When we talk about agile, we mean an iterative and collaborative approach to software development that emphasizes flexibility, customer satisfaction, and continuous delivery of software. Teams that adopt the agile methodology can quickly respond to change and deliver high-quality products by breaking down larger projects into more manageable parts, with frequent testing and feedback from stakeholders.
Applying this philosophy specifically to test automation, developers can automate frequent testing in the software development process and respond to issues quickly. This agile test automation helps reduce the risk of human error, improves software reliability, and allows software teams to deliver working software faster.
Let’s take a closer look at agile test automation—what it is exactly, how it differs from a more traditional approach to software testing, and why your team needs it.
Traditional software development methods, like the Waterfall Model, follow a fairly linear process—all development steps (e.g., requirement determination, design, development, testing, deployment, maintenance) take place one after the other. Requirements for a project are defined in advance, and the development process follows a fixed plan. Testing occurs at the very end of the development process after all features have already been implemented.
A major disadvantage of this approach is the lack of flexibility.
Once a step in the linear process is complete, it's difficult to go back and make changes or respond to changing requirements. Traditional software development often results in a longer time to market, as the entire process needs to be completed before the software can be released. That’s a major disadvantage in industries where speed to market is critical.
The agile methodology is a response to that limitation.
Agile projects are broken down into smaller chunks of focus called sprints. In each sprint, developers create and test specific software features, rather than an entire project. With this incremental approach, teams focus on delivering small parts of functioning software, and receiving and implementing feedback along the way. This flexibility allows for changes to be made throughout the development process with less disruption and delay than traditional processes.
An agile approach to test automation increases the impact of that flexibility on multiple fronts, such as:
Faster feedback and delivery – In agile development, the goal is to release code frequently, often on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. That means that all code changes must be tested as soon as possible. Automated tests provide your development team with feedback that’s timely, so they actually have the opportunity to do something about it.
Improved software functionality – Automated tests quickly and consistently check the functionality of your code at various stages of development. This goes a long way toward ensuring that the final software works as intended.
More efficient and effective tests – Over time, the results reporting and tracked defects from your automated testing will lead to more efficient ways to run tests.
The quick and iterative feedback of the agile methodology definitely contributes to its growing popularity among developers. Still, you should be aware of the challenges you'll face if you plan to implement agile test automation.
Regressions – Agile software development is a dynamic process; code is constantly changing as new features are added or existing features are expanded and modified. And as any developer knows, changes to the codebase can cause problems in other parts of the software.
Increased burden on a QA team – Frequent iterations can tax a QA team. That’s not a concern that can be easily dismissed, particularly if the team has to test changes on multiple devices or if they’re already stretched thin with tight deadlines and limited resources.
Incomprehensive testing – The shorter timelines of agile sprints may mean there’s less time allocated for testing than in traditional development processes. Without careful planning for your sprints, it can be difficult for development teams to comprehensively test software.
Lack of isolation – While the collaborative nature of agile development is definitely a benefit, it often means that multiple team members are contributing to different components of the software simultaneously. As a result, it can be difficult to isolate and test individual components.
Fortunately, agile test automation can do a lot to address its own challenges.
For example, to avoid frequent regressions, agile automated testing can run a suite of tests against the codebase each time changes are made. Unit tests in the suite can test small parts of the code, in conjunction with end-to-end tests that test the entire application. By automatically running these tests, developers can quickly identify any code-breaking changes that have been introduced. They can then address the identified issues early in the process, well before they're deployed to production.
The fact that automated tests can run more quickly than manual tests means you can reduce the burden on your QA team; they can test more features in less time. They can also run tests in parallel. Testing more features simultaneously further reduces the time to complete testing.
In addition to lowering the hours of work required of your QA team, the speed of automated testing also addresses the challenge of comprehensive testing in agile development. More efficient and speedy testing increases code coverage, especially if your automated tests run at different levels of granularity (think unit, integration, and acceptance tests). And bonus—a side effect of increasing your code coverage is that it’s easier to see the gaps that remain in your code coverage.
Now that you're familiar with the benefits of agile test automation and how to address its challenges, let's look at a few best practices for implementing it.
In agile development, features change often and updates are frequent. For this reason, you need to weigh the cost and benefit of automating tests for features under active development.
Automating tests for features that are still in flux might be a waste of resources since the tests need to be updated each time the features change. Maintaining and updating these tests would require additional effort and could even slow down the entire development process.
Instead, rely on manual testing until features are less likely to change. Once a feature has stabilized, automated tests can ensure that it continues functioning correctly when other parts of the codebase change. Overall, this approach can help you optimize your testing resources and maximize the benefits of test automation in an agile development environment.
A proven best practice in agile test automation is continuous integration (CI). With CI, software is continuously tested throughout the development process. Code changes are regularly pushed to a central repository where automated tests ensure that the code works as expected.
How frequently your CI pipeline should run these tests depends on the size and complexity of the project. Ideally, the tests should run every time there are changes in the code, but this may not be practical for larger projects. Instead of event triggers, you may choose to set up the CI pipeline to run tests at specific intervals, such as every hour, every day, or every week.
In the development process, a feedback loop is the time it takes to receive feedback on the quality of the software after changes have been made. The longer the feedback loop, the higher the risk of introducing defects and delays.
By leveraging reporting and monitoring integrations, you can reduce the time it takes to get feedback about code changes. As with any time-saving measure, this helps developers catch issues early in development.
There are several ways to integrate reporting and monitoring integrations with your agile test automation:
Set up test reporting to track test results – This alerts a team quickly to issues so they can make timely decisions within the development process.
Integrate test automation tools with other tools – Project management tools and issue tracking systems (e.g., integrate Slack with your CI system to receive test failure messages to a Slack channel).
Use real-time dashboards to monitor the health of your software – Gaining insight into software quality via analytics can help developers identify trends and patterns in the testing process.
Consider using a cloud-based testing platform for your agile testing. Cloud-based testing platforms offer scalability, flexibility, cost-effectiveness, and faster deployment. With on-demand access to testing resources, teams can quickly and easily scale their testing efforts as needed.
Testing platforms like Sauce Labs also make it easy to test code on multiple devices. That’s particularly important for the development of mobile applications, where each change in the code has to be tested on several different devices and operating systems.
Agile methods in software development differ from traditional workflows, like the Waterfall Model, by breaking larger projects into smaller parts. This focus on short development cycles facilitates collaboration across teams and increases the efficiency of several stages of development, including testing.
Agile test automation reduces the risk of human error by running frequent and consistent tests throughout the development process. This shortens feedback loops, facilitates collaboration, and allows developers to respond quickly to issues. Of course, going faster can introduce its own challenges, like less time to test and more demands on your QA team’s resources. However, you can leverage agile test automation to solve its own pitfalls—best practices like automating the right tests and integrating them with reporting and monitoring can have a huge impact on time to market and overall software quality.