Note: This article was originally published on the Telerik blog.
The benefits of an automated test suite are clear. It will help you and your organization build better software quickly and efficiently. You’ll catch regressions as soon as they’re introduced into the codebase, helping you squash bugs fast. It gives developers and tests breathing room to work on high-value tasks instead of putting out fires. It also allows teams to gain the confidence to ship new functionality to delight customers frequently. However, most of those benefits rapidly decrease if you don’t take the time to maintain your tests.
Maintenance is an inevitable task when you have an automated test suite. Unless your codebase or the underlying systems that run it never change, you’ll have to ensure your tests continue to work well as the application evolves. Work done during the software development process, such as adding new features or fixing newly discovered bugs, will affect your existing tests somehow. The team may need to create new tests or adjust existing ones due to these modifications.
Whether your team needs to validate that new features work as intended or ensure fixed bugs don’t come back to haunt you at the worst possible moment, you’ll have to spend some time keeping your test automation in tip-top shape. Neglecting your tests is a sure-fire way to slow down everyone’s work in the present and the future.
Why Maintaining Your Automated Test Suite Is Important
An unmaintained test suite introduces additional risks and difficulties for everyone involved in the project. Tests that aren’t kept up to date increase the possibility of false positives, flakiness and slow test runs. Since no one on the team spends enough time tending to the tests, it’s nearly impossible to know how to solve the issues, so they continue to happen. One broken test becomes two, then three and so on.
To make matters worse, these problems slowly compound until it eventually reaches a point where no one on the team wants to deal with them. Trust in the test suite diminishes, the tests become less and less valuable, and they become a burden on the team. Inevitably, these efforts get abandoned, and everyone loses out on the benefits of test automation.
On the other hand, a well-maintained test suite helps developers and testers deal with the inevitable test automation issues that pop up occasionally. The tests become easier to follow, update and expand. If a test begins to fail due to a false positive or flakiness, it takes less time to isolate and fix the problem with up-to-date tests. If a test run suddenly becomes slower, a well-structured test suite makes it easier to track down the culprit and eliminate the bottleneck.
Organized test suites have additional bonuses across the organization. The tests can become an excellent source of documentation about the application the suite is testing. New developers and testers can see first-hand how the application is supposed to behave, helping them onboard much quicker to the project. The test suite can also help guide the team’s testing strategy, as it provides better opportunities to determine where to focus the team’s attention. For instance, it’s easier to spot gaps in test coverage or where manual testing is better suited.
Most importantly, maintaining your tests will provide immediate value, and its value compounds as the application matures and more relevant tests get added. When developers and testers don’t have to worry about breaking something when the application changes, they can use that energy to focus on producing excellent work. Teams should strive to make their test suites operate like a well-oiled machine, running as effectively and efficiently as possible.
Simple Ways to Maintain Your Automated Tests
Maintaining your automated test suite doesn’t have to be an endless and exhausting task. The best way to keep a high level of quality in your automation strategy is to have a mindset of maintainability while working on the tests. You might get away with building your test suite fast and deal with maintenance later, but it’s always more manageable while you’re in the middle of the work. Creating an organized test suite from the start will save countless hours and plenty of frustration in the future. The following tips will help you keep your testing work organized and tidy.
Test Only What You Need
One of the most common mistakes made by testers—especially those new to test automation—is trying to automate everything possible. It’s a tempting idea. After all, isn’t the reason for automating tests to give us the time and space to focus on other important work? However, just because you can automate most of your test cases doesn’t mean you should. Some test cases don’t provide enough value to invest the time needed to write and keep up to date.
Every new test case added to an automated test suite introduces some risk and additional maintenance requirements. New tests might often fail due to frequent changes in the codebase, and they add to the total execution time of the test run. The more tests you have, the more time you and your team will need to maintain it. You’ll want to keep your test suite lean to get the most out of each run without getting bogged down by useless test cases.
If you’re not clear about what your team should focus on testing, be on the lookout for these places in the application under test:
- Sections that often break for users: Focusing your testing efforts on sections with a higher defect rate can increase your application's quality quicker than any other area.
