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Exploratory testing works well for identifying defects in any development phase as well as for regression or user acceptance testing (UAT).

Typically, automated tests are developed in scripts based on sequential sets of steps. Exploratory testing usually involves manual testing. However, there are significant advantages to extending test automation to include exploratory testing. Exploratory software testing works well for identifying defects in any development phase as well as for regression or user acceptance testing (UAT). The investigative style of exploratory testing adds flexibility to test design and execution.

What Is Exploratory Testing?

Exploratory testing is the process of using investigative testing techniques to find defects in software applications. Exploratory testing is often unscripted, but divided into functional areas for testers to focus on exploring each area of the application.

With exploratory testing, QA testers use both their technical expertise and knowledge of application design and purpose combined with an understanding of human behavior. Understanding the customer’s experience working with the application becomes key to effective exploratory testing. Effective exploratory tests are creative tests that manipulate the application into different states and look for points of failure.

Applying test automation to exploratory testing works well with Agile development. Exploratory tests, once mapped out, can be developed using test automation and re-executed throughout the development cycle and even into regression or release testing periods. Automating exploratory tests provides continuous and effective testing of the application’s functionality, API and database connectivity, as well as backend integrated processes.

Key Takeaways

  • Why automate exploratory tests?
  • Learn the benefits of exploratory test automation.
  • Discover test design techniques for exploratory test automation.
  • Learn the importance of automated test planning.
  • Learn effective methods of extending test coverage.
  • How to reuse exploratory tests for documentation purposes.

This guide provides information on automating exploratory tests to provide extensible, flexible and effective test coverage spanning the development cycle.

Benefits of Exploratory Test Automation

Automating exploratory tests offers several benefits including reusing scripts for test documentation, full user workflow testing, fast and flexible test design, and creation with less or no test maintenance. Automating exploratory tests also builds test automation development skills and application understanding.

Granted, the QA team must spend time mapping out all user and functional workflows within the UI and including all dependent connections or integrated backend processing. Additionally, a dedicated test environment for automation is required to control the test data and keep it realistic and refreshed as needed.

Exploratory tests once mapped out are more flexible in their design. A business may choose to test from the mapped functionality only. Or another business may take the map document and create a team charter on who creates a test story for each function. Another approach is to create a checklist of functionality and create tests for each checklist item. From there, the tester creates an automated test and executes it against each build until the next release.

Exploratory tests written in the early days of development may require editing or a rewrite if significant changes have occurred in the functionality covered in the test. Or the QA test team may create “throw-away” exploratory tests that are used once for a test cycle and then deleted or stored as test records. Exploratory tests provide effective and efficient testing with less overhead than standard scripted tests.

Other benefits of automating exploratory testing include:

  • Reduced failure analysis time
  • Improved customer-focused testing
  • Tests are usable from story or feature testing and through regression
  • Enhanced user workflow testing across the full spectrum of the application functionality
  • Works for any testing type: smoke, regression, integration, performance, usability, user acceptance, performance and basic security

Disadvantages of Exploratory Test Automation

Automating exploratory tests may become repetitive. Repetitive automated tests over time do not find defects. Additionally, by automating exploratory tests, the tester loses the creative ability to investigate the application for deeply hidden defects.

Exploratory testing gains its power from creative and investigative testing efforts. Often automated test development requires simplifying testing steps which remove the complexity of the user test scenarios. By automating exploratory tests, application defects hidden underneath the surface likely go undetected.

Automating Exploratory Testing—Planning & Test Design

When developing test automation, the first step must be planning an approach or strategy. The exercise of planning ensures the project has specific goals with business value in mind. Planning helps to map out and define risks and limitations, determine the tests to automate, create test data sets and define a test environment. Without a strategic test plan, any test automation project is doomed to chaos and failure.

The plan includes test design. Within the test strategy, decide on the test design approach. For example, should test developers create a test for each verification point or combine multiple verification points into the same test?

