Blog: What Exploratory Testing Is Not (Part 5): Undocumented Testing

This week I had the great misfortune of reading yet another article which makes the false and ridiculous claim that exploratory testing is “undocumented”. After years and years of plenty of people talking about and writing about and practicing excellent documentation as part of an exploratory testing approach, it’s depressing to see that there are still people shovelling fresh manure onto a pile that should have been carted off years ago.

Like the other approaches to test activities that have been discussed in this series (“touring“, “after-everything-else“, “tool-free“, and “quick testing“), “documented vs. undocumented” is in a category orthogonal to “exploratory vs. scripted”. True: usually scripted activities are performed by some agency following a set of instructions that has been written down somewhere. But we could choose to think of “scripted” in a slightly different and more expansive way, as “prescriptive”, or “mimeomorphic“. A scripted activity, in this sense, is one for which the actions to be performed have been established in advance, and the choices of the actions are not determined by the agency performing them. In that sense, a cook at McDonalds doesn’t read a script as he prepares your burger, but the preparation of a McDonald’s burger is a highly scripted activity.

Thus any kind of testing can be heavily documented or completely undocumented. A thoroughly documented test might be highly exploratory in nature, or it might be highly scripted.

In the Rapid Software Testing class, James Bach and I point out that when someone says “that should be documented”, what they’re really saying is “that should be documented if and how and when it serves our purposes.” So, let’s start by looking at the “when”.

When we question anything in order to evaluate it, there are moments in the process in which we might choose to record ideas or actions. I’ve broken these down into three basic categories that I hope you find helpful:

  • Before

  • During

  • After

There are “before”, “during”, and “after” moments with respect to any test activity, whether it’s a part of test design, test execution, result interpretation, or learning. Again, a hallmark of exploratory testing is the tester’s freedom and responsibility to optimize the value of the work as it’s happening. That means that when it’s important to record something, the tester is not only welcome but encouraged to

  • pick up a pen
  • take a screen shot
  • launch a session of Rapid Reporter
  • create or update a mind map
  • fire up a screen recorder
  • initiate logging (if it doesn’t start by default on the product you’re testing—and if logging isn’t available, you might consider identifying that as a testability problem and a related product and project risk)
  • sketch out a flowchart diagram
  • type notes into a private or shared repository
  • add to a table of data in Excel
  • fire off a note to a programmer or a product owner
and that’s an incomplete list. But they’re all forms of documentation.

Freedom to document at will should also mean that the tester is free to refrain from documenting something when the documentation doesn’t add value. At the same time, the tester is responsible and accountable for that decision. In Rapid Testing, we recommend writing down (or saving, or illustrating) only the things that are necessary or valuable to the project, and only when the value of doing so exceeds the cost. This doesn’t mean no documentation; it means the most informative yet fastest and least expensive documentation that completely fulfils the testing mission. Integrating that with testing work leads, we hold, to excellent testing—but it takes practice and skill.

For most test activities, it’s possible to relay information to other people orally, or even sometimes by allowing people to observe our behaviour. (At the beginning of the Rapid Testing class, I sometimes silently hold aloft a 5″ x 8″ index card in landscape orientation. I fold it in half along the horizontal axis, and write my first name on one side using a coloured marker. Everyone in the class mimics my actions. Without a single word of instruction being given or questions being asked, either verbally or in writing, the mission has been accomplished: each person now has a tent card in front of him.)

There’s a potential risk associated with an exploratory approach: that the tester might fail to document something important. In that case, we do what skilled people do with risk: we manage it. James Bach talks at length about managing exploratory testing sessions here. Producing appropriate documentation is partly a technical process, but the technical considerations are dominated by business imperatives: cost, value, and risk. There are also social considerations, too. The tester, the test lead, the test manager, the programmers, other managers, and the product owner determine collaboratively what’s important to document and what’s not so important with respect to the current testing mission. In an exploratory approach, we’re more likely to be emphasizing the discovery of new information. So we’re less likely to spend time on documenting what we will do, more likely to document what we are doing and what we have done. We could do a good deal of preparatory reading and writing, even in an exploratory approach—but we realize that there’s an ever-increasing risk that new discoveries will undermine the worth of what we write ahead of time.

