Monday, April 1, 2013

Test Automation is not Automated Testing

I had more or less the same conversation with  Michael Bolton and Pradeep Soundararajan recently and both started with a statement about tool use and automation:

@testertested: I help testers re-think what they mean by automation. I help them see usage of any tool as automation
@qahiccupps: any tool? A pen and paper is a testing tool..
@testertested: Yes, it does help you make notes, that you refer to for re-exploring the app. Do you see it that way?
@qahiccupps: Yes, a tool but not automation which, for me, requires action w/o my participation. Another: I can use Excel manually (enter formula into every cell) or automated (macros). Tool != automation.
@testertested: So, what about annotation pens and stuff ?
@qahiccupps: Used directly it's manual. Without me (directly) controlling, automation. Not sure if we're missing each other's point?
@michaelbolton: Test automation is any use of tools to support testing.
@qahiccupps: pen and paper are tools that I use in testing. Can we regard their use as automation? If so, how?
@michaelbolton: Good question. In general, we refer to electronic machinery, of course. However, consider this aspect of all tools: "We shape (and choose) our tools; thereafter they shape (or choose) us."  McLuhan (with my parentheticals)
@qahiccupps: Agree w/that. But I'd hesitate to call anything that doesn't perform actions independently automation. tool !=automation. I can fill every cell in an Excel sheet by typing into them by hand, or I can write a macro.
@michaelbolton: Using Excel itself, however, is a fabulous example of test automation in the sense of any use of tools to support testing.
@qahiccupps: If I only write notes into Excel it's just like pen and paper. The use I make of the tool is key to whether it's automation
Michael has talked about this before in, for example, a blog on automation in ET:
Some people might have a problem with the idea [that exploratory testing can include automation], because of a parsimonious view of what test automation is, or does. To some, test automation is getting the machine to perform the test. I call that checking. I prefer to think of test automation in terms of what we say in the Rapid Software Testing course: test automation is any use of tools to support testing.
The copula verb, for all its slightness, makes strong assertions. In this case: if you use any tool while testing you have performed test automation. But what does the term mean? The Oxford University Press dictionary says this:
  • Tool: a thing used to help perform a job  
  • Automatic: working by itself with little or no direct human control  
  • Automation: the use or introduction of automatic equipment in a manufacturing or other process  
An anecdote from the same blog post describes some places where automation could be part of exploratory work:
[One colleague] got curious about something that he saw [in a program's behaviour]. Curiosity can't be automated. He decided to generate some test values to refine what he had discovered in earlier exploration. Sapient decisions can't be automated. He used Excel, which is a powerful test automation tool, when you use it to support testing. He invented a couple of formulas. Invention can't be automated. The formulas allowed Excel to generate a great big table. The actual generation of the data can be automated. 
I don't disagree with any of the assessment and I strongly agree that automation can be used to drive analysis and discovery, amongst other things. I disagree with the claim that (all) tool use is automation.

Tools need not exist at all in the tangible world. Shorthand is a tool, for example. Its utility relies on it being realised in some form by some other tool, say a stenotype or a nail dipped in blood. Although we might argue about whether these secondary tools are or can be automated, can the use of an ephemeral tool like shorthand itself be regarded as automation when the tool itself only exists inside the user's head?

Perhaps that's too obscure. Let's look at something more traditionally called a tool. I'm in the garden and I want to dig a hole. I have a spade but that tool isn't going to dig the hole by itself. It's unlikely that anyone would regard me digging the hole with the spade as garden automation. There's certainly a tool and there's certainly an efficiency to using it over my bare hands, but digging the hole is still manual labour.

In the Twitter thread above Michael said he was thinking of electronic machinery, presumably more generally as something that at least has the potential to operate independently. So let's think about a more sophisticated tool, one where the user does not directly manipulate every operation, but instead controls them by some higher level process. How about a car? It takes around two hours to drive my car to my mum's house. In that time many things happen without my explicit direction - the engine runs through its cycle thousands of times; shock absorbers compress and stretch to smooth out the ride; computers monitor various metrics such as oil level and temperature and report them to my dashboard. And some things happen with my direction but without my knowing exactly what physical actions are performed - I turn the wheel and I think there's probably some kind of rack-and-pinion technology implementing my request, but I don't know the details.

Is driving the car travel automation? Not for me, not by the definitions above. Although much in a car happens independently - to some level of granularity - I cannot leave the car unattended and expect it to get me to my mum's house.  Ah yes, but Google notoriously has a driverless car, you say. Yes, and there are functionalities that I would regard as automation in some of today's vehicles too: assisted parallel parking, for example. But even though Google's car can function in an automated fashion, if I got into it and drove it myself that would not be automation.

Tools, used appropriately, are capable of delivering advantages in areas such as reporting, visibility,  scalability, scope, quality and quantity of datacommunications, coveragechecking and numerous other things that are valuable to a tester. Automation requires tools. Some tools can provide automation. Not every use of such a tool is automation.

Michael was kind enough to read a draft of this post and commented:
We sometimes make provocative statements to get people to question their beliefs. "Any use of tools to support testing" is an encouragement to think expansively.  (McLuhan again, on his students: "I don't want them to agree with me.  I just want them to think.") 
People who respond to this provocative statement typically apply emphasis to the "tool" part.  What I'm more interested in is the "any use" part. The intention here is to stop thinking of the role of tools exclusively in terms of automated checks, and start thinking of test automation as "any use of (automated) tools to support testing".  In fact, James Bach and I are trying to avoid "automated testing" altogether, and say what we mean: machine checking, and tool-supported testing.  
For me, the strength of test automation is any use of tools to support testing, memorable and provocative as it is, is reduced by distractions around tools and their capacity for automation. I prefer this alternative: test automation is not automated testing.


  1. I'd encourage you to think of something from a positive angle. It's more helpful, I've found, to describe something in terms of what it is, rather than what it is not. The latter is an infinite set. Test automation is not automated testing, true—but test automation is not a recipe for borscht, either.

  2. Hi Michael,

    I'd generally agree, but the positive restatements of your "Test automation is any use of tools to support testing" that I attempted felt more like definitions to me (example: "Test automation is the use of automation to support testing") and, while removing the mention of tools that I think weakens it, also lost the element of (thought) provocation that you were aiming for.

    You're right that there is an infinity of things that test automation might not be. But there is a much smaller set of things that could naively appear to be synonymous with it. In this case, I've made a deliberate choice to to refute an apparent (or at least potential) tautology to hopefully prompt deeper consideration. My hope is that that it would raise questions like: Really, why not? How is test automation defined? How is automated testing defined? Where do these two concepts overlap, if at all?

  3. "Test automation is the use of automation to support testing", -- I concur!!!