Blog: Breaking the Test Case Addiction (Part 5)

In our coaching session (which started here), Frieda was still playing the part of a manager who was fixated on test cases—and doing it very well. She played a typical management card: “What about learning about the product? Aren’t test cases a good way to do that?”

In Rapid Software Testing, we say that testing is evaluating a product by learning about it through exploration and experimentation, which includes questioning, modeling, studying, manipulating, making inferences, etc. So learning is an essential part of testing. There are lots of artifacts and people that testers could interact with to start learning about the product, which I’ve discussed already. Let’s look at why making a tester work through test cases might not be such a good approach.

Though test cases are touted as a means of learning about the product, my personal experience is that they’re not very helpful at all for that purpose. Have you ever driven somewhere, being guided by a list of instructions from Google Maps, synthesized speech from a navigation system, or even spoken instructions from another person? My experience is that having someone else direct my actions disconnects me from wayfinding and sensemaking. When I get to my destination, I’m not sure how I got there, and I’m not sure I could find my way back.

If I want to learn something and have it stick, a significant part of my learning must be self-guided. From time to time, I must make sense of where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going. I must experience some degree of confusion and little obstacles along the way. I must notice things that are interesting and important to me that I can connect to the journey. I must have the freedom to make and correct little mistakes.

Following detailed instructions might aid in accomplishing certain kinds of tasks efficiently. However, following instructions can get in the way of learning something, and the primary mission of testing is to learn about the product and its status.

You could change the assignment by challenging the tester to walk through a set of test cases to find problems in them, or to try to divine the motivation for them, and that may generate some useful insights.

But if you really want testers to learn about the product, here’s how I’d do it: give them a mission to learn about the product. Today we’ll look at instances of learning missions that you can apply early in the tester’s engagement or your own. Such missions tend to be broad and open, and less targeted towards specific risks and problems than they might be later. I’ll provide a few examples, with comments after each one.

“Interview the product manager about the new feature. Identify three to six user roles, and (in addition to your other notes) create sketches or whiteboard diagrams of some common instances of how they might use the feature. In your conversation, raise and discuss the possibility of obstacles or interruptions that might impede the workflow. Take notes and photos.”

As the principles of context-driven testing note, the product is a solution. If the problem isn’t solved, the product doesn’t work. When the product poses new problems, it might not be working either from the customer’s perspective.

“Attend the planning session for the new feature. Ask for descriptions of what we’re building; who we’re building it for; what kind of problems they might experience; and how we would recognize them as problems. Raise questions periodically about testability. Take minutes of the discussions in the meeting.”

Planning meetings tend to be focused on envisioning success; on intention. Those meetings present opportunities to talk anticipating failure; on how we or the customer might not achieve our goals, or might encounter problems. Planning a product involves planning ways of noticing how it might go wrong, too.

“Perform a walkthrough of this component’s functionality with a developer or a senior tester. Gather instances of functions in the product, or data that it processes, that might represent exceptions or extremes. Collect sets of ideas for test conditions that might trigger extreme or exceptional behaviour, or that might put the product in an unstable state. Create a risk list, with particular focus on threats to capability, reliability, and data integrity that might lead to functional errors or data loss.”

In Rapid Software Testing parlance, a test condition is something that can be examined during a test, or something that might change the outcome of a test. It seems to me that when people use formalized procedural test cases, often their intention is to examine particular test conditions. However, those conditions can be collected and examined using many different kinds of artifacts: tables, lists, annotated diagrams or flowcharts, mind maps…

“Review the specification for the product with the writer of the user manual. In addition to any notes or diagrams that you keep, code the contents of the specification. (Note: “code” is used here in the sense used in qualitative research; not in the sense of writing computer code.) That is, for each numbered paragraph, try to identify at least one and up to three quality criteria that are explicitly or implicitly mentioned. Collate the results and look for quality criteria that are barely mentioned or missing altogether, and be on the lookout for mysterious silences.”

There’s a common misconception about testing: that testers look for inconsistencies between the product and a description of the product, and that’s all. But excellent testers look at the product, at descriptions of the product, and at intentions for the product, and seek inconsistencies between all of those things. Many of our intentions are tacit, not explicit. Note also that the designer’s model of the user’s task may be significantly different from the user’s model.

Notice that each example above includes an information mission. Each one includes a mandate to produce specific, reviewable artifacts, so that the tester’s learning can be evaluated with conversation and documented evidence. Debriefing and relating learning to others is an important part of testing in general, and session-based test management in particular.

Each example also involves collaboration with other people on the team, so that inconsistencies between perspectives can be identified and discussed. And notice: these are examples. They are not templates to be followed. It’s important that you develop your own missions, suited to the context in which you’re working.

At early stages of the tester’s engagement, finding problems is not the focus. Learning is. Nonetheless, as one beneficial side effect, the learning may reveal some errors or inconsistencies before they can turn into bugs in the product. As another benefit, testers and teams can collect ideas for product and project risk lists. Finally, the learning might reveal test conditions that can usefully be checked with tools, or that might be important to verify via explicit procedures.

Back to the coaching session. “Sometimes managers say that it’s important to give testers explicit instructions when we’re dealing with an offshore team whose first language is not English”, said Frieda.

Would test cases really make that problem go away? Presumably the test cases and the product would be written in English too. If the testers don’t understand English well, then they’ll scarcely be able to read the test cases well, or to comprehend the requirements or the standards, or to understand what the product is trying to tell them through its (presumably also English) user interface.

Maybe the product and the surrounding artifacts are translated from English into the testers’ native language. That addresses one kind of problem, but introduces a new one: requirements and specifications and designs and jargon routinely get misinterpreted even when everyone is working in English. When that material is translated, some meaning is inevitably changed or lost in translation. All of these problems will need attention and management.

If a product does something important, presumably there’s a risk of important problems, many of which will be unanticipated by test cases. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to have skilled testers learn the product reasonably rapidly but also deeply to prepare them to seek and recognize problems that matter?

When testers are up and running on a project, there are several approaches towards focusing their work without over-focusing it. I’ve mentioned a few already. We’ll look at another one of those next.

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

3 responses to “Breaking the Test Case Addiction (Part 5)”

  1. […] Breaking the Test Case Addiction (Part 5) Written by: Michael Bolton […]

  2. Michael Adam says:

    This series of blog post have so useful for me. They sum up my own thoughts of ‘test cases’ over the years. I had to battle trying to explain this to people (even testers) around me, so having this on hand is extremely helpful.

    Better still you have answered one question I was about to tackle for a project: how do ‘test cases’ factor into regulations and auditing. Just read and understand what the requirements are from the ‘regulators and auditors’, like we do as testers for any fuzzy requirements we have to deal with when working on any project.

    Thanks Michael

    Michael replies: Thank you for the thanks. It’s good to know I’ve been helpful to you.

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