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Best Practices for Building Maintainable and Scalable Test Automation

There’s a major difference between automating twenty test cases and automating 2000 test cases; while it’s completely possible to take an ad-hoc approach when there are only a few test cases, it becomes an entirely different story when test cases run into the thousands.

Enterprises who have begun automating, and eventually tried to scale that automation, will know that it pays off to take a strategic approach that follows a thought-through plan and best practices, and that utilizes the right tools.

If you’re looking to build test automation that scales, it’s a good idea to take a step back, carefully consider the process that lies ahead, create a test automation strategy, and decide which tool will serve you best and let you achieve truly scalable automation that you can maintain with ease. 

Even if you’re not looking to scale right now, but just at the starting point of your automation journey, automation yields the best benefits if it is created by following best practices from the beginning.

Below we outline best practices which you can follow as you build your suite of automated test cases. 

Here's an overview of what you'll learn:

  1. How to identify which tests to automate
  2. How to build test automation flows (5 best practices)
  3. What you can achieve by testing frequently
  4. How to find the right test automation tool
  5. Next steps: building your test automation strategy

download maintenance and scalability guide

1. Identify what to automate

The first step in building test automation that scales is identifying what to automate. 

It might be useful to think of the optimal number of test cases as a bell curve: Automate too little and the ROI of automation will be low as you’ll spend too much time on initial setup and learning, compared to the time saved on the automated tasks. On the contrary, automate too much, and you’ll risk spending an unnecessary amount of time on maintaining tests that aren’t giving you sufficient value. 

Ideally, you want to find the sweet spot somewhere in the middle, where the ROI is the highest. To do that, consider these guidelines:

  • Automate predictable scenarios only. The test case selected for automation should have a clearly defined objective.
  • Automate tests that are repetitive. Automating repetitive tests won’t just save you time, it’ll also save you from human errors that typically occur as a result of repetition. Regression tests that are repeated for all builds are a good place to begin.
  • Automate data-intensive tests. Moving large quantities of data from A to B is not just tedious, it’s also highly error prone, and robots can perform this task with higher accuracy and speed than humans can.
  • Automate critical, complex feature tests. If a feature is critical, it’s important to test it thoroughly and frequently. Automation helps make that possible.
  • Automate cross-technology tests. Automating tests that require testing combinations on multiple hardware/software/platforms and browsers can be completed efficiently with automated parallel testing.
  • Automate tests that are simple, but time-consuming. The time-consuming test should be automated to save unnecessary manual efforts, and to let testers focus on tasks that require their critical thinking and skill.

Remember, these are only guidelines and there may be exceptions for each of these points. But as a rule of thumb, the predictable, repetitive tests will make the best cases for automation.

2. Build your test automation flows

Once you’ve identified the test cases for automation, it’s time to build them. For this, there are also a number of best practices to follow.

Build isolated flows

When building your test automation flows, it’s best practice to isolate them and build atomic flows that are independent of one another. 

Why? Because if the test fails, it’s easier to identify where and why it failed, and to fix the issue, without affecting other tests. 

That’s not to say, however, that you shouldn’t build larger, end-to-end tests that encompass entire processes from beginning to end. But if you only build end-to-end tests, you’ll spend a significant amount of time on identifying where the test failed each time. If, on the other hand, you have flows that test features in isolation, you’ll be able to more quickly identify if the problem lies within that specific feature. 

Rethink the way your manual test cases are built

As you build your new automation flows, consider how you can approach it with an ‘automation mindset’ instead of a ‘manual mindset’. 

A common mistake when starting out with automation is to try to transfer test cases in a 1:1 manner into your automated testing suite. In many cases, you’ll find that they’re built up of many smaller, connected validations that don’t translate well into automation. Instead, consider if there’s a smarter way to set it up - a way that will allow you to create atomic flows.

Build reusable flows

It’s a good idea to think about how you can build reusable flows at the very beginning of your build, as this will help you scale more quickly. 

Tests that are designed to handle one functionality at a time are easier to reuse, and hence scale, than ones with multiple dimensions, so think simple.

For example, you can create a reusable flow that logs into an application. This is an action that you’ll probably need for many of your flows, so if you create a generic one that you can adjust and reuse again and again with different data, you’ll save yourself a lot of time down the line.

