Should You Automate It? Knowing When to Build Test Automation and When to Keep It Manual

  April 14, 2023

Agile teams have to adapt to changing requirements while continuously shipping new features. Yet, this poses a question. Do they automate tasks or complete them manually? While automated tests are faster, they take time to set up and need ongoing maintenance. So, how do you decide when to invest time and energy into test automation or use manual tests? Striking the right balance is critical to success. 

This article examines test automation versus manual tests while providing a guide to help you determine the most effective testing approach for your project's test cases. 

Manual vs. Automated Tests 

Striking the right balance between manual and automated tests is essential for delivering high-quality, reliable software. 

Many software projects begin with manual tests. QA testers execute test cases by hand, document defects, and report them to the development team for follow-up. But manual testing is  time-consuming and requires attention to detail.  

Over the past few years, automated tools have empowered teams to automate test cases. After writing a test script, QA testers automatically rerun the same test script multiple times, saving time and effort. The teams then benefit from faster tests and greater test coverage. 

But despite the growth in test automation, manual tests are still essential to the quality assurance process. For example, many organizations already automate unit tests since they're straightforward and highly repeatable. However, UI tests may be better run manually. 

Some key factors when automating tests to remember are: 

  • Maintenance – Automated tests require ongoing maintenance to remain accurate, which may be costly and time consuming.
  • Testing Tools – Test automation often requires tools like a continuous integration server, which may be an additional cost and extra time will be needed to configure the tools.
  • Processes – Test automation involves a shift in QA roles and functions. It's essential to have documented procedures in place to ensure a smooth transition.
  • Constraints – Some test cases may not be viable to automate for legal reasons, while some automation tools may be too expensive.

Integrating manual and automated tests requires an effective test management solution. And sometimes, that means switching from a legacy testing solution to an Agile solution more compatible with test automation workflows. But, of course, these solutions must also continue supporting manual testing under the same roof.

Some test cases are more suitable for manual testing than automated tests and vice versa. The key to a successful quality assurance strategy is identifying which test cases are ideal for each. 

The best candidates for automation: 

  • Test cases that will repeat over time. 
  • Test cases that are time-consuming for humans. 
  • Test cases with stable, non-changing requirements. 
  • Test cases that often fail due to human error. 
  • Test cases with significant downtime between steps. 

A good exercise to determine whether to automate a test is:

  • Create a grid with columns.  Test cases that are time-consuming for humans. 
  • Add features or attributes to each of the columns such as: Test cases that often fail due to human error. 
    • Frequency
    • Data
    • Reuse
    • Difficulty, etc.
  • Once you have your columns, check the cells in each row of the columns as it applies.
  •  Use the results to assess how valuable it may be to automate. 

Automated tests are best for: 

  • Regression Tests – Test scripts can execute predefined test cases to ensure new changes don't introduce bugs.
  • Load Tests – Test scripts can simulate a heavy load to see how the application performs under stress.
  • API Tests – Test scripts can hit an application's API endpoints and ensure the responses meet specifications.
  • Integration Tests – Test scripts can simulate a user workflow and ensure components work together correctly. 

Manual tests are best for: 

  • Usability Tests – QA testers can manually assess how user-friendly the application is from a subjective standpoint.
  • Ad-Hoc Tests – QA testers can explore the application's features without a preset test plan to find rogue bugs.
  • UI Tests – QA testers can more efficiently explore user interfaces that may be difficult for automated tests to assess.
  • Acceptance Tests – QA testers can assess whether an application meets a user's requirements and expectations. 

Remember, test automation tools evolve, and the above may change. For example, VisualTest makes it easier to automate UI tests using artificial intelligence. Before AI-based visual tests, it wasn't practical to compare screenshots (too many false positives) or look at code (doesn't guarantee how things appear). 

Integrating manual and automated tests requires an effective test management solution. This sometimes means switching from a legacy testing solution to an Agile solution, a solution more compatible with test automation workflows. These solutions must also continue to support manual testing under the same roof. 

Zephyr supports manual and automated tests within an Agile Jira instance. QA testers can view and execute manual test cases or kick off test automation processes within Jira or a standalone version of the platform. It's easy to manage both within separate releases and cycles, so everything remains highly organized. 

Zephyr Squad makes it easy to execute test cases manually alongside test automation. Source: Zephyr Docs

Then, if problems occur, the platform makes it simple to link test cases with defects in Jira. That way, the development team has immediate access to the bugs, and product managers can easily prioritize issues by looking at their impact on various test cases. They can also view reports from test runs within the same Jira instance.

To Automate or Not  

Deciding when and how to automate test cases can significantly impact quality and productivity. By keeping the tips we've discussed in mind, you can identify the most appropriate test cases to speed up your tests, improve your test coverage, and optimize your team's time. And with a test management solution, you can manage everything in one place. 

If you're interested in a robust test management solution, Zephyr Squad is flexible for Agile teams living inside Jira. If you're migrating from HP ALM or other legacy solutions, consider Zephyr Enterprise for a more customizable standalone solution with transition tools while still offering bi-directional Jira integration. 

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