The what, why, and how of exploratory testing

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The increasing adoption of test automation across industries for software development and testing gave rise to a general belief that manual testing will soon become extinct and automation will take over all the testing processes. 

Although it is widely believed, it is not true. 

While automation is the right choice when it comes to iterative testing processes such as regression tests, it is of little help when a software application testing requires a creative approach. 

Robert Cecil Martin, one of the founders of the Agile Manifesto talks about exploratory testing and automation –  

“We don’t need humans doing something that a machine can do. What we do want the human testers doing is exploratory testing. Exploratory testing is a creative endeavor in which human testers explore the behavior of the system in an attempt to characterize its behaviors; both documented and undocumented.” 

The International Software Testing Qualifications Board (ISTQB) defines exploratory testing as –  

“Exploratory testing is an informal test design technique where the tester actively controls the design of the tests as those tests are performed and uses information gained while testing to design new and better tests. 

Let us get into the details. 

What is exploratory testing? 

Usually, in a Software development lifecycle, the test requirements, objectives, and strategies are pre-defined. While testing such software applications, the testers follow the pre-defined testing approach and look for the defects or bugs only within the set limits of the requirements.  

In such types of scripted testing, the test cases are determined in advance. Therefore, the scripted tests make a good candidate for automation. 

Sometimes, these scripted test requirements may miss critical scenarios that often present as bugs into production. And, testers do not look for these scenarios because they were not in the requirements. 

Exploratory testing allows the testers to find the bugs that they are not looking for. Exploratory testing is about investigating a software application to discover hidden defects while offering the scope of continuously improving the code for the release. 

Exploratory testing is about being creative and following the gut. It is more of an ad-hoc or freestyle way of exposing critical bugs that may prove fatal into production. 

Why is exploratory testing needed? 

Agile software development life cycles are fast-moving, performing releases in a span of hours to days or weeks. Undoubtedly, test automation plays a key role in ensuring that the releases happen within the set deadlines as automated regression tests are run to check if the new changes have affected the existing code in any way. 

At the same time, when a new feature or functionality is added, it is essential to bring in an end-user’s perspective while testing the software for quality. 

To understand the need of exploratory testing, let’s take a look at some of the principles on which Agile manifesto: 

  • Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software. 
  • Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale. 

An ideal testing strategy that results in the highest quality software at high speed is a marriage between the manual and test automation processes, and the Agile principles attest to that. 

Let us look at the aforementioned principles from two different perspectives to prove our point. 

  • Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software. 
  • Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale. 

Early, continuous, frequently, and shorter timescale – these are the benefits that test automation brings to an Agile testing lifecycle. 

  • Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software. 
  • Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale. 

Customer satisfaction, valuable software, and working functionalities – these benefits are the result of a creative and investigative test approach taken during manual exploratory testing. 

Some of the reasons to undertake exploratory testing in an Agile SDLC are: 

  1. It enables you to offer continuous feedback and make changes at any stage. 
  2. It allows you to uncover bugs that may otherwise get overlooked. 
  3. By offering the scope to the testers to get creative, it covers a software to the smallest parts and improves test coverage 
  4. Taking the unscripted approach, exploratory testers learn new things about an application that improves the overall quality & productivity in the final release. 

How to perform exploratory testing? 

Although exploratory testing involves a freestyle approach, it is not random. In fact, exploratory tests are highly structured, rigorous, and require high cognitive thinking from the testers. 

Since there are no pre-defined test scripts, test requirements, or test cases, it is important to follow the following best practices while performing exploratory testing: 

  1. Test Charters: Test charters offer a starting point to the exploratory tests. They outline the areas that the tests need to concentrate on during a session, the duration of each of the sessions, delegation of responsibilities whiting the team performing these tests, the test data required, and the test environment that will be used. 
  2. Test Design Heuristics: Taking a cognitive approach and using heuristics give a structure to the ad-hoc exploratory testing. It allows testers to understand the scope of their imagination while creating the exploratory tests. The test design heuristics involve resources, constraints, and other elements in the project that may support or roadblock testing, quality criteria that needs to be adopted, test techniques employed to create the tests, among others. 
  3. Timeboxing: This is practice in which an exploratory test session is limited to a set timescale. Doing so prevents the testers from drifting into unfocused exploration and stay focused on the determined goals and scope of that session. 

How can we help 

 Cigniti has been a trusted testing partner for many organizations in various stages of adopting Agile. We have helped organizations new to Agile build in QA planning, estimation, metrics into their sprints. In case of more mature organizations, we have seamlessly integrated with their sprint teams to improve test coverage, velocity, and quality. Our frameworks for continuous test automation and performance testing have been leveraged by multiple organizations to improve their Quality Assurance and Testing practices. 

Cigniti has successfully supported variants of Agile, be it Scrum, ATDD, BDD etc. With larger organizations, we have helped scale Agile using frameworks like SAFe, SoS etc. While Agile works best with a collocated model, we have also leveraged our Distributed Agile Testing Framework to support a global delivery model. 

Schedule a discussion with us today. 


  • Cigniti Technologies

    Cigniti is the world’s leading AI & IP-led Digital Assurance and Digital Engineering services company with offices in India, the USA, Canada, the UK, the UAE, Australia, South Africa, the Czech Republic, and Singapore. We help companies accelerate their digital transformation journey across various stages of digital adoption and help them achieve market leadership.

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