp mill, petroleum industry...