Getting Started with Exploratory Testing – Part 1

Apply Investigation to Testing

How do I get started with exploratory testing? Here is an idea to help you get started:

Research investigative disciplines, and apply your learnings to your own testing work.

Software testing is investigative. There are investigative disciplines all around us that we can learn from. The obvious ones are the ones with “investigator” in their title – detectives, fire investigators, journalists, and others. However, other disciplines are also investigative. I have a friend who is a pilot, and he constantly investigates the complexities around operating an aircraft while he is flying. I have a friend who is a nurse, who needs to constantly investigate symptoms and react in first-line response when dealing with patients at a hospital. I have a friend who is a doctor, and her work is investigative, whether it is diagnosing a patient with a cold, looking over test results or performing surgery. I have a friend who is a firefigher, and he uses investigative skills to secure a scene so the firefighters can safely do their work. He also does vehicle extrications at car crashes, and goes out to medical calls.

I ask them about their work, the tools they use, and listen to their stories. All of the people listed above use some similar thinking tools. For example, they all use mnemonics. Why? Each of the careers I mention above deal with mission critical situations, and they want to have a repeatable, thorough thinking process. Mnemonics are memory aids, and help investigators be consistent and thorough as they observe and think about problems they are facing. Mnemonics are also a type of model that help speed up observation. Exploratory testers use mnemonics as well. There are other models and tools that they use that are fascinating to learn more about.

I also talk to others who use investigative tools in their work when I can. I’ve talked to historians, auto mechanics, forensic accountants, and my dental hygenist. Another source of information for exploratory testers are books on investigative fields. Testing Consultant Rob Sabourin is a big Sherlock Holmes fan, and Mike Kelly recommends the book “Conned Again Watson” which deals with probability, statistics, logic, etc.

Michael Bolton recently recommended the book: “How Doctors Think”, which is another reference for studying an investigative discipline. Ben Simo has a great write up of his impressions of this book on his blog. When I talk to my health care worker friends, I notice a lot of similarities to my work, and I learn something to apply to my testing thinking.

Once you have some new ideas, practice some of them during your daily testing activities. You will probably notice that you start thinking about testing differently, the more you apply investigative techniques to your own work.

*See for definitions of investigate.