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Start with a software test plan template, then throw it away

There’s nothing more intimidating than a blank sheet of paper. Writers know this to be true, but so do test managers. The easy way out is to pull out a template and to start filling in the various “recommended” sections and details. An even easier approach is to pull out a past test plan and to just start changing project names, diagrams, and technologies. However, these approaches miss the point.

Recently while writing a test plan for a new project, I’ve noticed an odd habit I’ve developed. Ten years ago, when I wrote a test plan I started with a template. Four years ago, if I wrote a test plan I started with a blank sheet of paper. I noticed that when I write a test plan today, I look at templates, decide not to use them, and then end up pulling in pieces of them anyway.

The planning process isn’t about producing a document. Okay, well it shouldn’t be about producing a document. I recognize that in some companies it is. Instead, it’s about thinking about the problem. Software development problems are difficult and solving these problems requires time spent in research, comparing options, and prototyping. Our planning process, in the early stages, is about exploring those options and elaborating on what we think we’ll need to do (and when we’ll need to do it).

I find templates keep me from thinking about the actual problem. Instead they get me thinking about formatting and populating sections that aren’t yet filled in. When I’m using a template, I’m thinking about polish – not content.

However, there’s value to templates. They’re useful checklists for what types of things you should think about. I forget stuff just like anyone else. I’ve gotten a lot of good ideas from templates. So I’ve developed a habit of using a template to “prime the pump.”

I take an initial look at my templates and past test plans and use that to help get me started on problem solving. I’ll then switch over to a blank sheet of paper and start typing out my ideas and thoughts about what we need to test and how we should test it. Later, when I feel I’ve got most of my content, I’ll go back to a template and start pasting the content into the appropriate sections.

This technique keeps me from focusing on polish at the wrong time. There’s nothing wrong with polish, I just don’t want to be thinking about what font to use when I should be thinking about how I’m going to find or generate test data. This technique keeps me free from distractions when what I really need to be doing is focusing on the problem. This helps me deal with some of the intimidation of the blank page, but also allows me to be focused on the difficult topics when that’s what needs to be done.

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