Apply Improvisation to Testing
How do I get started with exploratory testing? Here are is an idea to help you get started:
Study and practice improvisation, and apply your learnings to your own testing work.
…the practice of acting and reacting, of making and creating, in the moment and in response to the stimulus of ones immediate environment. This can result in the invention of new thought patterns, new practices, new structures or symbols and/or new ways to act. This invention cycle occurs most effectively when the practitioner has a thorough intuitive or technical understanding of the necessary skills and concerns within the improvised domain.
I first consciously studied and practiced improvisation (improv) in middle school. In drama class, we were encouraged to study and practice improv to develop our acting skills. I enjoyed being in the moment, and working with whatever props, cues or events I had at the time to work with. I realized quite quickly that it is a lot harder than it looks; reading from a script and being directed on everything you do in a performance is very different. It’s easy to get over confident and then freeze in a performance if you are unprepared.
There are many skills that actors can develop to do improv well. Some of my friends practiced different techniques with their faces, posture, body language and voices so they could be even more versatile. Some could change the entire mood they wanted to convey with a few imperceptible changes in their demeanor. That requires practice and skill, but good actors are able to employ these kinds of tools almost effortlessly once they are mastered.
I then studied improvisation in music. After high school, I joined a band that needed a saxophonist. They liked to do extended jams, and it wasn’t easy to keep up at first. I was well practiced reading sheet music and had my parts all polished up, but I quickly fell off the rails when the band leader would lead improvised sessions. I’d miss a key change and do something dumb like playing something minor-dominant when we had changed to a major key, or get my rhythm mixed up because the drummer had changed timing while I was in the middle of a solo. After I practiced like mad, and learned a couple of patterns, I could cope a lot better with these free sessions, but I never had the chops to play in free jazz bands like some of my friends have.
Some people have said: “Oh, Jazz? Is that the music where they just make it up as they go along?” This is actually incredibly difficult to do. My friends who have played in jazz bands are technical monsters on their instruments. They have very strong knowledge of music theory, and can play their instruments with great precision and speed. I on the other hand, have a much more narrow grasp as a musician, but I can still do some improvisation. I could spend the rest of my life just trying to master guitar.
Like most things in life, improvisation can be done poorly, or it can appear effortless and mesmerizing when done by a skilled practitioner. It can be done effectively by people with various degrees of skill. I have musician friends who are musical and very strong technically on their instruments freeze up without sheet music. I also have musician friends who know very little music theory who can do very well at improvisation. I also have testing friends who have fabulous improvisation skills, and others who do it naturally and seemingly unconsciously, but effectively.
Improvisation is about being in the moment, and dealing with what you observe, think, feel and react to. As testers, we can be in the moment as we interactively test software, and we can be as free and unconstrained as other improvisers. To do it very well requires skill, but we can be effective and grow our testing skills if we learn and practice. We just need to be aware of the software we are testing, and learn to keenly observe what it is doing, and be able to react and create new tests as we interact with it. Like acting, music, or other improvisational activities, you will find you end up in interesting and rewarding situations.