Friday 16 February 2018

How do you decide what to automate?

When you start to think about a new automated test suite, the first conversations you have will focus on what you're going to automate. Whether it's your manager that is requesting automation or you're advocating for it yourself, you need to set a strategy for test coverage before you choose a tool.

There are a lot of factors that contribute to the decision of what to automate. If you try to decide your scope in isolation, you may get it wrong. Here are some prompts to help you think broadly and engage a wide audience.

Product Strategy

The strategy for the product under test can heavily influence the scope of the associated test automation solution.

Imagine that you're part of a team who are releasing a prototype for fast feedback from the market. The next iteration of the product is likely to be significantly different to the prototype that you're working on now. There is probably a strong emphasis on speed to release.

Imagine that you're part of a team who are working on the first release version of a product that is expected to become a flagship for your organisation over the next 5 - 10 years. The product will evolve, but in contrast to the first team it may be at a steadier pace and from a more solid foundation. There is probably a strong emphasis on technical design for future growth.

Imagine that you're part of a team who will deliver the first product in a line of new products that will all use the same technology and software development process. An example may be a program of work that switches legacy applications to a new infrastructure. The goal may be to shift each piece in a like-for-like manner. There is probably a strong emphasis on standard practices and common implementation.

What you automate and the way that you approach automation will vary in each case.

You need to think about, and ask questions about, what's happening at a high-level for your product so that you can align your test automation strategy appropriately. You probably won't invest heavily in framework design for a prototype. Your automation may be shallow, quick and dirty. The same approach would be inappropriate in other contexts.

At a slightly lower level of product strategy, which features in your backlog are most important to the business? Are they also the most important to your customers? There may be a list of features that drive sales and a different set that drive customer loyalty. Your automation may target both areas or focus only on the areas of the application that are most important to one set of stakeholders.

Can you map the upcoming features to your product to determine where change might happen in your code base? This can help you prepare appropriate regression coverage to focus on areas where there is a high amount of change.

Risk Assessment

When testers talk about the benefits of automation, we often focus on the number of defects it finds or the time that we’re saving in development. We describe the benefits in a way that matters to us. This may not be the right language to talk about the benefits of automation with a manager.

In the 2016 World Quality Report the number one reason that managers invest in testing is to protect the corporate image. Testing is a form of reputation insurance. It’s a way to mitigate risk.

When you’re deciding what to automate, you need to think about the management perspective of your underlying purpose and spend your effort in automation in a way that directly considers risk to the organisation. To do this, you need to engage people in a conversation about what those risks are.

There are a lot of resources that can help support you in a conversation about risk. James Bach has a paper titled Heuristic Risk-Based Testing that describes an approach to risk assessment and offers common questions to ask. I've used this as a resource to help target my own conversations about risk.

Both the strategy and the risk conversation are removed from the implementation detail of automation, but they set the scene for what you will do technically and your ongoing relationships with management. These conversations help you to establish credibility and build trust with your stakeholders before you consider the specifics of your test automation solution. Building a strong foundation in these working relationships will make future conversations easier.

How do you consider what to automate at a more technical level?

Objective Criteria

As a general rule, start by automating a set of objective statements about your application that address the highest risk areas.

Objective measures are those that can be assessed without being influenced by personal feelings or opinion. They’re factual. The kind of measure that you can imagine in a checklist, where each item is passed or failed. For example, on a construction site a hard hat must be worn. When you look at a construction worker it is easy to determine whether they are wearing a hat or not.

On the flip side, subjective measures are where we find it difficult to articulate the exact criteria that we’re using to make a decision. Imagine standing in front of a completed construction project and trying to determine whether it should win the “Home of the Year”. Some of the decision making in this process is subjective.

If you don’t know exactly how you’re assessing your product, then a tool is unlikely to know how to assess the product. Automation in a subjective area may be useful to assemble a set of information for a person to evaluate, but it can’t give you a definitive result like an objective check will do.

