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How to make exploratory testing more effective

exploratory testing
Exploratory testing is an important technique in software testing that involves dynamically designing and executing tests based on the tester's knowledge and intuition.
Unlike scripted testing, exploratory testing does not follow a pre-determined test plan, allowing for more flexibility and creativity in finding bugs. However, without structure and strategy, exploratory testing can become inefficient and miss critical defects.

Understand the Product and Have a Testing Mission

Before starting exploratory testing, take time to thoroughly understand the product you are testing. Review requirements documentation, user stories, and specifications. Understand the intended functionality and business goals. Having a solid comprehension of the product provides critical context for testing decisions.

Additionally, define a mission for each exploratory testing session. Explain what part of the application you want to explore, what functionality to focus on, and what risks or quality attributes to target. Setting a direction prevents aimless and unfocused testing. Share the mission with your team to align everyone on goals.

Leverage Test Charters for Guidance

While exploratory testing is unscripted, leveraging test charters can provide valuable structure. A test charter outlines the scope of a session, including the areas to target, test data to use, and specific risks to assess. Charters allow you to balance flexibility with focus.

Create charters based on user workflows, high-risk areas, and functionality. Use session-based test management to break charters into time-boxed sessions. Review charters before each session to realign on your mission. Update charters after sessions to document new risks identified.

Take Well-Documented Session Notes

Thorough session notes are key to getting value from exploratory testing. As you test, document not only bug reports but also your testing activities, assumptions, insights and coverage. Capture screenshots and videos to supplement notes.

Create charters based on user workflows, high-risk areas, and functionality. Use session-based test management to break charters into time-boxed sessions. Review charters before each session to realign on your mission. Update charters after sessions to document new risks identified.

Test Collaboratively in Pairs or Groups

Exploratory testing is most powerful as a collaborative activity. Testing in pairs or groups allows testers to leverage diverse perspectives, skills and knowledge. Collaboration enables greater exploration as testers bounce ideas off each other.

Set rules for working constructively together, like time-boxing discussions. Pair less experienced testers with veterans to transfer knowledge. Rotate pairs to gain fresh insights. Remote teams can collaborate using screen sharing and video chat. Enable real-time collaboration by maintaining transparent session notes and charters.

Explore Without Constraints at First

When initially exploring a new area, start without constraints and test freely. Avoid being boxed in by charters or early assumptions. Look for use cases beyond the obvious happy path. Try extreme data values, explore edge cases, sequence tests in unexpected ways, and break things. Seeking bugs in unexpected places often reveals the most critical defects.

After this unconstrained exploration, shift to more focused efforts. Review your unconstrained notes for high value but overlooked test conditions to apply in future charters.

Vary Testing Types Within Each Session

Interleave different testing styles within each exploratory session. Shift between function testing, data-driven testing, risk-based testing, usability testing etc. Varying techniques keeps sessions dynamic and thoughtful.
Follow a debrief process after each cycle to evaluate effectiveness and identify improvements. Over time, build skills in each testing type.

Leverage Tools to Enhance Testing

Incorporating tools into exploratory testing expands your capabilities. Use automated test recorders to quickly generate repeatable tests. Lean on addons like bug magnets and insight generators. Tools for test data management, service virtualization and others minimize overhead.

However, don't become overly reliant on tools. Find the optimal human + tool mix for your organization. Focus tools on accelerating testing tasks that are repeatable, complex or slow.

Apply Heuristics and Mnemonics

Leverage test heuristics and mnemonics to improve your testing decision making. Heuristics are rules of thumb that guide exploration like "try the extreme ends of input ranges first". Mnemonics help structure your thinking like using the SFDPOT model to remember common test design techniques.

Internalize heuristics and models so they become second nature in your testing. Maintain a centralized list of them for your team. Identify gaps where additional heuristics would improve performance.

Start Testing Early and Embed in Each Sprint

To maximize effectiveness, start exploratory testing early in the development lifecycle, not just near release. Testing works best when integrated in each sprint, applied continuously on incremental features. This builds product knowledge incrementally and uncovers defects early when cheaper to fix.

Work closely with developers to test features under development. Provide rapid feedback by testing directly on their environments before code is committed. Make exploratory testing a habit, not an afterthought.

Time Box Sessions and Debrief After Each

Exploratory testing is most effective when run in time boxed sessions, usually 60 to 90 minutes. Time boxing introduces structure, a sense of urgency, and retrospection. Setting a time limit forces testers to think critically about priorities and strategy.

After each session, debrief as a team on what went well, what could improve, which bugs and testability issues were found, and how to adjust upcoming charters based on insights gained. Capture debrief insights in session notes.

Monitor and Measure to Continuously Improve

To continually enhance your exploratory testing, implement metrics based on session notes, charters, debriefs and bug reports. Capture metrics like session coverage, defects found per session, severity of defects, escaped defects and testing velocity.

Analyze metrics after each release to spot trends. Compare techniques and teams to identify best practices. Root cause issues driving inefficiency like test environment instability. Re-evaluate processes and adopt incremental improvements.

Provide Ongoing Tester Training

Exploratory testing relies heavily on individual tester capability and knowledge. Invest continually in growing team skills through training like conferences, workshops, books and pair testing.

Prioritize training on relevant techniques like risk analysis, test heuristics, bug reporting best practices and session note taking. Foster a growth mindset and celebrate successes. Share learnings across your team.
Exploratory testing provides enormous value in finding critical software defects with its intrinsically human approach. By providing more structure, documentation, collaboration and continuous improvement, teams can maximize the effectiveness of exploratory testing. The payoff for investments in skill building and process improvement is better quality products delivered more efficiently. Focus on continuously evaluating and enhancing your exploratory testing strategy over time.