Notes from Jonathan Bach’s “Session-Based Test Management”

Tracking exploratory testing work is difficult for test managers. We don’t want to micro-manage testers, we want them to explore to their hearts content when they test, but we won’t know how much progress there is if we don’t track the work. We also won’t know what sort of problems testers encounter during testing, unless they have the nerve to tell us immediately. Jonathan Bach’s “Session-Based Test Management” article has one suggestion: use sessions, uninterrupted blocks of reviewable and chartered test effort.

Here are a few favorite notes from the article:

  • Unlike traditional scripted testing, exploratory testing is an ad hoc process. Everything we do is optimized to find bugs fast, so we continually adjust our plans to re-focus on the most promising risk areas; we follow hunches; we minimize the time spent on documentation. That leaves us with some problems. For one thing, keeping track of each tester’s progress can be like herding snakes into a burlap bag.
  • The first thing we realized in our effort to reinvent exploratory test management was that testers do a lot of things during the day that aren’t testing. If we wanted to track testing, we needed a way to distinguish testing from everything else. Thus, “sessions” were born. In our practice of exploratory testing, a session, not a test case or bug report, is the basic testing work unit . What we call a session is an uninterrupted block of reviewable, chartered test effort. By “chartered,” we mean that each session is associated with a mission—what we are testing or what problems we are looking for. By “uninterrupted,” we mean no significant interruptions, no email, meetings, chatting or telephone calls. By “reviewable,” we mean a report, called a session sheet, is produced that can be examined by a third-party, such as the test manager, that provides information about what happened.
  • From a distance, exploratory testing can look like one big amorphous task. But it’s actually an aggregate of sub-tasks that appear and disappear like bubbles in a Jacuzzi. We’d like to know what tasks happen during a test session, but we don’t want the reporting to be too much of a burden. Collecting data about testing takes energy away from doing testing.
  • We separate test sessions into three kinds of tasks: test design and execution, bug investigation and reporting, and session setup. We call these the “TBS” metrics. We then ask the testers to estimate the relative proportion of time they spent on each kind of task. Test design and execution means scanning the product and looking for problems. Bug investigation and reporting is what happens once the tester stumbles into behavior that looks like it might be a problem. Session setup is anything else testers do that makes the first two tasks possible, including tasks such as configuring equipment, locating materials, reading manuals, or writing a session report
  • We also ask testers to report the portion of their time they spend “on charter” versus “on opportunity”. Opportunity testing is any testing that doesn’t fit the charter of the session. Since we’re in doing exploratory testing, we remind and encourage testers that it’s okay to divert from their charter if they stumble into an off-charter problem that looks important.
  • Although these metrics can provide better visibility and insight about what we’re doing in our test process, it’s important to realize that the session-based testing process and associated metrics could easily be distorted by a confused or biased test manager. A silver-tongued tester could bias the sheets and manipulate the debriefing in such a way as to fool the test manager about the work being done. Even if everyone is completely sober and honest, the numbers may be distorted by confusion over the reporting protocol, or the fact that some testers may be far more productive than other testers. Effective use of the session sheets and metrics requires continual awareness about the potential for these problems.
  • One colleague of mine, upon hearing me talk about this approach, expressed the concern that senior testers would balk at all the paperwork associated with the session sheets. All that structure, she felt, would just get in the way of what senior testers already know how to do. Although my first instinct was to argue with her, on second thought, she was giving me an important reality check. This approach does impose a structure that is not strictly necessary in order to achieve the mission of good testing. Segmenting complex and interwoven test tasks into distinct little sessions is not always easy or natural. Session-based test management is simply one way to bring more accountability to exploratory testing, for those situations where accountability is especially important.
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