Skip to main content

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.

--00--

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.

--00--

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.

--00--

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.

--00--

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.

--00--

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.

Image: https://flic.kr/p/HCMQ8B

Comments

  1. As always, great article.
    Curated as a part of #21st issue of Software Testing notes.
    https://softwaretestingnotes.substack.com/p/issue-21-software-testing-notes

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Notes on Testing Notes

Ben Dowen pinged me and others on Twitter last week , asking for "a nice concise resource to link to for a blog post - about taking good Testing notes." I didn't have one so I thought I'd write a few words on how I'm doing it at the moment for my work at Ada Health, alongside Ben. You may have read previously that I use a script to upload Markdown-based text files to Confluence . Here's the template that I start from: # Date + Title # Mission # Summary WIP! # Notes Then I fill out what I plan to do. The Mission can be as high or low level as I want it to be. Sometimes, if deeper context might be valuable I'll add a Background subsection to it. I don't fill in the Summary section until the end. It's a high-level overview of what I did, what I found, risks identified, value provided, and so on. Between the Mission and Summary I hope that a reader can see what I initially intended and what actually

Why Do They Test Software?

My friend Rachel Kibler asked me the other day "do you have a blog post about why we test software?" and I was surprised to find that, despite having touched on the topic many times, I haven't. So then I thought I'd write one. And then I thought it might be fun to crowdsource so I asked in the Association for Software Testing member's Slack, on LinkedIn , and on Twitter for reasons, one sentence each. And it was fun!  Here are the varied answers, a couple lightly edited, with thanks to everyone who contributed. Edit: I did a bit of analysis of the responses in Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 2 . --00-- Software is complicated, and the people that use it are even worse. — Andy Hird Because there is what software does, what people say it does, and what other people want it to do, and those are often not the same. — Andy Hird Because someone asked/told us to — Lee Hawkins To learn, and identify risks — Louise Perold sometimes: reducing the risk of harming people —

Enjoy Testing

  The testers at work had a lean coffee session this week. One of the questions was  "I like testing best because ..." I said that I find the combination of technical, intellectual, and social challenges endlessly enjoyable, fascinating, and stimulating. That's easy to say, and it sounds good too, but today I wondered whether my work actually reflects it. So I made a list of some of the things I did in the last working week: investigating a production problem and pairing to file an incident report finding problems in the incident reporting process feeding back in various ways to various people about the reporting process facilitating a cross-team retrospective on the Kubernetes issue that affected my team's service participating in several lengthy calibration workshops as my team merges with another trying to walk a line between presenting my perspective on things I find important and over-contributing providing feedback and advice on the process identifying a

Testing is Knowledge Work

  The Association for Software Testing is crowd-sourcing a book, Navigating the World as a Context-Driven Tester , which aims to provide responses to common questions and statements about testing from a context-driven perspective . It's being edited by Lee Hawkins who is posing questions on Twitter ,  LinkedIn ,  Slack , and the AST mailing list and then collating the replies, focusing on practice over theory. I've decided to contribute by answering briefly, and without a lot of editing or crafting, by imagining that I'm speaking to someone in software development who's acting in good faith, cares about their work and mine, but doesn't have much visibility of what testing can be. Perhaps you'd like to join me?   --00-- "We need some productivity metrics from testers" OK. I'd like to help you meet your need if I can but to do that I'll need to ask a few questions. Let's start with these: Who needs the metrics? Is there a particular pr

My Favourite Tool

Last week I did a presentation to a software testing course at EC Utbildning in Sweden titled Exploring with Automation where I demoed ways in which I use software tools to help me to test. Following up later, one of the students asked whether I had a favourite tool. A favourite tool? Wow, so simple but sooo deep!  Asking for a favourite tool could make a great interview question, to understand the breadth and depth of a candidate's knowledge about tools, how they think about an apparently basic request with deep complexity beneath (favourite for what task, on what basis, in what contexts, over what timescale?  what is a tool anyway?) and how they formulate a response to take all of that into account. I could truthfully but unhelpfully answer this question with a curt Yes or No. Or I could try and give something more nuanced. I went for the latter. At an extremely meta level I would echo Jerry Weinberg in Perfect Software : The number one te

