A lesson in exploratory testing

Okay, I think I finally get it. I’ve been looking at exploratory testing all wrong.

I was trying to break down exploratory testing into a set of learnable techniques that can be followed by anyone to get them to be better testers. But exploratory testing isn’t like that. I was getting really frustrated because there were significant elements to it which were hard to define. But that’s because exploratory testing isn’t a series of set definable techniques.

It’s like learning the guitar. You can learn the chords if you want, but that’s not how you become a good guitarist. At some point you have to start figuring out how to make the guitar work for you, how to get it to do what you want. And learning the chords is not the only way to learn the guitar. If somebody gave you a guitar and you had no idea what it was, given enough time you could still learn how to make it play beautiful music. And if someone asked you how you did that, and asked you to teach them, maybe you would struggle to find an effective way. They could mimic exactly what you do, but it wouldn’t help them understand how to create music for themselves.

I used to learn piano. I’d show up to the lessons and practice the same songs over and over again, but I never enjoyed playing the piano, or even making music in general, until I started experimenting with my own methods of learning. In order to become better at something, you do need practice, and practice helps, but you also need to take an active part in the learning process. Practice will only take you so far.

Testing is the same. Like James Bach says, testing is a craft. It’s not something that you can teach as a series of steps. It’s something that you need to practice, and then take an active participation in your own learning and growth towards becoming better at it. That’s why it’s hard to measure if someone is a good tester. To go back to the piano analogy, I did AMEB (Australian Music Examination Board) exams for piano and I achieved grade 5. I put absolutely no emotion into my piano playing, I just followed the notes and directions on the sheet music. I learned a few scales. My knowledge and technique was probably grade 5 standard. But I was not a great pianist. Music is not a mindless, step-following activity. Nor is programming. Nor is testing.

I think what I wanted was an effective way of teaching testers how to be better testers. But showing them techniques will only take them so far. They need that interest and drive to learn more, otherwise they’re just doing what I did when I was learning the piano – following a series of steps. They’ll never become great testers, or great at anything, if they don’t take an active interest in their learning experience. I can’t wrap a process around a people problem.

Ultimately, in order to teach something, it’s more valuable to inspire a desire for learning than to transfer knowledge.

To that end, it’s important to acknowledge exploratory testing as a skill that requires practice. Some people say they are naturally “bug magnets”, but natural talent without dedication to self-improvement will only get you so far.

16 thoughts on “A lesson in exploratory testing

  1. Thanks for this wonderful post. I like your comparison with learning an instrument. Beside the testing lesson your article reminds me of my attempts to learn piano..uuh, not that successful. It seems that I should be more explorative … and learning to read music could then be much easier. So the next piano lesson will be an explorative session :-)


  2. Hello and greetings from Germany! Nice post and nice sight on ET!
    As a tester, I’m trying to boost and share ET and all those current test technologies in our software testing departement.
    The main problem is: How to come along with ET when the testprocess/organization favors script base testing (with a testing tool) and not ET and so also not session based testing?

    K R, Ralf

  3. If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men
    to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders.
    Instead, teach them to yearn for the
    vast and endless sea.

    Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

  4. Trish,

    Nice post.

    “Ultimately, in order to teach something, it’s more valuable to inspire a desire for learning than to transfer knowledge.”

    That’s a truly great line. I’m going to quote you on that.

    I’m in Sydney for a few weeks to work with a couple clients here. Too bad I won’t get a chance to meet you during this visit. Oh well. One day.

    – Justin

  5. Hi Trish,
    Inspirational words!! Yes, even I agree with your view that without putting your interest and efforts to learn something, we will not get it perfectly. The most important thing’ satisfaction’ will be missing if we are doing it only as a task assigned.

  6. This reminds me a lot of a concept I came across recently by Richard Skemp who made a distinction between “instrumental understanding” and “relational understanding”.

    According to his theory, you originally learned piano in an instrumental fashion (hey, that’s also a nice pun!) and then you swapped to a relational approach. Relational understanding involves exploring connections rather than taking a mechanical, if A then B, approach.

    This article explains further – http://www.blog.republicofmath.com/richard-skemps-relational-understanding-and-instrumental-understanding/

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