Exploratory and Automated testing: Using the right techniques in the wrong contexts

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Testing techniques plotted on a speed, value, environment axis

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Exploratory testing is about testing in an unpredictable context and therefore detecting unpredictable failures in our software. Automated testing is about testing in a predictable context and therefore detecting predictable failures. The mistake we make with automation is we try to apply it to the wrong context. You can’t use testing methods developed for predictable context in an unpredictable environment.

While there is nothing physically stopping you neither practice is particularly efficient if used in the wrong context. Exploratory testing in a predictable environment would just confirm what you already knew only slower and less consistent when repeating the testing . While automated testing in an unpredictable environment would lead to false negatives.

It’s also not a one size fits all solution either as we work in both contexts. Predictable when initially developing the software and unpredictable once running in the live environment.

The only way you can replace exploratory testing with automation is to make the test environment predictable. But that would then mean you are trying to detect predictable issues. This then negates the outcome you were looking for which is trying to detect unpredictable or complex failures.

Testing in unpredictable contexts

The best way to detect unpredictable failures is to use methodologies that can operate in an unpredictable environment. 

One of the best known methods is exploratory testing (sometime called manual testing) but there are other technique too. Such as monitoring of the live environment. Which is good for issues we can predict in an unpredictable environment. Observability using logs, graphs and other telemetry to see how the system is behaving in the live environment. This is helpful for issues we can’t predict and need to debug in the live environment. Phased rollout of features using techniques such as feature toggles, blue/green deployments, canary releasing etc. Useful for limiting the impact of unintended issues in a unpredictable environment. Basically anything that allows you to slowly enable a feature for subsets of users.

Using monitoring and observability in conjunction with phased rollouts can greatly improve your ability to understand and limit how new code behaves in unpredictable environments. 

Testing in predictable contexts

This is not to say automated testing is invaluable as it can help detect smaller predictable issues. Which if left unchecked could develop into larger unknown failures that only occur with the right mix of other smaller issues. Some issues maybe within our control (software we develop) and some outside of our control (other people’s software). For software in our control (a predictable environment) automated testing is almost a prefect match. For software outside of our control (an unpredictable environment) contract testing, exploratory testing, monitoring and observability and phased roll outs of software is preferable. 

Control and isolation

Next time you’re looking at testing techniques think about how much control (and therefore isolation) you have over your test environment. The greater the level of control then the more automation you should consider, but the less control you have then the more you should consider exploratory testing coupled with monitoring, observability and phased rollouts. 

Testing techniques

The following diagram will help you see how different testing techniques stack up against each other. This is by no means an exhaustive list and is only comparing them on a speed of feedback, value of feedback and testing environment bases. So the next time you get into a discussion about testing you could use these characteristics as a good way to frame that discussion.

Testing techniques plotted on a speed, value and environment axis
Testing techniques plotted on a speed, value and environment axis

Are there testing techniques that should be plotted on the chart?

Do you agree with the axis? Is there another more important characteristics of testing that should be captured?

How would you plot the testing techniques?

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