- Scenarios that are difficult to test manually: Test scenarios that require lots of steps to test manually are prone to human error and may benefit from automated testing.
- Areas with high business value that need to be rock-solid: Any scenario that needs to work reliably at all times should have some automated test coverage to alert the organization of issues as soon as they appear.
Separate Your Scenarios Into Smaller Test Cases
Some types of testing, like integration or end-to-end tests, allow you to automate long scenarios with multiple steps from start to finish. It’s appealing to create a test case that covers a lot of ground for your application. While the purpose behind these kinds of testing is to go through longer flows and validate how different pieces of the puzzle work together, too many long tests will make your test suite unreliable and difficult to fix.
Every step taken by an automated test has the potential to fail, whether it’s because of a change in the application or an unexpected problem. More steps in a single test case make it more likely to fail somewhere along the way. Since these tests often handle too much responsibility in one spot, figuring out what went wrong becomes a time-consuming task that’ll make you regret writing such a long test case in the first place.
Instead of writing a few long tests that do too much, focus on keeping your tests small and specific. Shorter tests are easier to debug and fix when issues arise. It also helps organize your test code into clear segments of functionality, so you can easily add new test cases and manage existing ones. For instance, Telerik Test Studio allows you to separate your test cases in folders, allowing you to view the different areas you’re testing at a glance. It’s a dead-simple way to view your test hierarchy and know where you stand with your coverage.
Keep Your Test Code DRY
An essential skill for test automation engineers is to minimize and eliminate any redundancy throughout the codebase. Most software developers are familiar with the DRY Principle—Don’t Repeat Yourself—which states that there must only be a single source of truth in a system. Unfortunately, teams often don’t treat the code for their tests the same way they would for production code since it’s not customer-facing functionality.
When you have the same lines of code written in multiple sections of your codebase, it’ll slow your team down drastically. It’s also one of the leading causes of an unreliable, unscalable test suite. A single change in one spot will require the same modification to occur in other places. Since you need to keep track of all the areas you need to change, chances are you’ll forget to do all the necessary adjustments, causing wasted time to fix broken tests. To avoid the headaches and hassles caused by code duplication, you should build your test suite keeping the DRY Principle in mind.
A few widely used patterns for test automation are the Page Object Model and data factory patterns. These patterns allow you to set common functionality of a test suite—such as defining page selectors, generating test data, or consolidating repeated functionality—into a single place, which you can reference across your scenarios. If, for instance, you need to update a selector or change some test data, modify it in the single place where it’s defined, and your entire test suite will pick up the changes. Besides allowing you to update your tests faster and with far less risk, these patterns can also make your tests more readable and easier to follow.
Most modern test automation frameworks and tools provide built-in ways to implement these practices from the start. For example, Telerik Test Studio has an excellent Element Repository to store the locators used in your test suite, which you can use in multiple tests, all without needing to repeat yourself. Look at best practices for your test stack and take advantage of them as you build your test suite. These patterns and techniques will save your team tons of time hunting down broken tests due to duplication.
Remove Tests That Are No Longer Beneficial
Software applications and automated test suites are living, breathing systems. All codebases frequently change for a few reasons, like new functionality getting implemented in the system or eliminating sections that no longer provide value to the customer. Most changes done in an application won’t live forever, and it’s the same in test automation. Tests can eventually outlive their usefulness and weigh down the rest of the tests, often showing up in the form of a sluggish and broken test suite.
Many developers and testers dislike deleting tests from their codebase, especially tests that they’ve written. They feel a certain closeness to the thing they created and don’t want to let go, even when it’s clear that it’s no longer functioning or necessary. Instead of clearing out the cruft, they do things like comment out the code or mark the test as pending, thinking that the test will serve a purpose in the future. Spoiler alert: Once a test is no longer valuable or working as expected, it rarely goes back to its former valuable state.
