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Test automation tools: 8 trends and techniques to watch

Linda Rosencrance Freelance writer/editor

To realize the benefits of test automation, organizations have to take full advantage of smarter tools, according to the The World Quality Report 2020–2021.

Smart tools are those that include more features based on artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). These, along with a proliferation of JavaScript-based testing tools, more API testing, and more emphasis on skills, are the trends to watch this year, experts say.

Here's what your organization needs to know about the state of test automation tools.

1. The use of smart testing tools will rise

One of last year's predictions that's happening now is the increased use of AI and ML in testing tools to make test automation easier, said Diego Lo Giudice, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.

"The trend that everybody was expecting was that developers would take over testing. But developers don't really like testing. We can give them some testing to do, but the rest of the testing is done by other personas, such as the business testing persona."
Diego Lo Giudice

However, while expectations of the benefits that AI and ML in testing can bring to quality assurance remain high, and adoption is on the increase, there are few signs of significant general progress, as the World Quality Report noted:

"Partly, this is because relevant skill sets still aren't in place; and partly, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted schedules, budgets, and plans. Nonetheless, enthusiasm hasn't diminished [and] organizations are putting AI high among their selection criteria for new QA solutions and tools."

The reason: Smart technologies will increase cost-efficiency, reduce the need for manual testing, shorten time to market, and help create and sustain continuous quality improvements, the report found.

Other benefits of AI-based test automation include reducing test creation time, boosting test coverage, increasing resiliency of testing assets, and cutting down on test maintenance efforts, said Nick Mears, product marketing manager for functional testing at Micro Focus.

Additionally, new ML techniques are being applied to determine the scope of optimal automation tests; the goal is "to reduce the exponential growth in test scripts," according to the report.

Another new automation technique is the use of AI-based, self-healing scripts to automatically modify scripts during runtime, in case of object and page element changes, the report noted.

Although more tools are sporting AI capabilities, adoption has been limited to this point, said Malcolm Isaacs, a testing evangelist at Micro Focus. But that's about to change.

"We're at the point where I think we're going to take off. The tool set that we've had up until now has enabled a certain amount of AI-based automation. [But now] is kind of the inflection point where we can take it to the mainstream—it's now production-ready."
Malcolm Isaacs

2. JavaScript-based testing tools will proliferate

One of the most prominent trends in 2021 will be the increase of JavaScript-based testing tools, such as Jest, Cypress, Puppeteer, and Playwright, said Nikolay Advolodkin, CEO and senior test automation engineer at Ultimate QA.

This is happening because a lot of front-end web development is done with JavaScript. And when writing code in JavaScript, it is just much easier to also test that code in JavaScript, according to Advolodkin.

"All of this tooling that easily integrates with your software development practices just makes a very low barrier of entry, whether for developers or even testing individuals, who just enter and start testing the code."
Nikolay Advolodkin

Another factor is the tight integration between application code and testing code, he said. "You can do things like writing unit tests or component tests in JavaScript, Advolodkin said. "But then whenever you find testing gaps that you can't fulfill with either one of those strategies, you can start using stuff like system tests with Cypress, for example, which is just another extra tool inside of your JavaScript repository."

3. The use of Cypress is set to expand

The use of Cypress, an end-to-end testing tool for browser-based apps, is growing in popularity because JavaScript has gained users, Advolodkin said. Another plus is Cypress' feature set. Among other features, the tool offers browser automation, application programming interface (API) automation, and component testing for React web applications, he said.

"So it covers multiple layers of testing applications, as opposed to many other tools that kind of just focus on a single aspect."
—Nikolay Advolodkin

Tools like Selenium and Puppeteer are only for browser-based front-end automation, so if you want to start doing API testing or component testing, now you have to pick up all their tools. "Cypress has all of that," he said.

4. The need for API testing will continue to grow

Since the majority of information sharing that occurs within Internet of Things (IoT) devices is via APIs, it's critical to test the APIs of IoT-enabled devices to ensure they're secure, said Advolodkin.

"As more of the world brings us devices online—and we have smart thermostats, we have Alexa, we have smart light bulbs, TVs, and all of that—it becomes increasingly more important to test those things. And the way that we test them is using API—not browser-based tools, but API testing. So I think that's going to be huge."
—Nikolay Advolodkin

5. NLP-based automation tools are under consideration

The QA community appears willing to consider using natural-language processing (NLP)-based automation tools. These provide benefits including scriptless automation, model-based testing, the use of plain English statements to generate scripts, and a shallower learning curve that allows different project stakeholders to contribute to automation efforts, as the The World Quality Report noted:

"Options such as self-healing capabilities are going to increase gradually, but there is no doubt that these are the future of automation. While the promises are big, we understand these automation tools aren't yet sufficiently mature."

Forrester's Lo Giudice said everybody talks about self-healing, but the reality is that it's not there yet. 

"It's improving. There are some tools that do it better than others, but it's at a superficial level. It's nothing huge yet."
—Diego Lo Giudice

6. Expect more emphasis on skills than tools

Although there are plenty of tools on the market, the trend is going to be less on tools and more on people just skilling themselves up because they want to be marketable, said Michael Fritzius, president of Arch DevOps.

"You're going to see more manual testers that want to get into automation. You're going to see more automation engineers that want to get into the architecture of automated testing solutions."
Michael Fritzius

Rather than being the people developing the actual tests, they'll be overseeing and guiding teams about how to do it properly. "So they're going to try to do what they can to make it on their own," Fritzius said. "It's skilling yourself up to write software, mainly."

7. The adoption of commercial tools will slow

Adoption of commercial tools won't pick up until next year at the earliest, as a result of the investment involved, said Fritzius."It takes a lot of time and money."

Tools, on average, run at least $250,000. And then you have to learn it and change the processes to integrate the tool into their system, he noted.

It's going take a while for companies to be willing to really risk that much money to improve their processes, "knowing that it might take a while for us to see a result on that."

8. Fragmentation in test automation tools will continue

There will continue to be fragmentation in the test automation landscape throughout 2021 and likely into 2022, said Paul Grizzaffi, principal automation architect at Magenic.

Although there are different technologies, frameworks and stacks coming out, they are generally attached to one browser or API.

"They need to be glued together by users. Or you have to go and get an additional framework or stack piece that would help bring all of that stuff together so that you can work with one technology, if you will, to do different types of automation."
Paul Grizzaffi

Forrester's Lo Giudice said that companies prefer integrated platforms over best-of-breed testing tools.

Testing has many aspects—unit testing, functional testing, performance, load, security, integration testing, test data management, API testing, he said.

"Clients don't want one tool for each, and they don't care about having a best of breed for each. They want an integrated platform because they're looking for a uniform, consistent experience going from one type of testing to another."
—Diego Lo Giudice

Caution is the ruling force

As with life in general, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a monkey wrench into the test automation landscape. As such, it's important for you to take these trends into consideration as you review your test automation tools and capabilities this year before investing time and money in anything new.

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