Implementing an efficient and effective test automation strategy is essential for any organization that wants to maximize the success of its software delivery operations. By helping to streamline software testing in a systematic way, test automation strategies serve as one of the pillars that ensure teams can deliver high-quality applications on a reliable basis.
That said, developing a test automation strategy can be challenging. There are many test automation practices and tools to choose from, plus many challenges to navigate.
To provide guidance, this article explains everything you need to know about creating a test automation strategy. It starts by defining what a test automation strategy is, then discusses how to design and implement a test automation operation that can scale with your development needs. It also offers tips on overcoming the challenges you're likely to encounter as you go about creating a test automation strategy.
A test automation strategy is a plan that defines how an organization manages automated software testing. In other words, test automation strategies spell out which processes, tools, and approaches teams use to run automated tests.
To explain the concept of a test automation strategy more fully, let's step back and define what test automation means. Test automation – or automated testing, as it's sometimes also called – is the use of automated software tools to test the quality, reliability, performance, security, or other aspects of a software application.
Test automation is the opposite of manual testing, wherein engineers click buttons or enter input by hand to evaluate whether an application responds as expected. With test automation, you can write scripts that define which application functionality to test, then run the tests automatically using a framework like Selenium or Appium. As a result, you can run tests faster and with less manual effort. Automated testing also helps organizations to scale their test operations because they can reuse tests for multiple application releases, making it possible to run more rigorous tests with a fraction of the time and effort of manual testing.
With a test automation strategy, you lay out piece by piece how your team approaches automated testing. A test automation strategy serves as a guide that engineers within your organization can turn to when choosing how to implement and run automated software tests.
You don't strictly need a test automation strategy to take advantage of automated testing. You could write and run automated tests on a one-off basis, or develop tests for some applications that your organization builds but not for others.
However, if you adopt that approach, you end up with ad hoc test automation practices that are likely not to be consistent or predictable. Different teams may use different automated testing tools and frameworks, making it hard to approach testing in a consistent way across the organization. Or, your engineers may cycle through multiple testing tools, which means that they waste time constantly rewriting tests.
In addition, the lack of a test automation strategy leaves organizations at risk of relying heavily on individual engineers to oversee test operations because only they understand how automated tests run. This creates a problem in the event that those engineers leave the team and no one else knows how to manage the automated tests that applications depend on.
Test automation solves these challenges and delivers key benefits that improve the success of software testing operations, including:
Consistency: A test automation strategy helps to ensure that all engineers across all teams within your organization use the same testing tools and processes. As a result, team leads and business stakeholders enjoy the confidence of knowing that all applications built by the organization are held to the same testing standards.
Efficiency: With testing consistency comes efficiency. Teams can reuse tests more often or adapt existing tests to fit new testing needs. This saves time and effort, which in turn increases the productivity of engineers.
Effective change management: In the event that you do need to make changes to your testing operations – for example, if you decide you want to move to a new testing tool – a test automation strategy helps to ensure that you approach the change in a structured, predictable way.
Realistic use of resources: Most businesses lack the resources to automate every possible test they could ever want to run. A test automation strategy helps to ensure that your teams approach automated testing in a realistic and pragmatic way that allows them to make use of test automation where it matters most while avoiding tying down resources on low-priority tests or on tests that are difficult to automate.
In short, a test automation strategy helps businesses manage automated tests in a consistent, systematic way that maximizes the value delivered by test automation.
Now that you know what a test automation strategy is and why you'd want one, let's look at the process for implementing a test automation strategy.
As we noted above, not every test can or should be automated at the typical organization. Most teams don't have time to write scripts to automate every single test. Plus, some tests – such as those that require users to interact with application components that can't be identified within automated scripts – can't be performed automatically.
This means you'll need to decide which tests you want to automate as the first step in creating your test automation strategy. Typically, you'll want to select tests that meet the following criteria:
They are tests that need to be run frequently.
They evaluate functionality that is critical to the user experience.
They are repeatable and produce predictable results.
They would take a long time to perform manually.
Keep in mind that you can always automate additional tests over time. But if you're just starting out with a test automation strategy, focus on the low-hanging fruit, meaning the tests that are easiest to automate and that will yield the greatest value when they run automatically.
There are many test automation tools and frameworks available today. Popular free or open source options include:
You can also find many commercial testing frameworks on the market.
