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James Whittaker on exploratory testing and scenario-based exploration

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Last fall I listened to James Whittaker talk about his book, “Exploratory Testing,” at a virtual presentation hosted by uTest. I have since been able to read the book and follow-up with Whittaker to pick his brain a little more about his view of exploratory testing.

“What is the definition of exploratory testing?” I asked, in an attempt to get a definition I could use for TechTarget’s popular “WhatIs” column. Whittaker was quick to note that his view of exploratory testing may not be the same as others, but he took a stab at it: “Testing without a pre-defined test plan.”

Whittaker explained that the adjective “exploratory” is used in the same way it would be used to describe “exploratory surgery.” “There’s something wrong. You’re not sure what it is and so you explore. Eventually exploratory surgery will lead to other types of treatment.” Similarly, Whittaker explains, exploratory testing is used to explore problem areas so that then further more directed tests can be done. “Exploratory testing helps us document some of the primary testing paths through the software and discover problematic areas so we can explore further testing.”

Whittaker stressed that he felt exploratory testing was a means to an end and not the end of the testing, and said that this is where his opinion may differ from those of his colleagues.

“Using it as the actual end is very naive. It’s one part of the testing process. Don’t assume anything about the solution until you know more about the problem.”

Whittaker also noted that he felt there were some problems with exploratory testing.

“Exploratory testing doesn’t always apply. Some applications require automation to thoroughly test. Concepts like tours are very important.  Exploratory surgeons have techniques. a certain way to enter depending on whether or you’re operating on the pancreas or the heart or a toe.”  Similarly, there are different ways you test depending on the technology. The tours can help structure your testing efforts without scripting them.

“Isn’t exploratory testing simply unscripted testing?” I asked. Whittaker agreed but pointed out that, as he states in Chapter 5 of his book, there are “hybrid” exploratory testing techniques which can include a combination of scripted tests or scenarios and unscripted tests. These can complement one another and provide for something Whittaker refers to as “scenario-based exploration.” Traditional scenario testing takes the tester down a pre-defined path reflecting expected usage of the application. But scenario-based exploration more closely imitates users  who often stray from the expected path.

Come check out six of the exploratory testing tours in this tip Six tours for exploratory testing the business district of your application.