That leads directly to “our purposes”, the task that we want to accomplish when documenting something. Just as testing itself has many possible missions, so too does test documentation. Here’s a decidedly non-exhaustive list, prepared over a couple of minutes:

  • to express testing strategy and tactics for an entire project, or for projects in general
  • to keep a set of personal notes to help structure a debriefing conversation
  • to outline testing activities for a test cycle
  • to report on activities during testing execution
  • to outline attributes of a particular quality criterion
  • to catalogue ideas about risk
  • to describe test coverage
  • to account for the work that we’ve done
  • to program a machine to perform a given set of actions
  • to alert people to potential problems in the product
  • to guide a tester’s actions over a test session
  • to identify structures in the application or service
  • to provide a description of how to use a particular test tool that we’ve crafted
  • to describe the tester’s role, skills, and qualifications
  • to explain business rules to someone else on the team
  • to outline scenarios in which the product might be used or tested
  • to identify, for a tester, a specific, explicit sequence of actions to perform, input to provide, and observations to make

That last item is the classic form of highly scripted testing, and that kind of documentation is usually absent from exploratory testing. Even so, a tester can take an exploratory approach using a script as a point of departure or as a reference, just as you might use a trail map to help guide an off-trail hike (among other things, you might want to discover shortcuts or avoid the usual pathways). So when someone says that “exploratory testing is undocumented”, I hear them saying something else. I hear them saying, “I only understand one form of test documentation, and I’ve successfully ignored every other approach to it or purpose for it.”

If you look in the appendices for the Rapid Software Testing class (you can find a .PDF at, you’ll see a large number of examples of documentation that are entirely consistent with an exploratory approach. That’s just one source. For each item in my partial list above, here’s a partial list of approaches, examples, and tools.

Testing strategy and tactics for an entire project, or for projects in general.
Look at the Satisfice Heuristic Test Strategy Model and the Context Model for Heuristic Test Planning (these also appear in the RST Appendices).

An outline of testing activities for a test cycle.
Look at the General Functionality and Stability Test Procedure for Certifed for Microsoft Windows Logo. See also the OWL Quality Plan (and the Risk and Task Correlation) in the RST Appendices.

Keeping a set of personal notes to help structure a debriefing or other conversation.
See the “Beans ‘R Us Test Report” in the RST Appendices; or see my notes on testing an in-flight entertainment system which I did for fun on a flight from India to Amsterdam.

Recording activities and ideas during test execution
A video camera or a screen recording tool can capture the specific actions of a tester for later playback and review. Well-designed log files may also provide a kind of retrospective record about what was testing. Still neither of these provide insight into the tester’s mind. Recorded narration or conversation can do that; tools like BB Test Assistant, Camtasia, or Morae can help. The classic approach, of course, is to take notes. Have a look at my presentation, “An Exploratory Tester’s Notebook“, which has examples of freestyle notes taken during an impromptu testing session, and detailed, annotated examples of Session-Based Test Management sessions. Shmuel Gerson’s Rapid Reporter and Jonathan Kohl’s Session Tester are tools oriented towards taking notes (and, in the former case, including screen captures) of testing sessions on the fly.

Outlining many attributes of a particular quality criterion
See “Heuristics of Software Testability” in the RST Appendices for one example.

Cataloguing ideas about risk
Several examples of this in the RST Appendices, most extensively in the “Deployment Planning and Risk Analysis” example. You’ll also find an “Install Risk Catalog”; “The Risk of Incompatibility”; the Risk vs. Tasks section in the “OWL Quality Plan”; the “Y2K Compliance Report”; “Round Results Risk A”, which shows a mapping of Risk Areas vs. Test Strategy and Tasks.

Describing or outlining test coverage
A mapping establishes or illustrates relationships between things. We can use any of these to help us think about test coverage. In testing, a map might look like a road map, but it might also look like a list, a chart, a table, or a pile of stories. These can be constructed before, after, or during a given test activity, with the goal of covering the map with tests, or using testing to extend the map. I catalogued several ways of thinking about coverage and reporting on it, in three articles Got You Covered, Cover or Discover, and A Map By Any Other Name. Several examples of lightweight coverage outlines can be found in the RST Appendices (“Putt Putt Saves the Zoo”, “Table Formatting Test Notes”, There are also coverage ideas incorporated into the Apollo mission notes that we’ve titled “Guideword Heuristics for Astronauts”).

Accounting for testing work that we’ve done.
See Session-Based Test Management, and see “An Exploratory Tester’s Notebook“. Darren McMillan provides excellent examples of annotated mind maps; scroll down to the section headed “Session Reports”, and continue through “Simplifying feedback to management” and “Simplifying feedback to groups”. A forthcoming article, written by me, shows how a senior test manager tracks testing sessions at a half-day granularity level.

Programming a machine to help you to explore
See all manner of books on programming, both references and cookbooks, but for testers in particular, have a look at Brian Marick’s Everyday Scripting with Ruby. Check out Pete Houghton’s splendid examples of exploratory test automation that begin here. Cem Kaner (often in collaboration with Doug Hoffman) write extensively about automation-assisted exploratory testing; an example is here.