Here are a few good candidates for removal in your test suite:
- Tests covering redundant scenarios: If you have test cases that go through longer flows, you may not need dedicated tests that already get covered in those scenarios. For example, if some scenarios go through authenticating a user, you don't need to have lots of dedicated test cases for authentication only.
- Tests that cover soon-to-be deprecated functionality: If your team plans to sunset or eliminate functionality shortly, it's a good idea to begin removing tests for these sections since they're no longer essential.
- Low-value functionality that can be tested manually: Many applications have sections that, while necessary to verify occasionally, aren't as essential to ensure they work at all times. Some examples are submitting "Contact Us" forms, ensuring static pages load properly, and checking content for internationalization and localization.
Having to delete old tests isn’t a sign that the work you did was never helpful. It often means that the system under test has evolved, and the test suite should have evolved along with those changes. If the underlying application permanently changed and broke something, or your team found better ways to test some functionality, you don’t need those tests anymore. In almost all cases, any time you notice an automated test is no longer helpful, delete it from your codebase and don’t look back. It’ll improve your test suite’s speed and maintenance and give you peace of mind.
Fix Broken Tests as Soon as Possible
Ignoring broken test suites and continuing to build new test cases on top of them is one of the biggest mistakes teams make with their automation efforts. When schedules and deadlines come into play, organizations prefer to stay on course, leading them to ignore the problems in the test suite for the sake of completing their milestones. While the team might think they’re speeding up their work, the reality is that they’re doing the opposite. Poor code begins to slide into the codebase and quality begins to slip, slowing down their future efforts more than if they had taken the time to fix any issues promptly.
The longer a problem gets ignored in your environment, the more difficult it becomes to fix. The field of criminology has a theory called the Broken Windows Theory that discusses how leaving minor offenses unattended, like vandalism and loitering, leads to more severe crimes. The theory comes from observations where a building with a broken window led to the rest of the structure’s windows getting broken. The book The Pragmatic Programmer popularized this theory in software development. The authors pointed out how leaving bad code or inefficient implementations in a codebase can “rot” the code faster than anything else.
One of the keys to a highly maintainable test suite is to patch any problems quickly instead of letting the issue fester. Fixing a flaky test that someone introduced to the test suite a few days ago is much easier than fixing the same test six months later. You’ll likely have forgotten the details about the test case and have to spend hours getting back to a state where you’ll have the proper context to solve the issue. It also leads to laziness and procrastination—once the team decides that it’s okay to live with a broken test suite, it’s nearly impossible to revert that mentality.
If your team has the habit of ignoring issues in the test suite while adding new functionality, even with failed test runs, put a stop to it as soon as possible. Establish a workflow where fixing broken tests takes priority over adding new ones. It doesn’t mean that when a test breaks, the team has to drop everything to resolve the issue. As long as someone takes responsibility to get the build back to a stable state quickly instead of neglecting the problem, it will help keep your test suite in order. The point is not to leave any windows “broken” for too long.
Summary: A Maintainable Test Suite Will Always Boost the Quality of Your Work
A healthy test suite begins with long-term maintenance in mind. No matter how much time you spend working on your test automation, you and your team still need to maintain your efforts as the application under test evolves and matures. It may sometimes feel like the time spent organizing and cleaning up tests is a waste of time, but it always pays off. Teams that don’t pay attention to writing maintainable tests from the start will soon find themselves either spending more time fixing broken tests or abandoning the entire test suite.
Maintaining your automated test suite doesn’t have to be a time-consuming endeavor. You can keep your tests in excellent condition by establishing good practices as you go forward with your test automation strategy. Focus on testing only what’s essential and removing tests when they’re no longer valuable. Organize your tests into logical groups and avoid unnecessary duplication with patterns and techniques like the Page Object Model or factories. If your test suite breaks, fix it before proceeding to prevent the situation from getting worse.
Keeping your tests lean and tidy will give you the speed and flexibility to tackle problems and improve your test suite with little to no friction. No one is immune to getting test failures due to always-changing applications. But with a bit of care from the start, a well-maintained test suite can help your organization develop and deliver high-quality applications with ease for years to come.