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How Does Agile Testing Work and Why Does It Make So Much Sense?

Quality and reliability standards today for software are higher than ever and new approaches to software testing are essential to meet those goals. An Agile development approach provides a excellent approach to meet that challenge.

Agile Testing

How Is Traditional Software Testing Done?

In a traditional software testing approach, a separate and independent QA organization normally does the testing:

  • The development team typically turns over software to the QA organization for testing at the end of the project
  • That normally happens after all development is complete.

That method of testing is very consistent with a “Waterfall” style of development. A Waterfall project typically consists of phases that might look something like this:

That’s been the traditional way that software development and testing has been done for a long time.

How Is Agile Testing Different?

Agile takes a fundamentally different approach to the whole development process (not just testing).

  • First of all, Agile does not break up a project into phases as the Waterfall model does
  • It breaks up a project by chunks of functionality and uses a much more integrated approach to develop and test each “chunk” of functionality

There are two major differences that have a big impact on how testing is done:

  • Incremental Development Approach
  • Integral Testing Approach

We will discuss each of these in the following sections.

1. Incremental Development Approach

Instead of developing and testing the complete functionality of the project as one big effort:

  • The functionality is broken up into small increments called “user stories” and
  • The work to be done to develop those user stories is broken up into sprints. Each of those sprints are typically 2-4 weeks long
  • The work in each sprint includes testing as well as development

Ideally, at the end of each sprint, fully-tested software for that portion of functionality should be ready for release.

2. Integral Testing Approach

Instead of testing being done by a separate and independent QA organization:

  • The testing function is an integral part of the Agile team, and
  • As soon as software is sufficiently complete, it is tested

It is worthwhile to note that integration of testing with development does not necessarily mean that developers do their own testing. Within an Agile development team:

  • There is value in having people who are specialized and trained in testing
  • Having developers test their own code is generally not a very good idea

What Are the Advantages of the Agile Approach?

There are several significant advantages to the Agile testing approach.

1. Proactive Rather than Reactive Approach

Agile testing is a more proactive approach to eliminate defects at the source. A reactive approach to find and fix defects later can require a lot more rework.

2. Immediate Feedback to Developers

An Agile testing approach provides immediate feedback to the development team. If difficult software bugs go unresolved, they can compound themselves and that can make it much more difficult find and resolve the defects.

3. Quality is Not Someone Else’s Responsibility

Agile testing makes the quality of the product an integral part of the development process. The development team producing the product owns responsibility for the quality of the product they produce. It is not someone else’s responsibility.

In the traditional Waterfall-style development process, it is not uncommon for the development team to throw code “over the fence” to QA. They put the responsibility on QA to find any bugs.

The Roots in Total Quality Management (TQM)

In order to understand why this approach makes so much sense, it’s useful to understand the deeper roots that influenced it:

  • Agile is heavily based on the principles in Total Quality Management (TQM)
  • TQM was originally developed for manufacturing by Dr. W. Edwards Deming
  • The quality of the Japanese automobile industry was improved significantly as a direct result of TQM,
  • It is relatively easy to extend the TQM principles to software development.

TQM emphasized a major shift in thinking from

  • A reactive “Quality Control” approach that was heavily based on inspection to
  • A more proactive “Quality Assurance” approach to go upstream in the process to eliminate defects at the source

That makes sense for a number of reasons:

  • Resources required to perform the inspection are costly
  • Defects that are found after the work is already done can result in costly and unnecessary scrap and rework
  • Any inspection approach is based on sampling is not a thorough approach for finding defects. Some defects will likely slip through when you use sampling resulting in relatively low levels of quality

It is easy to see how these same factors apply to a software environment. Many software testing processes have been based on an old-fashioned quality control approach. which is based heavily on inspection.


Overall Summary

A major shift in thinking is essential to more effectively test software and to reach much higher levels of quality and reliability.

  • The principles of Total Quality Management (TQM) are a good foundation for this shift in thinking
  • Total Quality Management (TQM) dramatically improved the quality of products in the Japanese automobile industry
  • TQM principles can dramatically improve the quality and reliability of software

That shift in thinking that is based on TQM principles is well-integrated into an Agile/Scrum development and testing process

Related Articles

Check out the following related articles on “Agile Testing”:

Additional Resources

Resources for Agile Project Management Online Training.

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