Automated Functional Testing

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Without software testing, the software development cycle would be a lot shorter - and a lot worse!

Among other things, extensive testing lets developers catch and fix bugs, improve system functionalities, and ensure that any new updates will integrate smoothly into the existing software. It’s a lifesaver when it comes to boosting the quality of a software-based product and key to putting the needs of customers first.

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In this article, we’re going to break down everything to do with automated functional testing, including the other testing steps that surround it. Before we get into the nitty-gritty of it, here’s a breakdown of all the topics we’ll be covering, so you can navigate straight to the one you’re after:

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With that behind us, let’s get started. First, let’s take a look at what functional testing itself actually is.

What Is Functional Testing?

Functional testing is a major stage in the software development cycle. Its aim is to test the functionality of software builds, mobile applications or web applications. It involves testing each of an application’s functions to guarantee that, at a basic level, they’re working as intended.

The idea of functions working as they should isn’t limited to everything running entirely smoothly, either. Even the most perfect applications fail sometimes. That’s why functional testing also includes checking that when something does go wrong, the appropriate error message pops up in response to the error in question. This ensures that the application is usable.

Examples of functions that are typically tested include the user interface, application database, all APIs (application programming interfaces), communications between clients and the server, security features and any additional components that are important to the application.

In short, functional testing is all about making sure every component in a piece of software is working well enough. It’s far, far cheaper to fix defects pre-release than post-release, so investing in extensive functional testing can be the difference between making a profit and making a loss.

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With that behind us, let’s take a more technical approach to defining what functional testing is.

Types of Functional Testing

There are six different types of functional testing. Each one has a distinct use, yet at the same time, they’re all interconnected. That’s because they all depend on each other; you can’t move straight into alpha testing without running smoke tests first, for example. At the same time, a smoke test on its own won’t catch the same kinds of errors that alpha testing would.

In order for a build or piece of software to be considered fully functional, all six types of tests must be passed first.

Smoke Testing

Smoke testing is generally the first step in the testing process. It involves checking for basic stability and usability, which means testing to see whether the app, system or build can run without instantly crashing. At its most basic level, smoke testing checks for build validity.

The term ‘smoke testing’ originated within the construction industry, where it was used to describe tests conducted on water pipes to check for leaks. Basically, smoke gets injected into the pipes to see if it comes out anywhere, which would expose leaks.

Software smoke testing follows the same general idea: checking a new build for flaws that would make that build unusable.

Smoke tests are a precursor to other types of testing as a result of this. They make it possible to look for smaller bugs, since they guarantee that your build can run in the first place. That’s why smoke testing is generally a type of continuous testing - it’s a good idea to check every new build for basic functionality.

Fortunately, smoke tests are quick and easy to conduct, and can be automated to save even more time.

Regression Testing

The main aim of regression testing is to find and highlight bugs that have been injected into the build unexpectedly. In other words, regression testing involves looking for bugs that weren’t anticipated at all in the original design.

Regression testing is also used to make sure that any problems that have been ironed out in previous versions of the build don’t come back after new changes are implemented. That means that whenever an update is made to existing software, regression software verifies that problems that were fixed in older editions of the software stay, well, fixed.

Lastly, regression testing aims to stop new code modifications from negatively affecting an app’s existing (and functioning) features. It ensures that the app’s functionality doesn’t regress, hence the name.

In short, regression testing is all about stopping the likelihood of major bugs taking over and making it difficult to use the software.

‘Immediately after smoke testing’ is as early as you can catch bugs. By placing regression testing here in the test cycle, you’ll ensure that the moment your software is functional, your teams can start to root out bugs.

Integration Testing

The idea behind integration testing is to make sure each module within an app is working the way it should be. 

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Each module (web services, APIs, databases and so on) should also be able to be integrated into the software application as a whole without generating any new bugs. An individual component might work well on its own, but when it’s put together with a bunch of others, it might not integrate smoothly - which is precisely what integration testing aims to prevent.

As you might imagine, this stage of the testing process deals with the application as a whole system, instead of only looking at its individual components. Integration is a great way to ensure quality in software, making sure it works as a unit, rather than as a loose collection of functionalities.

This stage of testing generally picks up on problems within UI operations, operating timing, API calls (which then have to undergo further API testing), data formats and system database access.

