Despite being fairly unstructured, scriptless, and independent of a pass/fail status, exploratory testing is a very important and strategic part of QA. In fact, its focus on discovery and learning in software is proven to be highly valuable when it comes to testing an application for the first time or looking into a new feature from the last integration.
By identifying problems, questions, ideas, and praise through this method of manual testing, exploratory testing helps start a conversation between internal teams and produce improved software.
What is Exploratory Testing?
Exploratory testing is a scriptless testing practice that emphasizes learning and discovery in software and aims to improve quality.
While test cases are not created in advance, exploratory testing still has a very strategic process and requires documentation. Test design and execution are done simultaneously in an ad-hoc manner, although exploratory testing and ad-hoc testing are not the same (we’ll get to that later).
Since exploratory testing requires a human to look at software, evaluate its functionality, and think of new ideas, it’s a manual practice rather than an automated one. It also depends on the skills and knowledge of an independent tester to be able to evaluate where software has issues or could use improvements.
However, just because it’s a manual practice doesn’t mean it can be left behind in the industry move to Agile and CI/CD. Even as teams shift left and transition from manual testing to automation, exploratory testing continues to play a critical role in Agile development.
Exploratory testing is often best for:
- New websites
- New feature
- Unexplored areas
- Different devices
- UI testing
Afterwards, these insights are discussed with the rest of the testing and development team members to make changes, fix bugs, or add new features. Additionally, results can be used to raise questions about what’s working well and what’s not to implement in other areas of the software.
Session-based testing is one way to provide more structure in exploratory testing. While you can’t go into it with a script or a definitive test plan, having certain elements in mind like objectives, heuristics and oracles, focus, risks, and follow-up will make sure the process is valuable.
Session-based testing will often include a technique called mind mapping to identify some of these elements in a visual layout. This also helps write better documentation to share with teams after testing is finished.
Establishing a Definition
James Bach and Michael Bolton are attributed as the testers responsible for calling attention to the value of exploratory testing.
However, Cem Kaner coined the term in 1983, defining it as “a style of software testing that emphasizes the personal freedom and responsibility of the individual tester to continually optimize the quality of his/her work by treating test-related learning, test design, test execution, and test result interpretation as mutually supportive activities that run in parallel throughout the project.”
Today, some people suggest that exploratory testing should just be called “testing” since all testing has an element of exploration to it, but we still think that it deserves a place as its own method according to the original definition.
Exploratory Testing vs. Other Testing
The parameters of exploratory testing are often confused or misunderstood. Comparing and contrasting exploratory testing to other types of testing can help clarify its purpose.
Scripted Testing – Scripted testing and exploratory testing are posed as opposites, which helps better understand their definitions. As mentioned, exploratory testing is scriptless and more random, whereas scripted testing follows a set and defined plan written by the tester. This also means that you can’t test something that isn’t planned ahead with scripted testing, whereas exploratory testing encourages testers to discover new regions as they go. This allows testers to act more as the end user and evaluate areas they come across rather than predefined spaces.
Ad-hoc Testing – Exploratory testing and ad-hoc testing are probably compared most often, but they’re two distinct methods of testing. For one, ad-hoc testing doesn’t require documentation, which is an essential part of exploratory testing. Similarly, it’s not well-integrated into team collaboration and has no set goals, objectives, or focus. Though exploratory testing is meant to be done in an ad-hoc style, it also has more set expectations than a being a random test. Additionally, many divert the two because exploratory testing could be said to require more skill, whereas anyone could perform an ad-hoc test.
Can You Automate Exploratory Testing?
Not really. Exploratory testing inherently depends on the individual tester to contribute their skills, knowledge, and insight to new or unevaluated components in an application — something that cannot be done with automation.
Thinking about this in terms of the testing vs checking debate, exploratory testing would be part of “testing” while automated testing is a method of “checking,” meaning that you could not automate it because you can only use automation to check — a tester has to test since a machine cannot provide independent thought.
Tips for Exploratory Testing
- Have a loose plan – Going into a test with a focus is important in order to come out of the process with valuable feedback on certain objectives. At the same time, the nature of the exploratory test is to address certain issues as they arise and consider those as well. While testers should have a general plan, they should also allow room to improvise and consider unfamiliar elements.
- Think like an end user – Exploratory testing is an ideal way to advocate for a customer that may be using a website. While developers are familiar with the code they build, it might be more difficult them to think outside the box and use software in a way it’s not optimized for. The job of the tester in this phase is to recognize these areas of weakness and bring them to the attention of the rest of the team. Check out our Exploratory Testing Playbook for ideas on how to test for user personas.
- Leverage your skills – While exploratory tests are designed and changed as the tester goes along, it doesn’t mean that just anyone can do it correctly. In fact, the results of the test will largely depend on a tester’s skill level. Leveraging a tester’s knowledge of software and previous testing practices will be the most efficient way to find and address problems.