Session Based Testing, Exploratory Testing and my Questions technique

SB – Session Based Testing – Technique Element
Sub section – Approaches

Since Jonathan and James Back (satisfice.com/sbtm) documented their Session Based Test Management approach combining exploratory testing, risk management and ‘management’ oversight there has been a lot written.  Hopefully by now most people know the benefits of exploratory testing and some of the various methods of recording that activity.  In this article I hope to share a brief overview so we are on the same page.  A list of the main benefits and some minor drawbacks.  And finally the question technique I apply when using this in my day to day work.

Overview:

The Session Based Testing approach was developed for a project to allow their test team to ‘organise their work without obstructing the flexibility and serendipity that makes exploratory testing useful’.  They needed a way to keep track of what was happening, so they could in turn report back to a ‘demanding client’, while ensuring the time spent created the biggest return on investment. 

Essentially this is structured exploratory testing to help organise thoughts, capture questions and insights and allow rapid feedback.  Key elements to this approach include;

  • Each session is chartered (associated with a specific mission)
  • Uninterrupted (as much as is possible)
  • A template is used to record the details of the mission and findings
  • Reviewable ( a ‘report’ is produced to document findings and questions and the tester is ‘debriefed’) 
  • Time-boxed (with flexibility but generally no more than 2 hours)

In my opinion, there are a number of flexible points in the approach and tips that are worth being aware of, especially if you’re doing this for the first time;

  • I don’t think it matters if you call it a charter, mission or focus.  As long as you generally stick to your subject, although picking one might help when sharing for consistency.
  • Interruptions should be avoided if possible.  On occasion I’ve shut down Outlook and put my headphones on for these types of sessions.  At one time I even had a red flag on my desk which indicated do not disturb unless it was urgent. 
  • There are templates available or you can create your own like I did.  Again it’s useful for consistency to stick with one you’re happy with.
  • Reviewable.  A lot of focus is on ‘management’ reviews but team, peer or even self is fine, as long as what you find generates actionable insights rather than getting filed away never to add value.
  • Time-boxed.  If you start small with something very specific that’s a good way to get a feel for this technique and learn to focus.  I can sometimes be like the dogs in ‘Up’ and be distracted by squirrels!  Learn to note where the squirrels are and why you need to look at them later.
Question technique and template:

I admit that I often use this as a mental reminder, rather than something to populate, as my preference is to speak to a developer on my team immediately after a session to investigate or question.  (I don’t raise bugs I describe behaviour and in writing this, that’s probably what my next post will be on.  I’ll add a link to it on here when done.)  Only if this isn’t possible due to availability will I actually fill things in from the notes I have taken during sessions.  For me, this is a disposable document with a short shelf life used to capture, discuss, resolve (or not), and most importantly discard.

I’ve reproduced the template in bullet form rather than embed a PDF or word document, that way I hope it will be easier for you guys to take away and make your own.  When you get to the questions you might find, as I do quite often, you will remove some before you start as not applicable, or you won’t have filled some in when you’ve finished.  It’s supposed to be flexible like that but you should take a moment to understand why they are not populated or applicable to the session as that may prompt some other thoughts.

The template:

  • The Basics: Date; App/function under test (brief description); any other useful information depending on your context
  • Any dependencies vital to the testing (connections, files, data, hardware etc. this helps make sure you have them before you start)
  • Any information that is useful such as material/learning’s from previous sessions, personas to use, environments, tools etc.
  • Test strategy (a consideration of techniques you might use as a flexible plan is often more useful than no plan, but don’t be afraid to improvise as that’s half the fun and discovery may make your plan obsolete quite quickly)
  • *Metrics (see rant at the end of this post)
  • The questions: (with a brief reasoning for them)

o What do I expect? (even if it is something brand new I always have some expectations)

o What do I assume? (sets a context that I can query as I go)

o Are there any risks I should be aware of? (to execution, the system, helps anyone else reading have context)

o What do I notice? (behaviour; usability)

o What do I suspect? (things that I feel, not always based on facts but that I don’t want to lose)

o What am I puzzled by? (behaviour that doesn’t feel right)

o What am I afraid of? (high priority concerns about the item under test)

o What do I appreciate/like? (always good to have some positive feedback)

·       
   Debrief (originally between the tester and a manager there’s a checklist of questions on satisfice/sbtm.  My version is more often a conversation with the developer with questions or queries, but can also be with the product owner or stakeholder depending on what I find/context. I’m not saying don’t do this, rather do it only where it’s going to add value.

This post is getting a bit longer than I’d hoped but I feel it’s important to summarise the benefits and possible drawbacks of using this method so there’s a balanced view.

Pro’s

Con’s

Allows control to be added to an ‘uncontrolled process’

Can be harder to replicate findings as full details are not captured

Makes exploratory testing auditable

As a ‘new’ technique it has to be learnt

Testing can start almost immediately

Recording exploratory testing (rather than brief notes) can break focus / concentration if you’re more worried about doing it

Makes exploratory testing measurable through metrics gathered

Time is required to analyse and report on metrics

Flexible process that can be tailored to multiple situations

Time is required to discuss/give feedback to potentially the ‘wrong’ person

Biggest and most important issues often found first

Can help explain what testers do to clients, stakeholders and the uninformed

Given all the above, if you have to justify exploratory testing, (notwithstanding you should be looking for a new job!) then using session based test management either in its original form or some hybrid version could be the convincer you’re looking for.  In the table above, ‘management’ will generally only see the Pro’s column which covers a lot of the things ‘they’ will worry about.  But seriously, look for a new job!

*Metrics: I personally don’t think these are useful for virtually anything (oh, more controversy!), but if you absolutely have to report back to someone, a manager who knows little or nothing about what testing really is for example, here are some metric examples.  How much time you’ve spent such as start/end times on actually executing testing; blocked; recording findings; actionable insights; questions/queries; potential problem; bugs; obstacles; screen shots or some other method of recording or documents to show any issues to help replicate them.  


Source: ministry of testing
Session Based Testing, Exploratory Testing and my Questions technique

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