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Test Automation and RPA Tools: What's the Difference?

If you’re using test automation and recently began looking into RPA, or if you are new to test automation but using RPA as a means to achieve efficient operations, you might at some point have wondered what the difference is between the two often interchanged terms, as well as if you can use the same tool for both.

In this blog post, we’ll answer all your questions on this matter, giving you a deeper understanding of the two types of automation, and assisting you in your automation tool evaluation. 

If you’re left with any questions after reading this article, remember that you can always watch our on-demand webinar: Test Automation vs. RPA to get those questions answered.

Here's an overview of what we'll cover:

  • RPA vs. test automation: similarities and differences defined
  • Can RPA be used for test automation?
  • Can test automation be used for RPA?

RPA vs. test automation: similarities and differences defined

First, in order to find the right tool for test automation and/or RPA, it’s ideal to understand the two terms thoroughly, and to know the key similarities and differences between them.

What is test automation?

Test automation (or automated testing) is about assisting testers in checking that developed code functions as intended. 

The need to automate testing (as opposed to doing the testing manually) has emerged as a result of an increased need to speed up release cycles while maintaining a high level of quality. This need to deliver quality at speed means that manual testing no longer suffices for businesses wanting to keep a competitive advantage. 

Besides increasing the pace of testing, automation has additional benefits, such as lowering human error that often occurs as a result of tedious, repetitive work. This reduces risk as well as costs.

Gartner’s definition of test automation is as follows: 

“Automated testing applies to commercially or internally developed software or services to assist in the testing process, including functional and load/stress testing. Automated tests provide consistent results and data points. The benefits are ease of maintenance, the ability to efficiently use resources in off-peak hours, and the capability to create reports based on the executed tests. Associated quality management tools include functionality for test planning, test case management and defect management (the governance piece of quality).” 

What is RPA?

RPA, or Robotic Process Automation, is a technology that has emerged with the need to streamline processes across the organization. RPA is thereby not specific to development, testing or QA, but relevant to essentially any department.

Gartner’s definition of RPA is: 

Robotic process automation (RPA) is a productivity tool that allows a user to configure one or more scripts (which some vendors refer to as “bots”) to activate specific keystrokes in an automated fashion. The result is that the bots can be used to mimic or emulate selected tasks (transaction steps) within an overall business or IT process. These may include manipulating data, passing data to and from different applications, triggering responses, or executing transactions. RPA uses a combination of user interface interaction and descriptor technologies. The scripts can overlay on one or more software applications.

It’s evident from the two definitions that the two types of automation bear some resemblance; they are both about becoming more productive, they both use bots to perform tasks that are repetitive and at high risk of human error, and they can both be used where bandwidth is limited to perform rule-based tasks.

However, they also have noteworthy differences; test automation is inherently about making testing and hence QA teams more productive, whereas RPA can be used across the organization. 

Below is an is an overview of some of these key differences:

 

Test Automation

RPA

Ownership

Owned by the IT department

Owned by any department

Purpose

Checking processes

Completing processes

Scope

Usually applied to a single application

Usually applied to multiple applications

Domain knowledge

Requires domain knowledge

Requires process knowledge

Data source

Test data

Real data

Environment

Testing environment 

Production environment

What is automated

Test cases

Processes

 

Download our ebook on Test Automation and RPA to learn more about the key differences between RPA and test automation.

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Can test automation be used for RPA and can RPA be used for test automation? These are frequently asked questions that can be answered in several ways, depending on what the intent is. 

If you’re talking about test automation and RPA as terms, there are clear differences between the two, as outlined above. RPA is a broad term that essentially involves the automation of any type of process. Test automation, on the other hand, is a more narrow term used to cover the automation of tests.

In other words, you can not (by definition) use test automation to automate a process that isn’t a test, and hence, you cannot use test automation for RPA.

However, if we’re talking about test automation and RPA as tools, it’s a different matter. 

There are many test automation tools and RPA tools on the market, and, truth be told, these tools vary more in the way they are marketed and the way they are used than they do as a product. 

So from this perspective, it does make sense to ask if test automation tools can be used for RPA and vice versa.

Let’s have a closer look at these questions one by one.

Can test automation be used for RPA?

The first thing to consider here is that the purpose of test automation is to check that a process works, whereas the purpose of RPA is to complete a process. This has implications on how automation flows for test automation and RPA are built.

As shown in the test automation vs. RPA comparison above, test automation is usually applied to a single application (you’re looking to test a functionality within an application), whereas RPA is usually applied to multiple applications (you’re looking to complete a process across applications)

At least that’s the difference in theory - in practice you’ll see many cases where you’re testing across applications, or running processes within applications.

So what can we actually conclude from this? Well, regardless of whether you’re looking to do test automation or RPA, it’s a benefit to be able to automate across applications.

When you do your automation tool research, you’ll find that many testing tools, such as Selenium, don’t offer this cross-technology functionality, and so, in general, Selenium won’t be very useful for you if you want to automate an array of tasks involving several technologies for RPA.

The second thing to consider when answering this question is the types of data and environment you’re using for the two types of automation.

When you’re testing you’re typically using synthetic data (data that you generated or was generated automatically). Because the data isn’t ‘real’, you have less reason to worry about complying with data protection laws. And because you’re working in a test environment, you also have less reason to worry if something goes wrong in your flow (with emphasis on less - you still don't want a flawed flow).

Put differently, as a tester, you are looking for flaws (that’s why you’re testing, after all), so there’s ‘room for bugs’ in the testing environment. It isn’t until you move into production that things change.

When you’re working with RPA, it’s a different story. Here, you’re working in the production environment, and hence using real data in a ‘live’ environment. 

So what does this mean when trying to understand if test automation tools can be used for RPA? Well first of all, because you’re working with real data, you have obligations to handle that data correctly. The tool should be compliant with regulations, which not all testing tools are.

Second, you’ll want to have full control of which flows are run - once you start moving data around in a production environment it can’t be undone. Having control over who has access to what, and who can push the start button on automation flows is a major benefit in this respect, and something you want to make sure your tool has when using it for RPA.

Can RPA be used for test automation?

When it comes to using RPA tools for test automation, you must again remember that there are usually very few differences between tools marketed for RPA and tools marketed for test automation. The difference is more in how you use it. 

However, when evaluating the tools, there are a few capabilities you might want to look into as these will make your testing easier. 

One of these capabilities is troubleshooting. When you’re doing RPA, you don’t expect there to be bugs in your applications. When testing, you’re looking for bugs in the application, and you want to be able to find them, understand them, and fix them as easily as possible.

This is why good test automation tools offer reporting and troubleshooting capabilities with logged details on what occurred, preferably with screenshots and even video. 

What’s interesting for the person using test automation is thereby the insights and detail that the tool can give you into why a test fails, so that they can prevent it from being released and fix those bugs.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that troubleshooting isn’t important for the RPA user, it just means that that person will use the information differently - probably to fix their automation flow, rather than fixing their application. 

Remember, the RPA-user is mainly interested in completing work faster, compared to the test automation user who is mainly interested in making an informed decision about releasing or not releasing an application or feature.

If you want to learn more about test automation, RPA, the difference between these, and how to find the right tool for each, then watch our on-demand webinar on test automation vs. RPA here.

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Maria Homann
Maria Homann
Content Marketing Manager

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