Have you ever found yourself working on an automated test suite and wondered if it's worth the effort? It's probably a typical thought that goes through the minds of every developer and tester working on test automation. Even in all of my years of building and maintaining automated tests, I admittedly find myself thinking this way occasionally, wondering if there's a better use of time elsewhere on the project.
Whenever I notice teams of developers and testers not putting any emphasis on test automation, it's usually because there's a level of uncertainty in the effectiveness of automated tests. The team might think it would help their work but can't or won't dedicate some time to know for sure. Worse yet, some teams believe that test automation is an added burden to the software development and testing process with little to no reward. These developers and testers proceed with the belief that they can deliver quality work faster by skipping these types of tests.
Even teams with a solid test automation strategy in their workflow have some reservations about the effectiveness of their test suite. They can't figure out how to gauge the success of their testing work and try to find ways to measure it, like counting the number of automated test cases or keeping track of code coverage. While these seem like good metrics, they're not as valuable as you might think.
If you're in a team trying to determine if your test automation work is worth the effort, how can you tell that your test suite is working in your favor? You can avoid keeping track of misleading metrics and look for areas that indicate you have effective automated tests. These areas let the developers and testers responsible for the project's quality recognize that they're heading in the right direction.
Effective automated tests prevent fewer defects
Most of you probably know it's a no-brainer that automated tests help reduce the number of bugs and defects in any software application. It's the reason we write these tests in the first place because we want to prevent issues from slipping through to the hands of the organization's customers. Having the ability to automatically go through our applications and detect problems without hands-on manual work is the goal of test automation.
The reason why I write this seemingly-obvious comment is that you'd be surprised at how many teams spend time building automated tests without really thinking about defects. I've seen developers and testers only write tests because they feel obligated to have tests, not because they want to prevent bugs. For example, a continuous integration system can fail builds that go under a specific code coverage threshold, or the team only accepts code reviews with corresponding tests for the work done in the branch.
That's the wrong way of going about test automation if it's the only purpose. It doesn't matter if your test suite has over 80% code coverage in your project or every new feature has a test included. While it's better than not having anything at all, your automated tests won't matter if they're not testing the right things. If you have thousands of automated tests and almost 100% code coverage yet still find bugs creeping through and regressions popping up, your test suite isn't effective.
An effective automated test suite tests the right things, and the people building the tests emphasize that. Take a look at your existing test suite to determine if each test case serves a purpose. If a test case doesn't help the project, pull it out of the test suite. It's not always about obtaining the most complete coverage possible with every new thing put in the codebase. More isn't always better, and that goes for automated test suites too.
Effective automated tests lead to faster deployments
A frequently-repeated mantra in the fast-paced world of today's software development lifecycle, especially among startups, is to ship early and often. Nowadays, every organization wants to create more functionality and deliver it as fast as possible. Sometimes it's a necessity. Depending on your industry, rapid and continuous delivery can be the difference between a thriving business and a dying one.
This desire to deliver as quickly as possible led to the current rise of test automation in software development and quality assurance. Automated tests can significantly speed up the time between development and deployment by providing a high level of confidence that an application's quality is high enough to ship. However, this can only happen with an effective test automation process for the project.
As mentioned in the previous section, we need to have a test suite that tests the right things. Effectiveness also includes how quickly we can confirm that our tests cover what's required in order to ship our products. For example, some teams have extensive automated test suites spanning thousands of test cases. Even if they're mainly testing the right things, you can't expect a test suite of that size to run through all test cases quickly. Add common issues like flaky tests or complex infrastructure into the mix, and you'll have a test suite that's causing more pain than preventing it.
An effective automated test suite helps your team quickly put new functionality into the hands of the organization's customers. That means having a fast and reliable test suite that scales with your project, giving you and your organization the confidence to ship as soon as you have a green build. A slow and unstable test automation process will squash your ability to move quicker than your competition and leave your company in the dust.