To choose the right test framework for your needs, the single most important factor to consider is which kinds of applications you need to test. Most frameworks cater to certain types of applications – browser-based Web apps in the case of Selenium, for example, or iOS apps in the case of XCUITest – so you'll need to select a framework that supports your type of application. If your organization develops multiple apps, you may have to adopt multiple testing frameworks.
Think, too, about the cost of your testing tools and frameworks. Although many testing tools are free to use, there may be indirect costs associated with writing tests for them, especially if your engineers are not already familiar with the test frameworks. Commercial testing frameworks tend to be more user-friendly to set up, but they come with a price tag in most cases.
You should also assess how well your testing framework can integrate with other software development tools you use. Ideally, you'll be able to integrate your testing tools tightly into your CI/CD pipelines so that your build processes can trigger automated tests on a recurring basis, with little or no manual input required.
Finally, research the performance of any testing frameworks or tools you are considering. It would be incorrect to say that any particular framework is the fastest because many factors influence how long tests take to run, and a framework that is fast for some testing scenarios could be slow for others. Still, some frameworks and tools can generally execute tests faster than others, and this is worth considering as you select a solution.
Once you know which tests you want to automate and which tools and frameworks you will use to automate them, it's time to establish guidelines for how and when you'll test.
Typically, most teams run each automated test once during every application release cycle. In other words, whenever they prepare a new version of their application for release, they run automated tests prior to deployment. However, there may be some tests that are too time-consuming or resource-intensive to run every release cycle. In that case, you might decide to run certain tests only for major application releases and not when you've made minor changes.
You should also determine when during the release cycle you want to test. Traditionally, most tests occurred just prior to application deployment. But in recent years, many teams have adopted a shift-left testing strategy, which involves running some tests earlier in the release cycle. Shift-left testing helps teams detect issues earlier when they are simpler and less costly to rectify.
Test automation needs usually change over time. The test automation strategy that meets your needs today may not work in the future when your applications and testing needs evolve.
For that reason, it's important to think about how you'll scale your test automation strategy. Consider factors such as:
Which additional tests you'll automate.
Who will be responsible for writing automation test scripts for new applications that your team begins building in the future.
How you'll identify and act on ways to make tests faster or more repeatable.
Which monitoring and reporting strategy you'll use to ensure that you identify challenges in your automated testing strategy (such as tests that take too long to execute) and take steps to mitigate them.
When you have answers to questions like these, you are in a position to maintain and update your test automation strategy on an ongoing basis.
Implementing a test automation strategy can be complicated. There are many choices you'll have to make and many unexpected problems you can run into.
Common challenges of test automation include:
Insufficient test infrastructure: You need infrastructure to host your software tests, and difficulty in acquiring, managing, and scaling test infrastructure can slow down automated testing routines.
High failure rates: If automated tests frequently fail, your application release cycle will slow down and your developers will have to spend a lot of time chasing bugs.
Slow test execution: Your development process can also slow down due to poorly written tests that take longer to run than they should. Insufficient test infrastructure can also delay test execution because your tests don't have enough resources to run efficiently.
Using the wrong tools: Sometimes, you start your automated testing strategy based on certain tools that turn out not to be the best solutions.
To avoid these challenges, consider adopting automated testing best practices like the following:
Use cloud-based test infrastructure, which provides access to virtually unlimited resources for running tests.
Run tests in parallel, a technique that can significantly increase the rate at which tests run.
Implement a strategy for deciding which test failures require a pause in application delivery, and which are minor enough to ignore. Not every failure necessarily requires you to hold back a release.
Be open to change. The best test automation strategy is one that can evolve over time, allowing you to adopt different tools and testing methods.
A test automation strategy lays the foundation for consistent, efficient testing across your organization. As such, developing a test automation strategy requires careful consideration of a range of factors, such as which tests to automate, which frameworks and tools to use, how to run tests, and how to scale your testing operations over time.
When you factor these considerations into your overall testing strategy, you get an approach that can significantly reduce the time and effort your teams spend on testing while also improving the quality of your software thanks to reliable tests.
Well-implemented automated testing improves test coverage, increases execution speed, and reduces the manual effort involved in testing software. Automated testing is also referred to as test automation or automated QA testing.
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