A common practice to support conversations about objective criteria is the gherkin syntax for creating examples using Given, When, Then. A team that develop these scenarios collaboratively through BDD, or Three Amigos, etc. are likely to end up with a more robust set of automation than a person who identifies scenarios independently.

Repetitive Tasks

Repetition can indicate an opportunity for automation, both repetition in our product code and repetition in our test activities.

In the product, you might have widgets that are reused throughout an application e.g. a paginated table. If you automate a check that assess that widget in one place, you can probably reuse parts of the test code to assess the same widget in other places. This creates confidence in the existing use of the widgets, and offers a quick way to check behaviour when that same widget is used in future.

In our testing, you might perform repetitive data setup, execute the same tests against many active versions of a product, or repeat tests to determine whether your web application can be used on multiple browsers. These situations offer an opportunity to develop automation that can be reused for many scenarios.

By contrast, if we have a product that is unique, or an activity that’s a one-off, then we may not want to automate an evaluation that will only happen once. There are always exceptions, but as a general rule we want to seek out repetition.

There is benefit to collaboration here too, particularly in identifying repetitive process. Your colleagues may perform a slightly different set of tasks to what you do, which could mean that you're unaware of opportunities to automate within their area. Start conversations to discover these differences.

Opportunity Cost

When you automate it’s at the expense of something else that you could be doing. In 1998 Brian Marick wrote a paper titled When should a test be automated?. In his summary at the conclusion of the paper he says:

“The cost of automating a test is best measured by the number of manual tests it prevents you from running and the bugs it will therefore cause you to miss.”

I agree this is an important consideration in deciding what to automate and believe it is often overlooked.

When you decide what to automate, it’s important to discuss what proportion of time you should spend in automating and the opportunity cost of what you're giving up. Agreeing on how long you can spend in developing, maintaining, and monitoring your automation will influence the scope of your solution.

Organisational Change

So far we've considered five factors when deciding what to automate: product strategy, risk, objectivity, repetition, and opportunity cost. All five of these will change.

Product strategy will evolve as the market changes. Risks will appear and disappear. As the features of the product change, what is objective and repetitive in its evaluation will evolve. The time you have available, and your opportunity costs, will shift.

When deciding what to automate, you need to consider the pace and nature of your change.

Is change in your organisation predictable, like the lifecycle of a fish? You know what steps the change will take, and the cadence of it. In 2 weeks, this will happen. In 6 months, that will happen.

Or is change in your organisation unpredictable, like the weather? You might think that rain is coming, but you don’t know exactly how heavy it will be or when it will happen, and actually it might not rain at all.

The pace and nature of change may influence the flexibility of your scope and the adaptability of your implementation. You can decide what to automate now with a view to how regularly you will need to revisit these conversations to keep your solution relevant. In environment with a lot of change, it may be less important to get it right the first time.


Deciding what to automate shouldn’t be a purely technical decision. Reach out for information from across your organisation. Establish credible relationships with management by starting conversations in their language. Talk to your team about objective measures and repetitive tasks. Discuss time and opportunity costs of automation with a wide audience. Consider the pace of change in your environment.

It it important to agree the scope of automation collaboratively.

Collaboration doesn’t mean that you call a meeting to tell people what you think. It isn't a one-way information flow. Allow yourself to be influenced alongside offering your opinion. Make it clear what you believe is suited to automation and what isn’t. Be confident in explaining your rationale, but be open to hearing different perspectives and discovering new information too.

You don't decide what to automate. The decision does not belong to you individually. Instead you lead conversations that create shared agreement. Your team decide what to automate together, and regularly review those choices.


  1. Some very interesting comments, I very much like the Product strategy, its ok to do something quick if the longevity is short.

  2. I like the way you emphasize on the strategy part .. But all of these come under Atutomation Tool Feasibility criteria..Don't you think

  3. Is that starting by automating about the application that address the highest risk areas risky?

  4. Thanks a lot for this post, it is an excellent read. The section on Opportunity Cost being a factor to consider was insightful. As you have mentioned, this is often overlooked.

  5. Well explained how Product Strategy drives automation strategy. Also good thought on Collaboration. Completely agree... Thanks!