Create naming conventions

When you create reusable flows, you’ll also want to make sure that they can actually be found and utilized by the rest of your team. You can do this by introducing a proper naming convention from the start. You may already have one that works within your test management or bug tracking system, in which case it’s good practice to reuse these and thereby limit the introduction of new names.

Everyone on the team should be a part of the naming convention, or at least familiar with it, so that flows are created and can be found by all team members. This will ensure that you and your team don’t spend hours on trying to find existing flows or recreating flows that already exist.

Naming conventions are of course also useful for the flows that aren’t templates, as it ensures that everyone on the team can understand a flow. 

In other words, with a naming convention in place, it will be easier to find, understand, and collaborate on flows, and as a result, maintain and scale them.

Parameterize 

Using the login example again, you might find that, at some point in time, your login credentials will change. Instead of changing every single flow that now uses those login credentials, you can use parameterization.

It might be useful to think of parameterization as the act of introducing placeholders. By introducing placeholders for data in your test flows where possible (as opposed to hard-coding data into each test) it becomes much easier to scale and maintain your test automation cases over time.

Parameterization allows you to do data-driven testing, which is the method of pulling data from an external data source and inserting it into a test to see that the test passes with the listed data inputs from that data source. 

This makes it possible to test with essentially countless data variations, and it also makes it possible to edit data at any point in time, without having to also edit all your test cases. 

3. Test frequently

By following the best practices for test automation setup, it becomes possible to test more, and to test frequently.

If you have the right automation setup and the right tool, you can run more test execution cycles. If your test suites are large, you can set up parallel testing to test wider and shorten the testing cycle.

All in all, this will ensure faster feedback loops, allowing bugs to be fixed more quickly, and thereby reducing the time to market, while maintaining a high level of quality. Because bugs are cheaper to fix early in the development cycle, you can also reduce the overall testing costs, which will make the return on investment in your automation tool greater.

The end goal is to achieve continuous testing where you always have an up-to-date quality status on all builds and you can take corrective measures immediately if you see a critical test failing. 

The next, critical ingredient for achieving success with test automation and creating flows that are maintainable and scalable is finding the right test automation tool.

4. Finding a test automation tool

A quick search on the Internet will reveal that there are many opinions for test automation tools. But not all of them will let you scale with ease.

Next are a three things to look for in a test automation tool.

No-code

A key indicator for scalability is the level of coding the tool requires; is it code-based, low-code, or no-code.

Many opt for code-based Selenium as their first choice when beginning their automation journey as it’s free and has a large user community. Many realize, however, that due to the amount of coding it requires, Selenium becomes a bit of a beast to maintain once the number of test cases start to grow.

Instead, it can be an advantage to start out with a codeless Selenium tool that uses Selenium under the hood, but hides the complexity by using a visual language rather than code.

Even if your team is made up of testers and developers who are great programmers, you can save valuable time by taking code out of the equation, and instead let developers focus on writing code for new features, and testers focus on exploratory testing, or optimizing test design.

Using no-code automation is also an advantage when it comes to collaboration, as teams are made up of various skill sets - some might know how to write Python, some might know C#, others might not know any programming language at all.

If you choose a no-code tool that uses a universally understandable visual language instead of code, you thereby minimize the burden of trying to decode what others have written.

CI/CD pipeline integration

Second, you want to find a tool that integrates with your CI/CD pipeline. It’s critical that the tool you choose supports the investments you’ve already made in this respect. The tool should therefore integrate seamlessly with existing tools and have an open and flexible API.

Reusability, parameterization, and more

Last, try to find a tool that will allow you to follow the best practices for building and executing your flows; tools that enable you to create reusable test flows, to parameterize, to name your flows with ease, to test in parallel, and to of course give you that clear overview of all your tests. 

Combined, these features will make it easier for you to scale and maintain your test automation flows, allowing you to yield the full benefits of test automation, fast. 

5. What next?

Now that we’ve covered best practices and tool guidelines for maintaining and scaling test automation, it’s time to shed some light on test automation strategy.

Download our test automation strategy checklist or sign up for our webinar on test automation strategy where we take a closer look at best practices for test automation and how to build a strategy that is result-oriented and cost-effective.join test automation strategy webinar

Maria Homann
Maria Homann
Content Marketing Manager

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