Sunday, August 15, 2021

The Ideal Test Plan

A colleague pinged me the other day, asking about an "ideal test plan" and wondering whether I could suggest something.

Not without a bit more information, I said.

OK, they said.

Who needs the plan, for what purpose? I asked.

Their response: it's for internal use, to improve documentation, and provide a standard structure.

We work in a medical context and have strict compliance requirements, so I wondered aloud whether the plan is needed for audit, or to show to customers?

It's not, they replied, it's just for the team.

Smiling now, I stopped asking questions and delivered the good news that I had what they were looking for.

Yes? they asked, in anticipation.

Naturally I paused for dramatic effect and to enhance the appearance of deep wisdom, before saying: the ideal plan is one that works for you.

Which is great and all that, but not heavy on practical advice.


I am currently running a project at the Association for Software Testing and there is a plan for it. In fact, there are plans.

1. I have a Google doc, shared with the rest of the AST Board, in which I've stated the Why of the project, in one sentence, at the top. The Why is the outcome we seek, independent of the way we might choose to achieve it. It's backed up by a few words about how we arrived at this need. 

The rest of the doc is a time-stamped log of the research I did, decisions we made, decisions still to make, proposals to choose from, and actions I took. This is the plan as a goal and the evolution of our thinking.

2. I have a Google sheet (anonymised version here) in which I have summarised the current state and the specific state we have decided to go for, based on the conversations around (1). I have done this as a pair of adjacent tables where I have highlighted the most important changes as a visual diff, and provided a bullet list of key consequences of the changes. 

It is structured deliberately for ease of consumption in order that my colleagues can review, compare to their understanding of our agreed approach, and approve or object. This is also the plan, the specific implementation we have decided we will aim for.

3. In the same Google sheet I have another table, this one with four columns: Action, Where, Notes, Status. Each row is a task I'll need to do to move from where we are to where we want to be. It lists the task, the place it needs to be done, references to decisions or resources, and whether it's To Do, Doing, or Done. 

I'm a fan of conditional formatting, so that final column is automatically either red, orange, or green depending on the status. This too is the plan, the list of jobs I'll carry out and where we are with that.

Is it the ideal plan (or plans)? Well, it (or they) are doing what I need them to: providing visibility of what we're trying to do, how, when, where, and why.


Plans can and do take many forms. Off the top of my head I have examples of all of these in play right now: runbooks, checklists, trello cards, kanban boards, Jira tickets, to do lists, mind maps, and unrefined bundles of open-ended what-ifs in my head.

The plan format(s) for the AST project I talked about were chosen in the order you see them listed, tactically, to suit the need that I had at the point I wanted to commit to sharing them. I am not omnisicient. If at some point what I'd got wasn't serving my need I would have chosen a different way.

The plan-as-goal (1) is a format that I find to be a useful default for longish projects with unknowns. It's similar to the way that I record test notes for pieces of work that run for a while, perhaps over days, in a single thread.

The side-by-side comparison in the plan-as-implementation (2) evolved from a table that another board member created to help us discuss options during one of our discussions. With hindsight, and only a little reformatting and decoration, I realised that I could succinctly summarise the plan using it, so I did.

A set of tasks in the-plan-as-list (3) is not remotely original, but I enjoy the way that listing them explicitly helps me to see connections and ordering and grouping; enables others to spot things I've missed; and helps me not to forget something when I've had to pause the work for a while.


The different formats of plan that I've mentioned have pros and cons. The kinds of factors I might consider when choosing a format include:

  • what is the purpose of this plan (for me)?
  • who needs to see this plan?
  • what is the purpose of this plan (for others)?
  • what granularity am I working at?
  • what kind of information do I want to record?
  • what timespan will it be needed for?
  • will it be a living plan or a static one?
  • will I be recording ongoing status in it?
  • will I be collaborating in it, or am I the sole author with others as consumers?
  • will the plan be re-used?
  • what external constraints are there on this plan?
  • what proportion of time available is worth investing in planning for this project?

The lower the level the more I am likely to go for a list, tickets, or other artefacts that represent work items; for higher level I'll reach for a textual, tabular, or graphical representation.

For plans that need to be shared and collaborated on, I'll invest time in scaffolding such as a README, a Background section with references to earlier work, or naming schemes that help to track the ideas or tasks in play easily.

Using specialist tools for ongoing status monitoring will sometimes be appropriate. Other times it makes sense to keep status with other versions of the plan. The tools you have acess to and are familiar with is an important aspect of that decision.

When re-use is likely — such as in runbooks for repeated tasks — I'll try to strip the plan down to something that can be easily followed and make it a checklist. I'll try to flag actions and commentary differently to reduce the cognitive load on the reader.

If the plan is likely to be long-lived or needed as a record for posterity I will take care to put in dates, cross-references to related work, and decision points. Context that seems prominent now will not be so prominent in a few weeks.


If I had written down a plan for this post (which I didn't) I can tell you that it would not have included section dividers. In over 500 posts on Hiccupps, I have never used them this way before.

The up-front plan, to the extent that there was one, was to get out of my head the thoughts that had been swimming around in there since my colleague asked me for that ideal test plan. The dividers were initially a way to separate blobs of thought in the text file I used for drafting. During the writing I decided they served a useful purpose in breaking the text up, signalling that a different angle was being considered. So I left them in. A tactical decision.

That's not to say there was no planning. In the moment, as I had ideas spurred from the ideas I was trying to get down, I would add notes to lists in the sections that were evolving. Sometimes I created a new section. Sometimes I merged existing sections. Or deleted them. Contextual decisions, based on what I knew at that time. I was more likely to delete as I got further into the work. In this writing, and in general, I will tend to preserve more ideas in my plan the less well-formed it is, even if they are relegated to some kind of 'just in case' bucket.

And, again, this talk of tactics and context is not to reject up front planning. My experience and instinct is that I tend towards strategic, why-based, big-picture plans before I start, and to refining tactically as I go. You can see precisely this trajectory in the AST project I described.

This preference is not remotely original, although if you've ever worked anywhere that plans anything you will have seen that it's by no means universal.


To finish, then, back to that ideal test plan. 

I recently joined the Exploratory Testing Slack instance set up by Maaret Pyhäjärvi and Ru Cindrea.  One of the discussions in there last week was about planning exploratory testing and the use of chartering

The term is somewhat loaded, not distinguishing well between the act of generating a specific set of tasks to be performed up front, choosing a piece of work to perform, and creating artefacts that describe the work performed.

I recognise all of these concepts but I realise that I have avoided the use of charter terminology in my own testing practice. Instead, I will try to understand what we're testing and why and what the constraints on that are. Having established the context, I'll try to identify what might be important to look at and for, I'll find a way to choose between those things, and then I'll pick something from the set to work on. 

I might use a simple list, a mind map, or even a spreadsheet to represent the test ideas, constraints, and so on. I will default to using a text file for the notes I take during the testing itself.

Interestingly, the testing is a microcosm of the whole. I start by being explicit about my mission, I like Elisabeth Hendrickson's template: explore X using Y to achieve Z. It encapsulates the goal, the constraints, and the why. Then I work tactically and in context. 

All of which means that I can now probably give a better answer than the glib one I tossed out at the beginning of this stream of consciousness.

The ideal way is that I plan my work, but I plan it in a context-driven way, taking into account whatever constraints exist, and using whatever representations, approaches, and tools are either required or serve my purpose. I want to understand the current strategy, but be free to change the tactics as the situation demands, and also to be able to question the strategy at any point. Seeking context-free perfection is a dead end.


1 comment:

  1. As always, great article.
    Curated as a part of #21st issue of Software Testing notes.