Emotional Testing

Depending on manual acceptance testing is an emotional decision, not an engineering decision. We need to reserve emotion for the end-users.

Linus with his security blanket

Recently someone asked me, “Does code have to be tested by code to be considered tested? Who tests the code that tests the code?”

This was in the context of when to write tests. He was asserting that we only want to invest in tests after we deliver a release and confirm the value and that manual testing and delaying proper testing is fine. He is wrong.

“Does code have to be tested by code to be considered tested?”

To be considered tested correctly, yes. The code works the same way every time. People are variable. Tests should be deterministic. QED

“Who tests the code that tests the code?”

That’s a really strange question. Who tests human testing? The implication is that humans can test better than robots. It’s an emotional need I hear from many people, but mostly from people who aren’t responsible for operating in production. Let’s work through this logic.

Manual acceptance testing: Test scenarios are defined before coding starts. Coding is completed and someone sets up data for the test scenarios and executes the tests. After the manual testing is done then the release is shipped.

Automated acceptance testing: Test scenarios are defined before coding starts. Coding and test automation are done concurrently. When done correctly, they are done by the same person. Tests run in the CD pipeline. Tests pass and the release is shipped.

In those two scenarios, where is the process where the manual testing is “better”? In both cases, the test for how well the testing was done is delivering and observing how the end-user responds. Production is the test for any test, no matter how it is done. The problem should be obvious though. If the test was bad, how do we fix it? Well, it depends on why the test was bad.

Misunderstood Requirements

This is a common reason and it impacts both kinds of testing.

With test automation, we modify the test once to correct our understanding of the behavior, and every time we make a code change we verify we have the same understanding.

With manual testing, we modify the test script and re-verify that behavior for the next release.

Similar, but with a key difference. The speed of discovery and error correction will always be slower when a human is doing the work instead of instructing a machine to do it. Some people feel manual testing is faster because they feel busy doing it. An emotional and incorrect response. Another difference is that the automated test, once changed, won’t make a mistake.

Testing Mistakes

While executing the test, an error was created by the person executing the test.

This can happen with both kinds of testing. We could write an automated test with a bug or we could make a mistake executing the test script. However, with automated testing, it can be corrected and will not happen again. With manual testing, it is a risk for every test scenario on every test run. With manual testing, as the scope of testing increases, the likelihood of testing errors increases. This isn’t true with an automated test suite.

Data Configuration Error

With good test data management systems, this can be mitigated somewhat for manual testing but I’ve rarely (never) encountered anyone who said they had a tool that versioned a data set and made that state repeatable on demand. Usually, an unrepeatable set of data is used until it’s used up or a set of data that isn’t representative of a production environment is contrived.

With proper automated testing architecture, we have much better control over the state. In fact, for most test scenarios we can eliminate the state entirely and focus only on the behaviors. We have the ability to minimize and isolate stateful tests to make our tests 100% deterministic, one of the definitions of a good test.

Eliminate All Manual Tests?

For acceptance testing, yes! Is there a place for manual testing? Sure. Exploratory and usability testing are important creative activities. The first is focused on finding scenarios we didn’t think of automating. Then we add these tests. The second is focused on validating how humans feel about using it. That informs future changes. However, there is no place for manual acceptance testing as a gate to delivery.

Manual acceptance testing is slow, non-repeatable, lacks granularity, and lacks determinism. So why do people insist on using it? It’s not a decision based on engineering. It’s an emotional decision based on fear. “I can’t see the testing happening, so it must not be good testing.” People have feared machines since the printing press. We should make decisions based on reality.

If you have manual acceptance tests, everything to the left of testing is made worse. Batch sizes increase, value delivery is delayed, people become more invested in bad features, and customers get lower quality outcomes. Move the emotion to where it belongs, making users desire the outcomes. Improve everyone’s lives by letting people do creative things. Only robots should run scripts.