Alerting people to potential problems in the product
In general, bug reporting systems provide one way to handle the task of recording and reporting problems in the product. James Bach provides an example of a report that he provided to a client (along with a more informal account of the session).

Guiding a tester’s actions over a test session
Guiding a tester involves skills like chartering and checklisting. Start with the documentation on Session Based Test Management ( Selena Delesie has produced an excellent blog post on chartering exploratory testing sessions. The title of Cem Kaner’s presentation at CAST 2008, The Value of Checklists and the Danger of Scripts: What legal training suggests for testers describes the content perfectly. Michael Hunter’s You Are Not Done Yet lists can be used and adapted to your context as a set of checklists.

To identify structures in the application or service
The “Product Elements” section in the Heuristic Test Strategy Model provides a kind of framework for documenting product structures. In the RST Appendices, the test notes for “Putt Putt Saves the Zoo” and “Diskmapper”, and the “OWL Quality Plan” provide examples of identifying several different structures in the programs under test. Mind mapping provides a means of describing and illustrating structures, too; see Darren McMillan’s examples here and here. Ruud Cox and Ru Cindrea used a mind map of product elements to help win the Best Bug Report award in the Test Lab at EuroSTAR 2011. I’ve created a list of structures that support exploratory testing, and many of these are related to structures in the product.

Providing a description of how to use a particular test tool that we’ve crafted
While working at a bank, I developed (in Excel and VBA) a tool that could be used as an oracle and as a way of recording test results. (Thanks to non-disclosure agreements, I can describe these, but cannot provide examples.) When I left the project, I was obliged to document my work. I didn’t work on the assumption that anyone off the street would be reading the document. Instead, I presumed that anyone assigned to that testing job and to using that tool, would have the rapid learning skill to explore the tool, the product, and the business domain in a mutually supportive way. So I crafted documentation that was intended to tell testers just enough to get them exploring.

Explaining business rules to someone else on the team
I did include documentation for novices of one kind: within the documentation for that testing tool, I included a general description of how foreign exchange transactions worked from the bank’s perspective, and how appropriate accounts got credited and debited. I had learned this by reverse-engineering use cases and consulting with the local business analyst. I summarized it with a two-page document written in simple, direct language, referring disrectly to the simpler use cases and explaining the more confusing bits in more detail. For those whose learning style was oriented toward code, I also described the tables and array formulas that applied the business rules.

Outlining scenarios in which the product might be used or tested
I discuss some issues about scenarios here—why they’re important, and why it’s important to keep them open-ended and open to interpretation. It’s more important to record than to prescribe, since in a good scenario, you’ll observe and discover much more than you’ve articulated in advance. Cem Kaner gives ideas on how to produce scenarios; Hans Buwalda presents examples of soap opera testing.

Identifying required tester skill
People with skill don’t need prescriptive documentation for every little thing. Responsible managers identify the skills needed to test, and who commit to employing people who either have those skills or can develop them quickly. James Bach eliminated 50 pages of otiose documentation with two paragraphs. (Otiose is a marvelous word; it’s fun to look it up in a thesaurus.)

Identifying, for a tester, a particular explicit sequence of actions to perform, input to provide, and observations to make.
Again, a document that attempts to specify exactly what a tester should do is the hallmark of scripted testing. James Bach articulates a paradox that has not yet been noted clearly in our craft: in order to perform a scripted test well, you need signficant amounts of skill and tacit knowledge (and you also need to ignore the script on occasion, and you need to know when those occasions are). There’s another interesting issue here: preparing such documents usually depends on exploratory activity. There’s no script to tell you how to write a script. (You might argue there’s one exception. You can follow this script to write a test script: take each line of a requirements document, and add the words “Verify that” to the beginning of each line.)

Now, just as you can perform testing badly using any approach, you can perform exploratory testing and document it inappropriately, either by under-documenting it OR over-documenting it using any of the kinds of documentation above. But, as this document shows, the notion that exploratory testing is by its nature undocumented is not only ignorant, but aggressively ignorant about both testing and documentation. Whenever you see someone claim that exploratory testing is undocumented, I’d ask you to help by setting the record straight. Feel free to refer to this blog post, if you find it helpful; also, please point me to other exemplars of excellent documentation that are consistent with exploratory approaches. If we all work together, we can bury this myth, while providing excellent records and reports for our clients.

Want to know more? Learn about Rapid Software Testing classes here.

4 responses to “What Exploratory Testing Is Not (Part 5): Undocumented Testing”

  1. Sharath says:

    Hi Michael,

    In our last assignment we used mind maps for regression testing. It was easy to record test ideas in a mind map as a checklist when the idea was fresh in the mind. The mind map was also easy to maintain and share. The map helped us when we had show n tells to the product owners and hand over to BAU team at project closure.
    I have put the deatils in my blog @

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