The User Acceptance Testing Death Spiral

In a past role, I joined a test team that was in a User Acceptance Testing (UAT) “Death Spiral” that had caused the user base to lose confidence in the integration testing team. Based on conversations that I’ve had with others, I believe that the UAT Death Spiral is a common scenario that people encounter, and it can destroy a test team. It took some work, but we were able to pull out of the downward trajectory and regain a functional, productive partnership between the business folks and the integration testing team.

What is the User Acceptance Testing Death Spiral?

Our company had an understaffed integration testing team, aggressive deadlines, and a culture that valued meeting deadlines above all other goals. This meant that software often had known major bugs when UAT started. Even worse, there were typically areas of code that hadn’t been tested at all by the integration testing team before UAT started. It was common for the UAT team to find major, obvious bugs.

Because major bugs made it past the integration test team, the business felt a need to create a more formal, robust UAT team that would catch the numerous errors missed by the integration test team. The business folks assumed that the bugs were missed because the integration team wasn’t very good at their job.

As UAT became more robust, they realized that they needed more time to complete their testing. The company culture of tight deadlines meant that release dates could not be extended to accommodate in-depth UAT. Instead, the business insisted that the integration test cycle be shortened and that UAT start earlier.

I think you can see where this is going…

When UAT started earlier, they found even more bugs and the business lost even more confidence in the integration test team. The business then insisted on testing more of the functionality in UAT and starting UAT even earlier. This death spiral continued until the business had lost complete confidence in the integration test team. However, because the UAT team was not made up of experienced testers, the business was not finding all of the bugs either.

Basically, the integration team didn’t have time to do their job, the business was spending a huge amount of resources to test everything, even features already tested by the integration test team, and the quality of software in production was as poor as ever.

Breaking Free

Breaking free of this downward spiral was more than just a logistical problem. It was a political problem as well. The integration test team feared that the UAT team was trying to take over their jobs and the UAT team felt that the integration team wasn’t competent. Rebuilding trust was critical for any new process to be successful.

I worked with both the integration and UAT test teams to plan a new strategy. The strategy was that the integration test team would first test anything that did not have a user interface. In addition, the integration test team would write, maintain, and run automated regression tests. Basically, they would test the areas that required their expertise. Only after these areas were tested and any major bugs were fixed would the UAT team start their work. We would divide up the test cases to reduce any overlap of testing between the two teams as much as possible.

Even though the UAT team agreed that this plan made sense theoretically, they feared that removing the redundant testing would mean that bugs were missed and worried that starting UAT later would mean that they wouldn’t have time to complete their work. I convinced them to give the plan a try on a smaller project. If the advantages to the new plan didn’t materialize, it would be easier to adjust for the lost time on a small project.

Fortunately, on the small project, everything fell into place. The integration test team was able to adequately test their portion of the plan before UAT started, and the UAT team knew exactly what parts were and weren’t tested by the integration team. The UAT team had a shorter test cycle both because they didn’t run as many redundant tests and because the initial quality of code was much better. Each bug takes time to find, fix, and retest.

Best of all, the software went live and had no problems in production.

For the rest of my time with this team, we followed the new process. This resulted in higher quality code with lower cost, and it had the added benefit of greatly improving the working relationship between the two teams.

Your Experiences

I’d like to hear your experiences with User Acceptance Testing issues. Have you been in a situation where the business users lost confidence in the development team or integration test team? If so, what do you think were the root causes of the issues?

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