Unit Testing

Once all your integration testing is complete, it’s time to move into the next stage. This is called unit testing, and its purpose is to check for functionality in each unit within an app, instead of taking the previous step’s holistic approach.

Unit testing is typically done by developers themselves, even though it’s often one of the later steps in the testing process. During this stage, the developers will highlight components that might cause problems (for example, by creating bugs or destabilizing builds). That means that unit testing supplements and supports other types of functional tests.

This stage of testing is particularly easy to automate. Developers only need to write the test scripts, then specify the number of test cases and let the program do the rest.

Alpha and Beta Testing

The next kind of functional testing, sequentially speaking, is alpha and beta testing. While they’re often grouped together, alpha and beta testing are actually distinct in a few important ways. We’re going to look at the exact ways in which both of them work.

Let’s start with alpha testing. It takes place before any beta tests, and it’s a type of acceptance testing that involves using internal team members as testers.

Alpha testers are not involved in developing the software - that would make them developers, who are not eligible to alpha test their own software. However, alpha testers do know the basics of the project they’re helping to test.

By using internal team members from the same development company for alpha tests, developers can prevent major bugs from being seen by external end-users. They can also catch and fix those bugs before future customers have to, which spares customers the trouble of filing bug reports and makes fixing the errors easier on developers.

On the other hand, beta testing involves using a small group of external users to test the product and provide their feedback. Beta testers might indicate what is or isn’t working about the app, flag up glitches and bugs, and/or share their opinions and ideas for improvement.

Beta testing is a step between testing internally and outright launching an app to the public.

Since the beta testers have no internal knowledge of the product before they start using it, they’re a reliable source when it comes to verifying whether the software’s UI is intuitive. They can also be sourced from just about any specific demographic, meaning that beta testing lets developers introduce diversity in software testing.

User Acceptance Testing

The final step in the software testing process is user acceptance testing. This type of testing is geared towards finding out whether the product can keep up with regular use and user activity, in real-world scenarios and situations.

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User acceptance testing has to make up the tail-end of the testing framework and can only happen once all the other tests have been completed successfully. That’s because this step involves releasing the app for use by a large, external group of testers.

This type of testing shows developers whether the app they’ve created is working in ways that suit the intended customer base or target demographic - in a realistic context.

It’s a great way to check whether the UI is intuitive to large groups of people, as well as whether the selected customers are happy with the product they’ve been given. That’s why this stage isn’t focused purely on hunting for bugs.

With that said, some customers will always end up discovering the rare elusive bug that wouldn’t show up in any other phases of testing. In other words, customers might encounter bugs that automated systems won’t recreate, which means that this step is still a useful point of bug detection (albeit not as a primary goal). 

Why is Functional Testing Important?

The first, and perhaps most significant, reason why functional testing is important is that it proves that an application is working well.

Developers need to know that the apps they’re investing time and money into crafting are going to generate a profit, which becomes impossible if those apps don’t work. Creating software builds takes a great deal of work - and that work is only worth it if those builds do what they’re designed to.

Functional testing can prove that an app is working as it was intended to. That means that when they run tests, developers can safely have confidence in the quality of their products.

Of course, it’s not just about whether it works. It’s about whether it works well. Functional testing lets developers deliver a fantastic product to their user base, helping them draw in more customers.

Being known for producing buggy, glitchy, error-prone software will all but guarantee that a new software development brand gets stuck with a bad reputation that’s going to be challenging to shake. In a world where over 300 million startups are launched every year, that’s a mistake no new company can afford to make.

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Last but certainly not least, functional testing is needed to ensure that every single user has as good of an experience as possible with the software in question.

Why would you ask your customers to slog through writing endless bug reports (and dealing with bugs themselves) when, instead, you could put more emphasis on functional testing and remove those bugs before your customers see them?

Testing eliminates bugs. The more bugs you eliminate, the more seamless the user experience is going to be and the better any given customer’s experience of your brand will be.