Effective automated tests reduce complaints — both external and internal
Most developers and testers are fortunate to get shielded from hearing the complaints coming in from the users of the products they help build. While most of the sources of discontent from customers come from misunderstandings around the product, many complaints come from bugs. It's understandable since no one wants to deal with broken software, especially if they're paying for the service. Without effective automated tests in place, getting plenty of angry emails from unhappy customers is not uncommon.
It's not just upset customers that we have to worry about when it comes to faulty software. We also have to care about the teams working on these unstable products. Just as customers don't want to use software riddled with bugs, developers and testers don't want to work on applications that create an unpleasant working environment. Almost every developer or tester out there with some years of experience knows how painful it is to spend your days putting out fires without adding any value while feeling like the situation will never change.
The main issue isn't the buggy product. We know that there's no such thing as an entirely bug-free application. The problem is when there's no effort to fix the bugs and establish a baseline of quality for the product. Some organizations focus solely on new functionality instead of maintenance at the expense of their team's morale. I've seen companies with extremely high employee turnover because the product was so buggy, and there were no plans to correct the issue. That's where a good automated test suite helps because it prevents teams from going crazy with a poorly-constructed product.
An effective automated test suite will keep your software in a high-quality state at all times. If customers can't efficiently use your software because of bugs, it doesn't matter how many shiny new features you add. At the same time, developers and testers can't fix bugs or add new features with a codebase that's in horrible shape. A good automated test suite will improve both of those problems and reduce those grumblings from your customers and team.
Effective automated tests build confidence for each contributor
Besides helping organizations ship a product quickly with fewer bugs, a good automated test suite helps increase confidence across each team member. It's something that many organizations don't discuss or think about often, but test automation can positively affect developers and testers. It helps them improve their work and feel assured that they're delivering high value at all times.
On a personal level, it's the main reason I'm a strong advocate for test automation. As a software engineer, automated tests give me more confidence in my work than anything else. The tests will instantly tell me when I have a bug or regression slip through. But beyond catching my mistakes, the act of writing the tests forces me to think deeply about what I want to accomplish with my code. It exposes gaps in my assumptions that I otherwise wouldn't notice until I waste valuable time. The initial effort spent on this process gets paid off tenfold with less rework down the road.
When putting on my tester hat, I find the same effect occurs. Trying to automate a scenario typically uncovers additional ideas that somehow don't come to mind when testing manually. We tend to focus on what's available on the application's interface when going through different scenarios and ignore areas of potential breakage. Effective test automation frees us from those blind spots and gives us better ideas on risk areas that we wouldn't consider under normal testing circumstances.
An effective automated test suite allows developers and testers to work smarter and faster by revealing different paths towards a high-quality application. The next time you're working on an application, take a step back and think about how automation can help you accomplish your tasks. You'll likely discover better ways to reach your goals and notice pitfalls that would have gone undetected. As you begin seeing more possibilities with test automation, it'll make your work better and boost your confidence in the process.
Anyone working on test automation wants to know if the time and energy required to do the job is worth it. It's one of the reasons why teams don't work on building an automated test suite and even those who already have a test suite wonder if it's a good use of their time. There's no easy way to use metrics, which can mislead you by collecting irrelevant information. So what can you do to know if your tests are helping rather than hurting?
Thankfully, every automated test suite has areas that can confirm its effectiveness to you and your team. Useful automated tests will help reduce defects by focused testing on the right things. This effort leads to faster delivery of critical bug fixes and new functionality to the organization's customers. It also helps developers and testers feel confident that their work is on the right track and cuts down any discontent that can fester among the team working on a product and its users.
These areas demonstrate to developers and testers that they're building and maintaining an effective automated test suite. An effective automated test suite will always keep a high level of quality throughout the lifespan of any product. It's essential for teams that want to focus on test automation to keep an eye out for these spots to minimize the risk of wasting time on a poorly-implemented test suite that holds back everyone's work.
Do you have other ways to spot an effective automated test suite? Tell us what's kept your tests running effectively in the comments section, and share your tips with other developers and testers!