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Is test automation an imperative in software development?

By Yelena Lavrentyeva, Innovation Analyst, Oleksandr Kulinich, QA Engineer
Published on

Software development has always been complex. Today’s growth of tools, technologies, and intricate architectures, combined with the push for faster delivery, has intensified challenges.

As complexities grow, ensuring software quality becomes paramount. In an era where digital experiences are crucial for customer satisfaction and business success, a glitch isn’t just annoying—it can hurt trust and cost money.

To ensure quality, IT teams use manual and automated testing.

Manual testing, the old guard, relies on human intuition, excelling in unique scenarios and unexpected flaws. Automated testing, however, is the engine of efficiency.

With today’s focus on rapid, consistent delivery, the role of QA engineers has evolved. Hiring QA engineers who are adept in test automation becomes less of an option and more of a necessity. Their expertise in automated testing solutions is a keystone in navigating the brisk pace and high stakes of modern software development cycles

In this article, we’ll, however, explore whether automation is the universal solution to quality assurance.

Automated testing basics

First, let’s establish a shared understanding of automated testing core components.

What it is:

Automated testing uses tools to execute predefined tests on a software app throughout its development lifecycle. It’s about doing more tests more quickly. QA engineers craft test scripts from commonly run manual cases. Once set, these scripts allow tests to run sequentially or in parallel, without ongoing human intervention.

What the benefits are:

  • Accuracy: Automation eliminates human error, ensuring precise outcomes.

  • Consistency: If code is unchanged, the automated test produces the same result. This consistency means when tests reveal issues, developers can trust it’s due to recent code changes, not test variations, which reduces debugging costs.

  • Speed: With a surge in the DevOps culture since 2000, speed is essential. Automated tests run quickly, aiding smooth code integration in CI/CD pipelines.

  • Coverage: Automation dives deep, examining multiple application layers, moving through data sets, and detecting regression errors after code changes.

  • Transparent reporting: Automated tests generate logs detailing every action during the test, aiding issue pinpointing.

  • Tackling complexity: Automated testing handles complex scenarios manual testing can’t without significant time and effort, exploring variables and conditions precisely.

When automation is a game changer

Deciding between manual testing and automation isn’t always straightforward for teams of QA engineers. While some situations favor automation, others require the human touch and judgment of manual testing. Below, we highlight the key scenarios where automated testing isn’t just beneficial — it’s transformative.

  1. CI/CD in Agile & DevOps: In both methodologies, the core idea is to deliver quality software quickly and efficiently. Automated testing supports this by ensuring that as features are rapidly developed, integrated, and deployed, they meet the desired quality standards without hindering delivery.

  2. Large-scale and repetitive testing: Automated testing is a logical choice for performance testing where it provides precise metrics like response time, throughput, and latency, apart from scalability and repeatability. This also extends to stress/load tests that simulate thousands of users, scheduled checks, and compatibility tests run across diverse browsers and devices.

  3. Critical path & regression testing: Manually verifying the vital functionality and retesting an entire application after every code change is so time-consuming that it becomes impractical. So, QA engineers choose automated testing here.

  4. Smoke testing: Automating smoke tests, which are run on the basic functionality of new builds, enables QA engineers to detect faulty builds immediately after they are deployed, offering rapid feedback to developers.

  5. Security testing: Automated tools can quickly scan large code bases, which is especially useful for finding vulnerabilities in sizable applications.

  6. Data-driven testing: Automation saves time by processing bulk data sets while ensuring reliable data input, preventing data entry errors.

The debate on test automation

While automated testing has rapidly matured, driven by the needs of modern software delivery practices, opinions on it continue to differ. Some think it’s a money drain, citing high initial costs, maintenance overhead, delayed ROI, or a skill gap.

Others believe it’s a cure-all.

The truth lies in the middle.

In the long run, automation saves money, particularly for large projects or products with a long lifecycle. It cuts down on routine tasks and accelerates delivery, boosting profitability. But initially, it can be taxing. It takes time, costs money upfront, and you might not see a return immediately. But there’s more to consider. Explore the challenges below.

Automated testing challenges

  • High initial costs: Setting up a robust automated testing framework requires investment in tools, licenses, and hiring proficient QA engineers with deep automation expertise.

  • Lack of immediate ROI: With a lot of money involved upfront, the benefits — in terms of time saved and defects caught — manifest gradually. Anticipating the “break-even” point can be a source of frustration.

  • Maintenance: Maintenance in automated testing is challenged by frequent application updates, which can disrupt brittle and non-modular test scripts. Additionally, a thoughtful automation framework design is needed to make updates less complicated.

  • Debugging: Complex test scripts and issues related to specific test data can make identifying problems difficult. Challenges also arise from environment-specific anomalies or intermittent failures.

  • High false positives: Unstable or flaky automated tests can produce inconsistent outcomes, leading to numerous false positives that are time-consuming to investigate.

  • Overautomation: Trying to automate everything, including tests better suited for manual execution (like exploratory tests or certain usability tests), can be counterproductive, leading to cost inefficiency, maintenance overhead, and a false sense of security. Striking the right balance is key.

  • Skill gap: Test automation demands specialized expertise. Acquiring this skill set, whether through training or hiring, incurs additional costs.

Given these challenges, automation may not be the ideal choice for:

  • Projects with rapidly changing logic or functionality

  • Early-stage startups on tight budgets

  • Short-term projects that can yield high-quality results without automation

  • Highly exploratory projects that involve a lot of exploratory testing, where human intuition and domain expertise play a significant role

  • Hardware-dependent projects that require specific hardware setups, configurations, or physical interactions

So, is test automation overrated?

The answer isn’t a simple yes or no—it’s nuanced and highly context-dependent.

For some projects, the business domain may favor manual testing. Where human intuition and expertise are crucial, manual QA engineers excel. If there’s extra budget and a clear long-term return, scripts can speed up repetitive tasks without full automation.

Long-term projects with intricate logic confront unique challenges. Over months or years, inconsistencies can accumulate. High-load systems face sporadic, unpredictable errors due to vast operations. Here, the benefits of test automation are clear. Automated tests offer consistent checks, ensuring software remains stable as it evolves.

More insights from ITRex

  • For efficient automation, thorough requirement coverage is essential. Good test case coverage shows what’s best to automate, but this can also raise the cost of automation indirectly

  • Keeping documents up-to-date is critical, but it also affects project costs

  • Automation is meant to save time compared to manual testing, but automating everything isn’t realistic. The more tests your QA engineers have, the more it costs to maintain and update that automation

  • If you start automation early, it becomes more valuable as you save more manual testing time with each run

  • Deciding “what to automate first?” is tricky. Mistakes in prioritizing test cases can risk the project

  • Automated testing differs from manual testing. You need to hire skilled QA engineers, while this talent can increase project costs

  • Remember, it’s humans who write automated test scripts, so they can contain hidden mistakes, especially if there’s no manual testing to catch them

Automated testing basicsWhen automation is a game changerThe debate on test automationAutomated testing challengesSo, is test automation overrated?More insights from ITRex
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