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Common Challenges in Functional Testing

As with any step in the development process, functional testing does come with challenges. Here are a few to watch out for:

  • Covering enough test cases. If you run a successful test once, you can only really conclude that that one test case happened to be bug-free. To guarantee a high standard of app quality, developers have to run a lot of test cases, which can be difficult.
  • Getting a good amount of feedback. Developers can provide themselves with feedback, but it’s always going to come from a biased point of view. Getting objective, outsider-point of view feedback is an obstacle that many developers have to overcome throughout the functional testing process.
  • Testing quickly. The testing process can be time-consuming and lengthy, making it challenging to run through enough tests to safely say that all major bugs have been eliminated. That means that functional testing can lead to unexpected delays in the release cycle.
  • Finding as many bugs as possible. Not every testing solution is equally efficient at rooting out bugs. Sometimes, tracking down those final elusive bugs has nothing to do with the test execution, or even the test itself, at all; those bugs might just happen to only show up under highly specific, difficult to predict circumstances.
  • Budgeting appropriately. Sadly, functional testing can’t generally be done for free. That means that developers have to budget correctly and that they may have to adjust the tech budget anytime a sudden change happens.
  • Scaling. The more human labor that is involved in the testing process, the more difficult it becomes to scale effectively and quickly. That’s why scaling is a common challenge in functional testing (and test management).
  • Ensuring smooth integration. All testing has to be done to the same high standard if developers want to have any hope of implementing continuous integration of new functionalities. This can be difficult to achieve in a realistic testing environment.

The Difference Between Functional Testing and Automation Testing

Automation testing market is continuing to grow at a fast pace, so it’s something all development companies need to consider. In order to understand the difference between this and functional testing, let’s find out exactly what it involves. 

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Automation testing is a technique that executes test case suites automatically using specialized programs or coding. It’s often done using test automation tools like Selenium IDE or Jenkins, both of which are free and open-source - though, of course, any other suitable webdriver can be used instead.

The script languages that can be used for automation testing include Java, C#, Python, Ruby and Javascript, among others.

Automation testing is, by nature, the exact opposite of manual testing. Where manual tests are performed by human testers, automation testing is done via scripts and bots, as we’ve established.

Functional testing can be automated as well, which is where it overlaps with automation testing. The crucial difference to keep in mind is that automation testing can never be done manually by its very definition. On the other hand, functional testing can be fully manual, partially automated or fully automated depending on the needs of the developers that are using it.

Both kinds of testing have their advantages, and both can be necessary.

Any software developer has to do at least some degree of functional testing if they want their product(s) to be at all usable. Without smoke testing, you risk a software build being unstable enough to crash more often than it works, for example.

Technically speaking, software developers can choose to go without automation altogether. The trouble with that is that it’s bound to slow those developers down a lot compared to the speed and efficiency that automation offers.

Put simply, test automation is just very helpful. It eliminates the human error component altogether and lets developers expand their test coverage almost instantaneously as needed, all while gathering greater quantities of more accurate test data. It also integrates with whatever methods you use - whether Agile, DevOps or something else.

That’s why automated testing is more or less the future of all software testing, whether that be functional testing, performance testing, load testing and/or others.

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What is Automated Functional Testing?

As we established, automated testing is the opposite of manual testing. It involves using bots and scripts in the maintenance of your test suite, rather than human testers.

In recent years, automated functional testing has become a top testing trend - and for good reason.

Automation is a more streamlined way to do things. When you automate a process, that process gets completed in a regular and consistent way, regardless of any external factors. This is especially important in the world of functional testing, where regulating internal processes more rigidly leads to more accurate test results.

It also doesn’t hurt that functional test automation gets the individual testing modules completed much, much more quickly than manual testing can. This leads to faster releases, more seamless and bug-free software and as a direct result, more profits:

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Some functional testing stages, particularly alpha and beta testing, cannot be automated. However, automation tools can speed up processes like smoke testing, integration testing and regression testing to allow for faster releases and a more optimized app lifecycle.

Automated Functional Testing Methodologies

Broadly speaking, there are three distinct automated functional testing methodologies that developers can take advantage of. Each one comes with its own advantages, and each one is subtly different.

We’re going to take a close look at all three and consider their benefits one by one. Before we do, it’s worth noting that when you consider multiple testing methodologies in your automated functional testing approach, you’ll have a higher chance of finding the perfect methodology for your company.

Keyword Testing

The first kind of testing methodology we’re going to look into is keyword testing.

