As technology becomes more and more important in our society, so does the role of the systems that are used to ensure the programs. One such system is a fairly new testing method that’s purpose is to ensure the effectiveness of computer software. That method is exploratory testing.

To simply define exploratory testing, it is an approach to computer software testing that simultaneously incorporates learning, test design, and test execution. In this article, we will explore exactly what exploratory testing is, what it means, how it works, and what it looks like.

Why Do We Perform Exploratory Testing?

The focus of this testing method is investigation and discovery. There are no set rules for exploratory testing. In fact, the software testing expert, Cem Kaner, who coined the term for this testing method in his book, Testing Computer Software, encourages testers to do the following: “Run new tests as you think of them, without spending too much time preparing or explaining the tests. Trust your instincts.”

In other words, we perform exploratory testing because it does not conform to any rigid set of rules and allows us to consider a program’s individualized requirements. Instead, it allows testers to experience the program as it is, all of its features and capabilities, and make decisions for testing as they go. There is no concrete plan in place; it evolves and changes shape, and that is okay.

How Does Exploratory Testing Work?

Unlike other more rigid types of testing, exploratory testing is cognitively structured rather than procedurally structured. This method also vastly differs from that of more traditional systems, like scripted testing, which relies only on procedures that have been previously planned and mapped out for the system. With the directives of this system less rigid than other methods, software engineers are able to experience personal freedom and creativity while testing new digital applications or programs.

Exploratory testing relies more on the tester than the system itself, which allows for the personal freedom previously mentioned, but it also increases the responsibility of the individual tester. Due to the room for error created by this increased freedom and reliance on the tester’s own mind, this method is best used by a team of individuals with a great level of skill and experience.

It is also important to note that while freedom and spontaneity exist within exploratory testing and can be wonderful tools, it is not a random testing method. It is not enough to merely look for bugs. Testers must also determine a clear and concise end goal for the testing cycle. A goal can be determined by following certain steps that any tester would be wise to follow. The first step of exploratory testing is to create a classification of expected glitches.

Secondly, a tester should quickly map out what to test and how to test it. This is called a test charter, which can be helpful in determining how the end user could use the program.

Next, implement a time box. This means setting aside time to test the system without any interruptions. The fourth step should include reviewing the results of the test.

Finally, testers should debrief their team and compare their findings. Discussing the results of the test can help determine if additional testing needs to be done. It is also imperative that testers keep detailed notes throughout each step. Such notes should include information on what needs to be tested, why it needs to be tested, and the assessment of product quality. Keeping well-organized notes that document each step of the test may potentially help to ensure that antecedent bugs have been settled in a manner that keeps new functional bugs from being introduced to the program.

When executed correctly, exploratory testing provides a more thorough test than those that rely only on procedural structure. If a scripted test is not programmed to check for a specific glitch, it will not do so.

Alternatively, exploratory testing allows testers to experience an unconstrained and more spontaneous way to search for bugs. It allows for software engineers to come up with and use cases that may not be covered in a test case. Thus, the exploratory testing method is able to detect glitches that more structured methods tend to overlook, lessening the likelihood of any critical quality failures. It is often used to overcome the limitations that scripted testing presents to software testers. One study found that exploratory testing is able to detect “11% more defects than scripted testing.”

When more complex bugs are detected, exploratory testing has been proven to be even more efficient, detecting 33% more defects than that of scripted testing. This fact is especially important for businesses, considering the objective is to complement traditional testing strategies to find and fix any potential multi-million dollar defects.

When is Exploratory Testing Best Implemented?

While exploratory testing is in many cases more efficient than scripted testing, it is not always the best choice for every testing scenario. With so much freedom and spontaneity, there is a greater risk of wasting time with exploratory testing. That is because scripted tests tend to follow a more exact timeline.

Adhering to time constraints may limit the efficiency of the program. However, it is widely agreed upon that exploratory testing is best suited for specific testing scenarios. Such examples would include:

  • when an individual needs to learn about a product and provide feedback as quickly as possible
  • when a team does not have sufficient time to prepare or structure a test
  • when the perspective of the intended user is needed to review the quality of a product.

Example of Exploratory Testing At Work

Many video game developers rely on testers to use exploratory testing. This testing method allows software testers to view and test the expected behavior of the program from the point of view of the consumer. They are able to make sure that all functions of the game are working as intended.

Above all else, using an exploratory testing tool allows the program to be reviewed more efficiently and quickly. Testers are able to record voice memos, snap screenshots, and comment feedback. Developers then receive this feedback almost instantaneously. This feature helps to bridge the gap between testers and developers, which helps to ensure that the best quality programs are being produced.

For example, if an end user expects the game to allow them to access an inventory option, the tester would then test this function and ensure it is performing as intended. To expand upon the game development example, let’s say that the tester walks through the game and realizes that certain characters do not render as smoothly as they could. They can then make note of that to ensure that the developers know to pay closer attention to this as they work on the game.

Exploratory Testing: A Versatile, Creative Approach to Discovery

When exploratory testing is paired with script testing, or other more structured approaches, it significantly increases test coverage, detects errors that would otherwise be overlooked, has the possibility of adding new features, and greatly improves the overall quality of the software product. Whether the testing is used for video games or aircraft engineering, our technology, and society itself, will definitely prove to benefit from this software testing method.