Additionally, test design includes the type of exploratory test. Does the team use user stories that cover different customer workflows? Are exploratory tests designed to handle multiple configuration settings or user roles?

Finally, determine what type of comments to include in the test to explain the purpose and objective. Creating a plan helps QA test developers understand the path to follow with less confusion. By defining the actions to take in a plan, there is less chance of testers duplicating work or effort. Everyone understands the goal and the tasks associated with accomplishing it.

Other benefits of developing an automated test strategy plan include:

  • Defines testing approach and tools used.
  • Aids in communicating the approach for test development and test data.
  • Provides documentation on the project goals and intended deliverables.
  • Increases successes by identifying and planning for handling risks and limitations.

Consider exploratory testing tools for managing test automation as part of the overall testing effort. Codeless Testing tools like Test Studio leverage AI/ML technology to detect code changes in the user interface and automatically update test scripts. Test maintenance needs are reduced as is the need to recreate recorded scripts.

Increasing Overall Test Coverage With Automated Exploratory Testing

Automating exploratory testing increases overall test coverage by providing tests that are fast to develop and execute regardless of the development cycle stage. QA testers use automated exploratory scripts for testing user stories regardless of whether the feature is partially or fully developed. Tests are executed against the story and then used for testing each progressive build or against the candidate release build.

Between the time the test is created and then executed, changes can be made to the test as frequently as desired. Changes typically result from additional or changed requirements or user scenarios. The more the automated test gets executed against the application, the better the increase in overall test coverage. Automated exploratory testing comes in especially handy for continuous regression testing, particularly when releases occur frequently.

Exploratory tests extend test coverage because they test beyond the happy path or expected functionality. In exploratory tests, negative testing gets included with the user workflow. Testers can script exploratory tests to specifically search for defects within a larger application function. Exploratory testing makes use of the QA tester’s application knowledge as well as their individual experience with a variety of apps.

Test Types Covered With Automated Exploratory Testing

Automated exploratory tests are useful for covering multiple types of testing including regression, integration, API and backend connectivity. Exploratory tests for regression work with both a continuous regression style as well as a typical regression execution period style. The flexibility and speed of exploratory test automation enable testers to design tests to cover various testing types and scenarios.

Other testing types covered with automated exploratory testing include:

  • UAT (user acceptance)
  • UX or usability
  • Accessibility
  • Regulatory Compliance
  • Basic Security
  • Performance

Testing tools like Test Studio can integrate many types of automated tests, so exploratory tests are just the beginning. Detect code changes, automatically update test scripts, and reduce the need for test maintenance and rewriting.

Exploratory Tests as QA Documentation

Automated exploratory tests can be reused to create QA references or application documentation. Since exploratory tests cover application functions and workflows based on user experience, the scripts, text or map may be used as documentation of application functionality.

There’s no business value in repeating work. Reusing exploratory test scripts as user documentation saves time and resources. Additionally, the ability to reuse tests also boosts the ability to meet deadlines without being interrupted by the need for quality user documentation.

Automating exploratory testing offers a variety of benefits including extending test coverage throughout the development lifecycle. Automated exploratory tests require test planning to ensure test design and development are consistent. Exploratory tests can be written from beginning to end without the need for extensive test case scripting. Tests are reusable for many forms of user documentation as well. More done at the same time.

Exploratory testing requires the will to explore an application in totality. An understanding of the application’s purpose, design and expected results are helpful but not necessary. Testers develop effective automated exploratory tests using a sense of application adventure and a willingness to think like a customer and outside the script.

About the Author

Amy Reichert

A QA test professional with 23+ years of QA testing experience within a variety of software development teams, Amy Reichert has extensive experience in QA process development & planning, team leadership/management, and QA project management.  She has worked on multiple types of software development methodologies including waterfall, agile, scrum, kanban and customized combinations. Amy enjoys continuing to improve her software testing craft by researching and writing on a variety of related topics. In her spare time, she enjoys gardening, cat management and the outdoors.


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