This type of testing relies on using simple ‘keywords’ that tell the functional testing tools exactly how to test the application in question. In other words, with this approach, testers enter keywords that detail which actions need to be performed on the apps that are being tested.

It’s important to note that these keywords - as well as the actions they trigger - are completely separate from the automated tool and the test scripts. They’re simply commands that trigger certain events that are coded into the tools and the scripts.

A major advantage that comes with this methodology is that it’s very user-friendly. Testers don’t need to modify the script every time they want to make something specific happen, nor do they need to change anything about the actual automation tool itself.

Data-Driven Testing

Next, we’re going to cover data-driven testing. As the name suggests, this type of testing places the most emphasis on data and lets that data determine the direction of the testing.

The data-driven mentality is becoming increasingly appealing as the market size of big data goes up. Data is becoming a very precious resource and one that’s worth taking advantage of.

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A data-driven approach to automated functional testing entails storing data in external files instead of hard-coding it into the test scripts. The most popular external file type to store that data in is a spreadsheet, which can then be used to create graphs and charts to conceptualize the contents of the data.

Since the data-driven test scripts aren’t bloated with data, they’re much more streamlined. This means that just one script can test every data value that needs to be tested. That’s a major advantage; it spares developers the effort of writing many different scripts.

Frequent Testing

The simplest type of automated functional testing is frequent testing, which, as the name suggests, simply follows the principle of running tests as often as possible.

A frequent testing methodology is compatible with multiple different types of software testing, such as performance or cross-browser testing. That’s because it only dictates that tests be run very frequently.

Of course, it’s a lot easier to run tests more often when you’re using automated tools; automation lets you run far more tests in an hour than even the most highly trained manual testers can perform in the same amount of time.

The biggest advantage that comes with adopting a frequent testing methodology is that you’ll be more likely to discover bugs sooner, which means it’s cheaper and faster to address them. Another bonus point is that more test cases mean fewer bugs slip through the cracks, meaning that your resulting software will be highly streamlined.

Since this methodology relies on automation, it also creates no extra work to run tests more frequently.

Why Automate Functional Testing

There are many reasons to automate your software testing. Essentially, it boils down to this: increased automation improves efficiency. It’s represented clearly in this graphic, which shows some of the biggest benefits of giving tasks to AIs instead of doing them manually:

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Let’s break that down a little.

Automation lets you take simple tasks out of the hands of manual workers and place them into the care of scripts, bots and AIs. This saves the company money, since they no longer have to pay employees to, for example, run the same smoke test a hundred times every day.

It also optimizes all your processes. There’s no need to worry about whether testing is being done as efficiently as possible - automated tools will guarantee that the methods they’re using are the fastest, most effective and most efficient ways to handle that process.

Another reason why anyone should consider automating their functional testing processes is because automated processes are incredibly scalable. They don’t require sourcing and paying new hires anytime the company wants to scale up - at most, they just need some minor adjustments.

That’s really important for enterprises, which are liable to grow very quickly and as such, need to invest in highly scalable solutions. The same is true for startups, which might go from small to large businesses in a short period of time and therefore need their testing tools to be scalable.

Benefits Of Automated Functional Testing

The benefits of automated functional testing are many and varied. That’s why we’re going to dive in and consider some of the most important advantages, one by one.

  • Automation speeds up the testing process. This means developers have more time to deal with bugs, lowering the likelihood of creating quick fixes that don’t properly address the root of the problem. In other words, speeding up the testing process means that developers have the time they need to get things done properly.
  • It allows for as many test cases as necessary. With automated testing, companies aren’t in any way limited by the limits of their manual testers. Instead, they can increase the number of test cases covered every day to any level they need to.
  • The testing process will run like clockwork. That means that time management becomes significantly easier, since everything will go perfectly according to plan in terms of how long things take.
  • It reduces reliance on testers. When you rely on testers, you may end up running into trouble. Human distractions - from illness, to holidays - will affect your schedule. Automation, on the other hand, is always going to perform exactly the way you want it to.
  • Improving the quality of your apps becomes easier. Testing often is a great way to boost the quality of the final products. By using automated testing, you can drive your company’s growth through product quality.
  • Automation gets you all the feedback you need. All you need to do is program the script to deliver feedback on each test case, then plug in the test cases. As simply as that, your developers will have all the feedback they need at their fingertips.

