Lessons learnt from writing Automated Tests

The purpose of this article is to share some of the big lessons I’ve learnt in my 5+ years of writing automated tests for Campaign Monitor, an online service to send beautiful emails. If you are writing automated tests, it’s worth keeping these lessons in mind to ensure you end up with fast, maintainable and useful tests.

1 – Website testing is hard

Websites can be slow to load, both at a whole page level and an element level. This means you are constantly writing ‘waits’ into your code to make sure the element you want to test is available. As java-script techniques improve, there are more animations, hovers, fade-ins,  call-outs, etc… being added to websites which results in a much nicer experience for the user, but can be a nightmare for writing a matching automated test. With these things in mind, I suggest the following:

  1. Evaluate whether this test case is worth automating. You can test functionality via an automated test (eg does clicking button X cause action Y to happen?), but they are less useful at telling you whether a page animation looks correct visually, so you are better to keep that as a manual regression test.
  2. Do as much of the automated test outside of the UI as possible. If you can utilise an API call or make direct database updates to get your system into the state required or to verify the UI action performed in the app you will save a lot of time in executing the test and avoid possible test failures before you even get to the point of interest for the test.
  3. Use Smart Waits. As often as practical, you are better off doing your assert of an element state within a short loop. You usually don’t want your test to fail because your app took 4 seconds to login instead of the usual 2 seconds. Always opt for waiting for a specific element state rather than Thread.Sleep!

2 – Make your tests understandable

When you first write your test, you have all the context you need, you know why you chose each method over other methods, you know what you are attempting to do at each step along the way. But what about the next person to look at that test in a years time when the requirements of that test have changed? Writing a test that is easy to understand for all readers will save valuable time later on and will mean the test continues to provide value for a long time. How do we do this?

  1. Use meaningful variables and method names. You should be able to read through your test without diving down any deeper into the methods and know what is going on. To do this, you need your variables and methods to accurately and succinctly explain what they are for.. For example:
    int outputRowNumber = GetTableRowForCustomer(“customer name”);
    compared to:
    int x = GetCustomer(“customer name”);
  2. Add comments when necessary. Your colleagues aren’t idiots, so they won’t need comments on every line of code, but if, for example, you have a line of code calculating the number of seconds left in the day, it might be worth a few words to explain what you are doing.

3 – Run your tests often

The purpose of creating and running these tests is to find bugs in your application, so you should be running all of your tests at least once a week, and most tests daily or more. This will make it much easier to identify the change that occurred which has resulted in the failed test. How often you run the tests will depend on how often you are updating the code under test. The more often you update, the more often you should run the tests. You will probably have a mix of tests that take varying amount of times, so be smart about when you run them, run the fast ones during the day, but leave the slow ones to run overnight so you don’t have to wait for the results.

We’ve had great success in having a small and quick subset of tests that do a basic check of a broad range of features across the application. This gives us quick feedback to know that there aren’t any major issues with core functionality. We call them ‘Smoke tests’, because if there’s smoke, there’s fire!

4 – Be regular in maintenance

Any one who has tried automated testing will know that your tests will get out of date as the features they are testing update. But, if you keep an eye on the results of your tests regularly, and act on anything that needs updating in a speedy fashion, you will save yourself a lot of pain down the track. Much better to tackle the cause of 2 failing tests now then to deal with multiple causes of 30 failures in a months’ time. If you can address any maintenance tasks for updated feature behaviour within a week of it happening, the context will be fresh and you will be able to get on top of it quickly, before it spreads and merges with other issues and suddenly you have a sea of failed tests and don’t know where to start.

5 – Be technology independent

We previously used a technology called WatiN to drive our test automation and are now in the process of moving over to Selenium WebDriver. We’ve also used other technologies in the past and each time a change is needed, it takes a lot of time/effort to convert our solution. If/When the time comes where you feel the tool you are using is no longer working for your needs, the time/cost to change can be huge. It’s possible every method you’ve written is dependent on your current technological choices, so it either rules out ever changing, or means there is a steep curve involved in changing over.

So instead, add an interface layer on top of your code which just says “I want the ‘browser’ to ‘click’ on ‘this link’”. Then the implementation can figure out how to get the Browser to click on the given link. Then when you decide you want to try a new technology, just add a new implementation to the interface and nothing else needs to change.

I will probably add a follow up post as summarising 5 years of learning into 1 post is hard!

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