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Automation may be the most efficient way to execute a test case, but companies will often need to consider unknowns during the testing process, which requires an ability to perform exploratory testing.

Exploratory testing is a manual process used to learn as much as possible about a piece of software. It helps to identify risks, form new test cases, uncover defects, and find new directions for the project. At its core, it's about accepting that you don't know everything about your product, but you're interested in understanding.

When it comes to software testing, it's generally understood that automation doesn't test, it checks. If you know what outcomes to expect from the testing process, then automation is the best choice for checking the accuracy of those outcomes, but if you're looking for new insights or unknown issues, it's time to explore. 

Why Perform Exploratory Testing? 

When systems increase in size and complexity, you cannot just cross your fingers, switch on automated testing, and hope that everything turns out fine. As stated before, with automation alone, you are only checking what you know, but what about everything else? What about all of the possible situations that nobody has imagined? What about the potential risks that could arise from the unknown?

Exploring a product is the process of proactively facing those situations, unearthing the risks, and finding the right answers. It's a knowledge-building practice that results in higher quality products and, over time, simplified testing processes.

With the knowledge and information gathered from one exploration, you can inform the next, continuously, ad infinitum, resulting in more important discoveries. Furthermore, once you better understand your application, you can start to automate more processes and improve the efficiency of your testing. 

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How to Start Exploring

While there is no prescribed set of steps to get started with exploratory testing, we have some advice for getting the ball rolling.

Firstly, go into exploratory testing with a sense of humbleness. Accept that nobody has all the answers and your product is not perfect. After all, as the great Isaac Newton once said, "what we know is a drop; what we don't know is an ocean".

Take Google and Microsoft, for example. These tech giants perform millions of automated test cases every day, but they still get countless user complaints about defects that testers never considered. Even with seemingly infinite resources, no company is immune to the many possibilities that arise when the product is in the users' hands.

The sooner companies recognize this fact, the sooner they should start with exploratory testing. Once that case has been identified, the next step is to start learning about it.

Exploring requires a human tester, first of all, and the best explorer is someone who has a lot of experience working on the testing side. You can have people close to the business exploring the application as well, like using an experienced salesman to test a sales-based application or feature. Either way, with the right training and the right mindset, companies can quickly get started on their exploratory journey.

There are some well-defined techniques for the process, such as "tour testing", which is a structured approach to testing based on specific themes. For instance, you might want to only tour and test new features, or go on a tour of the help section to see if the documentation is up to scratch. When insights are gathered on single themes or aspects of the application, these exploratory testing tours combine to form the big picture.

This technique is just one of many, so companies have to decide which approach is best suited to their product, representing a necessary challenge in the process. 

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Addressing the Challenges with Exploratory Testing

While exploratory testing sounds basic, it's not just about "ad hoc" testing, or playing with the application and hoping for the best. Testers need to take specific paths and strategize.

Learning the most effective techniques for exploratory testing requires some form of investment, whether it means hiring an expert, establishing training courses, or redirecting resources internally to get the job done. Whatever the case, the insights gathered will result in long-term value when testing is performed and implemented correctly, so the costs are always worth it.

A company's end goal should be the ability to track the entirety of the exploration process and apply it to every product. However, without a full understanding of the process and the expectations behind it, there is a risk that companies will not see any value and will stop doing it. To prevent this risk, testers should record all testing results and then follow up on them religiously. By keeping them front-and-center, teams can identify what testing sessions have been completed and which ones are queued up. Likewise, when finding a defect it should be communicated and built into the workflow.

The Power of Exploratory Testing 

The cycle of exploratory testing is extremely powerful as companies begin to discover new things that become inputs for further automated testing.

Once you know something, once you discover it through exploration, it becomes part of the company's understanding of a product, which acts as a baseline for automation—if something can be done the same way every time, following the same steps, then it can be automated, the results can be compared, and you can see if it is working as expected.

In the end, more automation means more time to add more value to your customers, which is why a comprehensive combination of both checking and exploring will greatly enhance your software products. 

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