How Do You Automate Functional Testing?

Automating functional testing is actually easier than it might sound. All you need is an automation tool, a build to run tests on and a team to set the process up. It can cover everything from API to UI tests, in far less time than a human team.

If you’re looking to start automating your functional testing, chances are, you’ve already got a testing process in place. That’s a good thing. It means that you’re already familiar with what the process should look like - and it probably means you can see the benefits of swapping to an automated model.

All you need to do to start making the switch is think about what you want out of automation. If you’re hoping to upgrade the number of test cases you can run in a day, for example, you’d want to focus on finding an automation tool that helps you do just that. If you’re looking for a simpler and more user-friendly UI, you’ll want to search for a tool that provides this.

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In more practical terms, you can set up an automated functional testing process by following the steps covered in the next section.

Automated Functional Testing Process

The process itself is surprisingly simple and can be completed in just seven steps. These have been set out below.

1. Plan the process.

The first step is to set the parameters of your functional testing process. What’s the scope like? Which steps in the process are you going to automate? It’s important to have a concrete answer to both of these questions before you move forward. This is also the step when budgeting, expertise and personnel are taken into account to formulate a solid plan.

2. Pick your automation tool.

Now that you’ve got your plan in place, it’s time to start considering which tool(s) you want to use. The plan will heavily inform this decision. Your chosen tool should be a great fit for the tasks you’re going to assign it to.

3. Design your testing framework.

You’ve got a plan, and you’ve picked your tools. The next step is to create the framework within which all of your testing is going to take place. That includes outlining the standards of testing, defining which practices you’ll be using and picking between data-driven, keyword and frequent testing methodologies. Being thorough here can save time on test maintenance down the line.

4. Adjust the testing environment.

In this step, you’ll install the necessary hardware and software. You’ll also want to set up the schedule that the testing will follow, so your teams can plan around it.

5. Write the testing script(s).

The scripts will be used to run the tests themselves, so before starting tests, make sure you’ve got your scripts ready. They should be written according to the project’s needs, which you’ll have defined in steps 1 and 3.

6. Run the tests.

This is the most straightforward step. All you’ve got to do here is run the tests exactly the way you planned to do!

7. Analyze the results.

The tests are complete, and now, it’s time to analyze the results they’ve yielded. You’ll work with data at this point. The data will tell you whether there are bugs, as well as whether more testing is needed. 

Automated Functional Testing Tips and Best Practices

In order to get the most out of your automated testing, there’s a few best practices to bear in mind:

  • Ensure you’ve optimized your software testing process. This is something most automation tools can help you with.
  • Do your research. Not every tool is created with the same purposes in mind. You’ll have to put in the effort to find the right one for your business’ needs.
  • Test your testing tools. It sounds a bit redundant, but if there’s one thing you take away, let it be this: testing is always a good idea. Apply that same principle to your approach to functional testing tools, and you’ll find yourself trying a few out to find the perfect fit.
  • Document the process. Take many screenshots, and make sure you know what’s happening at every step. This makes it easier to track down where problems originated, if they do arise.
  • Learn more whenever you can. There are online courses, webinars and textbooks for just about everything, including automated functional testing. You can only benefit from them.

Conclusion

Functional testing is a necessary step in the software development cycle. It takes a new build and runs it through rigorous testing to remove any possible bugs systematically, with every step focusing on a different method for rooting out errors and flaws.

When automation is introduced into functional testing, every process runs more smoothly.

That’s because automation takes the most repetitive parts of the testing cycle and ensures that they all run to the same standard of excellence. It removes the problem of human error, all while streamlining and improving the actual process of testing.

In a way, automating your functional testing is an investment in the future of your company. That’s because automation makes your production process run more quickly, guaranteeing faster release cycles and lowering the likelihood of delays.

Automation is essentially a great way to ensure business continuity because it always works, no matter what. It never needs to stop for a break, and it’s incapable of getting sick, unlike manual testers. In short, it’s a reliable, durable way to run your tests.

As a software developer, you’ve got to test your apps one way or another. That’s why it’s always a good idea to try automating that process; there’s little to lose and many great benefits to gain.

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