Risk-Based Testing Averse

  Joep Schuurkes started a thread on Twitter last week. What are the alternatives to risk-based testing? I listed a few activities that I thought we might agree were testing but not explicitly driven by a risk evaluation (with a light edit to take later discussion into account): Directed. Someone asks for something to be explored. Unthinking. Run the same scripted test cases we always do, regardless of the context. Sympathetic. Looking at something to understand it, before thinking about risks explicitly. In the thread , Stu Crook challenged these, suggesting that there must be some concern behind the activities. To Stu, the writing's on the wall for risk-based testing as a term because ... Everything is risk based, the question is, what risks are you going to optimise for? And I see this perspective but it reminds me that, as so often, there is a granularity tax in c

Use the Force Multiplier

On Fridays I pair with doctors from Ada 's medical quality team. It's a fun and productive collaboration where I gain deeper insight into the way that diagnostic information is encoded in our product and they get to see a testing perspective unhindered by domain knowledge. We meet at the same time each week and decide late on our focus, choosing something that one of us is working on that's in a state where it can be shared. This week we picked up a task that I'd been hoping to get to for a while: exploring an API which takes a list of symptoms and returns a list of potential medical conditions that are consistent with those symptoms.  I was interested to know whether I could find small input differences that led to large output differences. Without domain knowledge, though, I wasn't really sure what "small" and "large" might mean. I prepared an input payload and wrote a simple shell script which did the following: make a

Done by Friday

The Association for Software Testing is crowd-sourcing a book, Navigating the World as a Context-Driven Tester , which aims to provide responses to common questions and statements about testing from a context-driven perspective . It's being edited by Lee Hawkins who is posing questions on Twitter ,  LinkedIn ,  Slack , and the AST mailing list and then collating the replies, focusing on practice over theory. I've decided to contribute by answering briefly, and without a lot of editing or crafting, by imagining that I'm speaking to someone in software development who's acting in good faith, cares about their work and mine, but doesn't have much visibility of what testing can be. Perhaps you'd like to join me?   --00--  "Will the testing be done by Friday?" If the question relates to some prior discussion about scenarios we've agreed to run through before Friday then I'll do my best to base my answer on experience gathered so far . How sim

The Great Post Office Scandal

  The Great Post Office Scandal by Nick Wallis is a depressing, dispiriting, and disheartening read. For anyone that cares about fairness and ethics in the relationship that business and technology has with individuals and wider society, at least. As a software tester working in the healthcare sector who has signed up to the ACM code of ethics through my membership of the Association for Software Testing I put myself firmly in that camp. Wallis does extraordinarily well to weave a compelling and readable narrative out of a years-long story with a large and constantly-changing cast and depth across subjects ranging from the intensely personal to extremely technical, and through procedure, jurisprudence, politics, and corporate governance. I won't try to summarise that story here (although Wikipedia takes a couple of stabs at it ) but I'll pull out a handful of threads that I think testers might be interested in: The unbelievable naivety which lead to Horizon (the system at th

A Model Project

And this is how it goes. One thing to another ... At the weekend I  was listening to Gene Kim's Idealcast interviews with Dr. Nicole Forsgren and Jez Humble . Jez Humble was talking about the importance of rapid feedback and referenced a  Brett Victor  talk that had stuck with him over the years: ... he built this little JavaScript game and he was changing parameters and the game was changing in real time. And his whole comment is like, if you can change something and see the change as you are changing it, it's incredibly powerful.   And so I looked it up in the show notes and watched it. Wow ... Inventing in Principle shows examples of experimental tooling for creative activities, particularly those that include a temporal dimension. The essential idea is to reduce the friction of having to maintain a model outside of the tool. In the image at the top, the left side is a traditional IDE and the right side is a dynamic visualisation of the function being developed. You might i