Notetaking taking while testing software

I write notes while I test software. I was concerned that writing this might not be interesting to other testers but when I think about people that might be new to testing, I thought write this, share it. Also I know I enjoy when other experienced testers write specifics about what they do, how they do things, and why. I was happy to see a recent post from Bret about his writing.

Thinking more about the topic, I’ve realized writing about notetaking is difficult for me. One reason is that my notetaking depends on the situation I’m in. But in an effort to avoid being elusive and to try to share with other testers, I thought I would try to share specifics on the recordings that I make while testing.

What do I write?

I record the data used. If I have a lot of data or it’s too time-consuming to capture by hand, then I might: 1) use Excel to track the data 2) have the data in Excel already and then reference the Excel file 3) use screen shots – this works well when the data is a set of radio buttons or options selected on a web form. I record to the extent I think it will matter to me to have that information – which is a gamble to predict and I sometimes regret that I didn’t capture more.

I record my steps – meaning the menu options or transactions or whatever represents the navigation I followed. I don’t know when I might encounter a bug so being able to traverse an application in the same order I executed might become important. And since I think this is one of the most helpful bits to record, I thought I would point out several specific methods.

I might write my navigation like a cookie crumb trail. It might look like Admin-Reports-Monthly Usage. That notation might be good enough for me to be able to repeat my steps. It might not be enough detail, I might also record what options such as Report – Full Detail – Print to File.

I might write my navigation as a small paragraph. Logged in as Admin account, pulled monthly figures for Oct and queued monthly usage report as full detail report. I’d likely skip the verbs and record like this: account: admin, report: Oct only day data, full usage report.

I do not use test scripts. I consider myself a long-time exploratory tester. I don’t take notes to the extent of reverse engineering to test scripts. The navigation I record is about me being able to retrace my steps. Since my main purpose is to know what I did – roughly and what data I used – roughly, that’s what I record. It’s unclear to me that someone could take my notes and retrace my steps, I don’t know because I don’t used my notes for that purpose.

If I’m trying to replicate an elusive bug, I take more notes. I think of notetaking like the verbose setting on log files, it’s time to write more, not less. Also if a bug is hard to replicate, writing more notes forces me to go slower – which for me is both a good and necessary tactic.

I record other things too – often the time (date is a given but only once at the top of the day). The reason I do this isn’t that I think I’m going to be audited it’s that by recording the time, I can often recall more details about the day and that might help restore my memory.

Another small thing that I use is dividing lines, sounds petty but a simple line chunks up work. Those lines represent something to me. It might be that I stepped away, changed login accounts, whatever shift took place, a line in my notes means to me there was some break in what I was doing. If I think it matters what the shift was, I record it.

Other bits I depend on what I’m focused on. I might record login account, user group information, which browser, the list goes on. But my notetaking is for my use. It has never been a burden to me. And there are times in testing that I’m more diligent about notetaking than other times.

While thinking about notetaking, I googled the term and backed into an article I found interesting. It has more to do with taking notes as a student, see Peter Suber’s article . One point the author made is about the privacy of notetaking and that resonated with me. I hadn’t distinctly thought about it but yes, I see my notes as private (but I can also be a fairly private person with the exception perhaps of my blog). My notes are a safe place for me to scribble questions, puzzle through bits in an application. I wouldn’t want someone riffling through my notes I’m not sure why as they’re not a personal journal and don’t contain anything embarrassing. I’ll come back to this subtopic later.


I have a couple of shorthands that I use in my notes, I don’t have as many shorthand codes as you might suspect after years of testing.

! = something I need to follow-up on
T = test idea (I might not go down that path now but don’t want to lose the idea)
B = bug
? = something I need to track down, learn or ask about

I also go back through my notes and check items off. I use lots of color-coding. I use highlighters to track items I need to follow-up on. I use checkmarks literally physically through my small shorthand codes so I know I’ve covered what I intended.

The most important part of my notes is that they help me. I don’t write them for other people. And it’s rare for me to share them. I would say never but absolute terms make me uncomfortable – I cannot recall a time I shared my notes (other than a current request which I’ll mention in a moment.)

And of course, I doodle (though not much, I’m not artistic). My notes are not pristine and they’re not scientific recordings. I capture random thoughts and observations along the testing path and these notes can vary greatly.

My notes might also include a grid, a checklist or drawing that I spontaneously thought about – these usually take more than one pass for me to get the way I want as I noodle through something so when I have a drawing, there’s likely to be a couple of iterations.

What do I write on?

Mmm, not a short topic either as it turns out. That’s difficult; it’s changed over the years and sometimes depends on the work. For a long time, I preferred notepads but I would not mix my test notepad with other notes – meaning I will reserve an 8.5 x 11 pad for testing and use a different pad for meetings, etc. I would keep a running notepad, literally recording the day on the next page and just keep going. I fill stacks of notepads. I keep them for months.

Then I moved to Excel, sometimes I use Notepad. (Love notepad, great application.) Sometimes I use notebooks although I reserve my moleskine notebooks for other recordings. I guess I don’t have a strong preference where I record – however, whatever method I use, I cannot recall varying the method within a project or for a product. Meaning whichever tool I use, I won’t switch tools and I won’t mix tools or methods. On reflection I’m currently using a mix but not within projects. Let me clarify.

On the four projects I’m currently working on – I’m functioning as a tester on only one of those projects and on that project I use Notepad exclusively and extensively. I chose Notepad for that client because they specifically asked to see my notes. And, Notepad was the logical choice since we’re geographically separated. My notes for this client are modeled in the format Jon Bach outlined, see:

(This is the first time I’ve encountered a specific request to see my notes. And to return to the privacy thread I mentioned earlier, I will say that the request has affected my recordings which I find unfortunate and distracting.) I have another client who has requested my notes as well for work that will take place this month – I have to get comfortable knowing someone will read my musings and see if I can let it affect me less. I’ve already been thinking about the notetaking aspect of the work.

On one of my other current projects, I chose a notebook because I anticipated having lots of notes, as I’m doing research on the topic as well so I wanted one location for all the recordings I anticipated. At five weeks into the project (data warehousing) I can anticipate filling more than one notebook.

On my other two projects, they’re writing projects and so my writing is in electronic tools. Although I also have a notebook for each of those projects too. (All this makes me realize just how much of my day is writing and recording so no wonder this topic became long.) I think this shows how important notetaking is (at least to me). I hope this is helpful. I could ironically write more on the topic, I didn’t realize it would be such a long one, I guess my verbose setting is on.

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