Simplicity and Precision: Test Planning In Agile Projects

1/23/2013 6:33:14 PM

On typical, traditional, phased and gated projects, the work flow might look something like this: develop requirements, create a high-level test plan, create test scripts for each requirement, execute tests, update tests, and report. A set of requirements is delivered to the delivery team, who must figure out how to design, code, and test the final implementation. Architects decide how to design the system, which is then handed over to programmers to code. Testers may or may not have been involved in reviewing the requirements, but they are expected to create a high-level test plan following a template such as IEEE provides. The testers then create test scripts or procedures. When the code is delivered, whether it is piecemeal or all at once, the tests are executed and bugs are reported, fixed, and retested. Test cases are updated. Tests may or may not be automated once functionality is stable.

Description: The levels of precision are important for test planning

The levels of precision are important for test planning

In agile, we don’t know all the details of each feature at the beginning of the projects, so we need to adapt our approach. Using agile principles of simplicity and iterative development, we look at levels of precision and ask what information the team and stakeholders need to know at each level. The levels of precision that are important for test planning are:

·         Product release: Multiple teams working on a single product

·         Feature teams: A single team working on a product the only team, or perhaps part of a larger product release

·         Feature or epic: Some capability or piece of functionality that is useful to the business.

·         Story: A small, testable chunk of functionality, implementable within an iteration

For consistency of terms, let’s assume we have a three-month product release with two-week iterations for each of four feature teams. There are multiple features that each team completes in the release cycle.

In the next sections, we’ll explore the level of planning, types of testing, and the documentation that might be expected at each of the four levels described above.

Product release

At the product-release level, teams should have a good idea of the product vision. An overall test approach should take into account dependencies between teams or between features – for example, how to coordinate performance and load testing that individual teams might not be able to do sufficiently in their test environments. Consider economies of scale for tests such as interoperability, browser compatibility, or mobile devices. Also, think about what additional testing needs to be done during the end game – the time needed before releasing a product to production to commercialize it. One example might be final user acceptance tests. This test approach should cover what is important to this product release and may also include the need for new test tools or environments. The size of the “document” might vary depending on the number of teams involved and the complexity of the product, but I recommend keeping it as simple and clear as you can.

Feature teams

Each feature team works with its product owner to determine how much work they might get done during the release cycle. Often, a release-planning session is held when teams size the stories and features in their product backlog. Testers help during the planning session by asking clarifying questions that may help the team determine the “bigness” of the story. Impacts to the system as a whole should be considered at this time. Use an exploratory mindset to consider what performance or security concerns might there be, or whether this story will affect other functionality. The answers to these questions may be captured in the story, but I also like to take this opportunity to start writing test ideas in my notebook for future use. It doesn’t cost anything to capture these ideas and, if I don’t use them, I can cross them out later.

Description: Each feature team works with its product owner to determine how much work they might get done during the release cycle

Each feature team works with its product owner to determine how much work they might get done during the release cycle

At the release level, sometimes a test document is required. Before you create one, think about who will use it and why they want it. If you need some form of document, keep it as simple as possible – preferably one page long. Since the functionality is not set yet, there is no point including any details of scope unless there is a risk involved that others need to know. If a document is not needed, I record the testing risks and assumptions I want to monitor on a whiteboard that is visible to the team.

Recently at a conference, a colleague, Huib Schoots, said that instead of embedding high-level feature and story tests in a document that agile-resistant managers demanded, he used a mind map to capture those details. The mind map satisfied the managers, allowed him to keep to agile principles of simplicity, and enabled him to stick to an one-page test plan to capture the important information.

Think about developing personas and tours for extra exploratory test ideas and coverage of the application. Another easy tool that is effective at the release level for capturing high-level test ideas is a test matrix. For maximum effectiveness, use collaboration to generate the test ideas for the matrix. When tools like these are used and made visible, it provides a different viewpoint into testing.

Features or Epics

As features (some business-value capability) are broken up into stories, we need to make sure they are testable so that the team gets into the cadence of coding and testing each story until it is “done”. There is a danger that teams work at too low a level and forget about the bigger picture: the feature. Work with your team’s product owner to create high-level acceptance tests (examples of expected behaviors and misbehaviors) for the feature. This will help define the scope and keep the business value visible. Mind maps are powerful tools for generating test ideas at any level, but I find creating them for each feature the most valuable. Try collaborating with the whole team on a testing mind map before breaking it down into stories. It is a way to explore some of the possible issues before they arise.

Description: There is a danger that teams work at too low a level and forget about the bigger picture: the feature

There is a danger that teams work at too low a level and forget about the bigger picture: the feature

Like in the release-planning session, these test ideas can be saved for when we really need them at the story level and you have a simple document maybe a picture of the whiteboard or flipchart. Again, I often jot down additional test ideas in my notebook for later.

One idea that I have found works well for teams is to create an extra story for each feature called “Test the Feature.” The tasks will be mostly testing tasks, such as “Explore the Feature,” “Perform Load Test,” etc. I also recommend including a task called “Automate the Workflow” that can be done through the GUI when the feature is stable. Including a story like this ensures that the feature testing is not forgotten.


Once we are working at the story level, we start getting into more detail, for each story, we need high-level acceptance tests an example of expected behavior and at least one example of misbehavior to define the scope of the story. I encourage doing this during story readiness sessions (pre-planning or backlog grooming). There are many variations on how to define these tests, and it often depends on the tool you use.

Once we have these acceptance tests, we can start the conversation either in pre-planning or in the iteration-planning session. We get into more details, and again we can explore other scenarios to help ensure that the team shares a common understanding. Our tests for the story evolve from these conversations and can be expanded during the iteration. I find it valuable to start writing my test ideas and variations during story-readiness meetings, continue during iteration planning, and then use all the tools in my toolbox to define other tests that will prove the story works as expected. Once this list is “complete,” I suggest reviewing with the product owner or another tester and then collaborating with the programmers who are working on the story to ensure that you have the same understanding and to plan the needed automation.

Remember to write down exploratory test ideas through all of this, so the exploratory test charters will be ready when the code is complete.

Test results

Test results are strongly related to test planning especially for detailed tests. Visibility and transparency are some of the biggest benefits in agile projects, so I suggest that test results should be readily available all the time. Ideally, you want to extract them from your automation framework or continuous integration environment, find simple ways to keep track of your exploratory testing so you can review the results when you need to. Another way to make results visible is to use tools like low-tech dashboards. Spending time collating results does not add value to the customer or the team.


In summary, plan collaboratively, keep it simple, make working at the right level of precision valuable so you have the right information, and keep test results visible.

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