Few elements in your development process are as important as testing your code. We’ve found that the best way to ensure you get the most out of your testing is to set a schedule and stick to it.
Set aside time to test and fix the problems you encounter every week or two. The process of testing and fixing might look something like this:
- Code Freeze. Everybody stops coding and prepares for testing. Everyone.
- Everyone tests. Preferably not their own modules.
- Team leads triage the issues. This is where most testing strategies break down. Issues don’t organize themselves and many teams don’t take the time to organize.
- Fix. Everyone spends dedicated time fixing the issues without working on any new code. Testing is useless without time dedicated to fixing.
With that said, let’s focus on an oft overlooked part of the testing process – triaging.
What is it?
Triaging is about prioritizing. The word comes from the medical world, where it refers to the process of prioritizing patients based on the severity of their problems.
When resources are limited – and resources are almost always limited – triaging is a way of helping as many people as possible and in the right order. In the ER, for example, that means treating the person having a heart attack before moving to the person with a broken toe.
In application development triaging means sorting through all the issues you discover in testing and organizing the resulting work based on priority.
Sometimes priority is obvious, some times it’s not. That’s why triaging takes time and usually involves a project manager and key stakeholder or client.
Why do it?
Testing creates a lot of work because it’s designed to find as many problems as possible. To stick with the medical analogy, testing is what brings your patients to the door.
The result of a good testing phase will be an abundance of work to do, which can be overwhelming. Fail to properly triage your results and you won’t know what to do or where to start, you’ll simply be drowning in a sea of bugs and issues.
Triaging is also a way to build consensus and agreement on the priority, organization, and assignment of work.
How does Triaging Work?
Successful triaging depends on a consistent process. In the ER there is an intake process which assesses the severity of the problem and then sets the priority accordingly.
The process is more or less the same in software development.
The first step is setting the priority for each issue you discovered during the actual testing. Figuring out the priority of an issue is the most complex problem in the process, but you’ll be more successful at this the more you can involve the client or primary stakeholder and build consensus around which issues are truly most important.
Part of what makes prioritization difficult is determining scope. Many “bugs” will actually be enhancements. What qualifies as a bug and what’s an enhancement will vary by project and client, which is why it’s key to have the client involved in the decision process.
Bring the client into the triage process helps ensure that your prioritizing matches the client’s expectations. By setting priorities with the client, disagreements can be caught before they become problems down the road.
Another key part of setting priorities is acknowledging the trade-offs involved. Failure to take into account, for instance, the time needed to fix something, will turn your priorities into wishful thinking rather than accurate and manageable tasks for your team. Wishful thinking does not get things done, realistic, well understood expectations and discrete lists get things done.
Once you have the priorities established and you know what you want to work on next you can move on to de-duplication. The DRY principle doesn’t apply just to writing code. Be diligent when listing issues and make sure you don’t have two issues noting the same problem. Before you assign any new bugs you’ve prioritized, make sure to de-duplicate. Often this has the additional advantage of exposing an underlying problem behind several related bugs. If you routinely have bugs in one module of code, this could be a sign that the whole module needs to be rewritten rather than just patching the latest round of related bugs.
The final step in the triage process is assigning the work that needs to be done. Work may be assigned directly to individual designers and developers or passed on to team leads who can better identify who should do which aspect of the work.
Mastering the triage process will make your team more efficient and productive. It will also get bug fixes and new features out to customers faster. While bugs will still be found outside of testing, triaging helps minimize the number of bugs that are mis-classified or incomplete. Triaging helps ensure your entire team knows what the problems are and when they’re going to be fixed.
Weekly Stagnation Meetings
The triage process isn’t limited to new bugs you find in intensive testing sessions. You can also perform a second type of triage – reviewing stagnant issues.
If an issue hasn’t been touched in a while, then something needs to be done.
The exact definition of “a while” varies by team and project, but if an issue has been sitting longer than you think it should have it’s time to do something. Sometimes that might mean reassigning the work or making it higher priority. Sometimes the fact that it hasn’t been done is telling you that it doesn’t need to be done, close the issue and move on.
Letting stale issues pile up can have a vampiric effect on a project, sucking some of the life out of it. Just knowing those unsolved problems are out there, not being worked on, adds a level of stress to your work that you don’t need. Reassess, reassign and get back to work.
Issues don’t track themselves. Having good human processes around your tools will make a world of difference in their effectiveness. And don’t forget to set aside time for fixing. Testing only helps uncover problems. You’ll always need dedicated time to address the resulting issues.