Blog Posts from November, 2011

Smoke Testing vs. Sanity Testing: What You Really Need to Know

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

If you spend any time in forums in which new testers can be found, it won’t be long before someone asks “”What is the difference between smoke testing and sanity testing?”

“What is the difference between smoke testing and sanity testing?” is a unicorn question. That is, it’s a question that shouldn’t be answered except perhaps by questioning the question: Why does it matter to you? Who’s asking you? What would you do if I gave you an answer? Why should you trust my answer, rather than someone else’s? Have you looked it up on Google? What happens if people on Google disagree?

But if you persist and continue to ask me, here’s what I will tell you:

The distinction between the smoke and sanity testing is not generally important. In fact, it’s one of the most trivial aspects of testing that I can think of, offhand. Yet it does point to something that is important.

Both smoke testing and sanity testing refer to a first-pass, shallow form of testing intended to establish whether a product or system can perform the most basic functions. Some people call such testing “smoke testing”; others call it “sanity testing”. “Smoke testing” derives from the hardware world; if you create an electronic circuit, power it up, and smoke comes out somewhere, the smoke test has failed. Sanity testing has no particular derivation that I’m aware of, other than the common dictionary definition of the word “sanity”. Does the product behave in some crazy fashion? If so, it has failed the sanity test.

Do you see the similarity between these two forms of testing? Can you make a meaningful distinction between them? Maybe someone can. If so, let them make it. If you’re talking to some person, and that person want to make a big deal about the distinction, go with it. Some organizations make a distinction between the smoke and sanity testing; some don’t. If it seems important in your workplace, then ask in your workplace, and adapt your thinking accordingly while you’re there. If it’s important that you provide a “correct” answer on someone’s idiotic certification exam, give them the answer they want according to their “body of knowledge”. Otherwise, it’s not important. Don’t worry about it.

Here’s what is important: wherever you find yourself in your testing career, people will use language that has evolved as part of the culture of that organization. Some consultancies or certification mills or standards bodies claim the goal of providing “a common worldwide standard language for testing”. This is as fruitless and as pointless a goal as a common worldwide standard language for humanity. Throughout all of human history history, people have developed different languages to address things that were important in their cultures and societies and environments. Those languages continue to develop as change happens. This is not a bad thing. This is a good thing.

There is no term in testing of which I am aware whose meaning is universally understood and accepted. There’s nothing either wrong or unusual about that. It’s largely true outside the testing world too. Pick an English word at random, and odds are you’ll find multiple meanings for it. Examples:

  • Pick (choose, plectrum for a guitar)
  • English (a language, spin on a billiard ball)
  • word (a unit of speech, a 32-bit value)
  • random (without a definite path, of equal probability)
  • odds (probability, numbers not divisible by two)
  • multiple (more than one, divisible by)
  • meaning (interpretation, significance)

Never mind the shades and nuances of interpretation within each meaning of each word! And notice that “never mind”, in this context, is being used ironically. Here, “never mind” doesn’t mean “forget” or “ignore”; here, it really means the opposite: “also pay attention to”!

Not only is there no universally accepted term for anything, there’s no universally accepted authority that could authoritatively declare or enforce a given meaning for all time. (Some might point to law, claiming that there are specific terms which have solid interpretations. If that were true, we wouldn’t need courts or lawyers.)

If you find yourself in conversation (or in an interview) with someone who asks you “Do you do X?”, and you’re not sure what X is by their definition, a smart and pragmatic reply starts with, “I may do X, but not necessarily by that name.” After that,

  • You can offer to describe your notion of X (if you have one).
  • You can describe something that you do that could be interpreted as X. That can be risky, so offer this too: “Since I don’t know what you mean by X, here’s something that I do. I think it sounds similar to X, or could be interpreted as X. But I’d like to make sure that we both recognize that we could have different interpretations of what X means.”
  • You can say, “I’d like to avoid the possibility that we might be talking at cross-purposes. If you can describe what X means to you, I can tell you about my experiences doing similar things, if I’ve done them. What does X mean to you?” Upon hearing their definition of X, then truthfully describe your experience, or say that you haven’t done it.

If you searched online for an answer to the smoke vs. sanity question, you’d find dozens, hundreds of answers from dozens, hundreds of people. (Ironically, the very post that introduces the notion of the unicorn question includes, in the second-to-last paragraph, a description of a smoke test. Or a sanity test. Whatever.) The people who answer the smoke vs. sanity question don’t agree, and neither do their answers. Yet many, even most, of the people will seem very sure of their own answers. People will have their own firm ideas about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin, too. However, there is no “correct” definition for either term outside of a specific context, since there is no authority that is univerally accepted. If someone claimed to be a universally accepted authority, I’d reject the claim, which would put an instant end to the claim of universal acceptance.

With the possibile exception of the skills of memorization, there is no testing skill involved in memorizing someone’s term for something. Terms and their meanings are slippery, indistinct, controversial, and context-dependent. The real testing skill is in learning to deal with the risk of ambiguity and miscommunication, and the power of expressing ourselves in many ways.