Best practice: use UI-driven automated testing only when necessary

Question: what do you think of when I ask ‘what does test automation look like’? Chances are high that you think of a tool that replays user interaction with an application using the graphical user interface. This user interaction is either captured through recording functionality in the tool that is used and subsequently replayed, or it is programmed by a test automation engineer, or a mixture of both approaches is used.

Traditionally, these tools use HTML object attributes to uniquely identify and manipulate objects on the screen. Recently, a number of tools have emerged that use image recognition to look for and manipulate screen objects. Object recognition approach notwithstanding, all of these tools use the user interface to interact with the application under test.

This approach to automated testing is one of the most popular ones out there. For starters, it looks good in demos and sales pitches. More importantly though, it most closely represents how a manual test engineer or an end user would interact with the application under test. However, there’s a fundamental problem attached to UI-based automated testing. Too often, the investment just isn’t outweighed by the profits. Test automation engineers spend hours upon hours on crafting and maintaining wonderful frameworks and intricate scripts, with no one evaluating the ROI for these efforts.

Now, I don’t say that UI test automation shouldn’t be done. It definitely has a place within the overall spectrum of test automation, and I have seen it used with great results in various places. However, I do feel it is overused in a lot of projects. Most of the times, the test automation team or their managers fell into one of the pitfalls of UI test automation:

  • All test scripts are automated using a UI-based test automation approach, even those test cases that aren’t really about the UI.
  • Test automation engineers try to automate every test script available, and then some more. It might be due to their own poor judgment or to the wishes / demands from management to automate all test scripts, but bottom line is that not all test scripts should be automated just because it can be done.
  • The test automation approach is suboptimal with regards to maintainability. Several best practices exist to ensure maximum maintainability for automated UI test scripts, including use of object maps and keyword-driven test frameworks. If these are not applied or if they are applied incorrectly, more time might be required for automated test script maintenance.

Therefore, I’d recommend the use of UI-based test automation only when either (or both) of the following is true:

  1. The test script actually contains validations and/or verifications on the user interface level, or
  2. There is no alternative interface available for interacting with the application.

With regards to the second point, alternative interfaces could include interfaces on web service or on database level. Using these to drive your automated tests remove some of the major drawbacks of UI-based test automation, such as the maintenance burden due to changes in UI object properties and UI synchronization issues.

Case study
I have used the principles outlined above with good results in a project a couple of years ago In this project, I was responsible for setting up an automated test suite for an application built on the Cordys (now OpenText) Business Process Management suite. This application could be decomposed into four tiers: the user interface, a BPM tier, a web service tier and a database tier.

At first, I started out building automated tests on the user interface level, as this BPMS was still new to me and this was the obvious starting point. I soon realized that automating tests on the UI level was going to be very hard work as the user interface was very dynamic with a lot of active content (lots of Javascript and Xforms). If I was to deliver a complete set of automated test scripts, I would either have to invest a lot of time on maintenance or find some other way to achieve the desired results.

Luckily, by digging deeper into the Cordys BPMS and reading lots of material, I found out that it has a very powerful web service API. This API can be used not only to drive your application, but to query and even configure the BPMS itself as well. For instance, using this web service API, you can:

  • Create new instances of the BPM models used in the application under test,
  • Send triggers and messages to it, thus making the BPM instance change state and go to a subsequent state,
  • Verify whether the new state of the BPM instance matches the expected state, and so on..

Most of this could be done using predefined web service operations, so the risk of these interfaces changing during the course of the project was small to none. Using this API, I was able to set up an automated test for 80-90% of the application logic, as the user interface was nothing more than a user-friendly way to send messages to process instances display information about the current state and the next action(s) to take. Result!

Use UI testing only when the user interface is actually tested

Even better, in later projects where Cordys was used, I have been able to reuse most of the automated testing approach and the framework I used to set up and execute automated tests. Maximum reusability achieved and minimum maintenance required, all through a change of perspective on the automated testing approach.

Have you experienced similar results, simply by a shift of test automation perspective? Let me know.

Up and running with: JUnit

This is the first article in a new series on tools used in test automation. Each of the articles in it will introduce a specific test tool and will show you how to get up and running with it. The focus will be on free and / or open source test tools as this allows everyone with an interest in the tool presented to get started using it right away.

What is JUnit?
JUnit is a unit testing framework for Java. Is it part of a family of unit testing frameworks for a variety of programming languages, known collectively as xUnit. With JUnit, you can quickly develop and run unit tests for Java classes to verify their correctness.

Where can I get JUnit?
JUnit can be downloaded from here. However, when you use an IDE such as Eclipse or IntelliJ, JUnit comes with the installation, making getting started with JUnit test development even easier.

How do I install and configure JUnit?
As I prefer using Eclipse, the instructions below show you how to start developing and running JUnit tests in Eclipse. Those using IntelliJ are referred to the IntelliJ homepage.

To start using JUnit to run tests on your code, all you need to do is to add the JUnit library to your existing Java project. To do this, right-click on your project, select Properties, go to the Libraries tab and press the ‘Add Library’ button. Select JUnit from the list and click ‘Next’. Then, select ‘JUnit 4’ as the library version and click ‘Finish’. JUnit has now been added to your project libraries and you’re ready to go.


Creating a first test script
Now, let’s create a first JUnit test script. First of all, as JUnit tests are Java classes in themselves, we create a new source folder in our project to prevent test code getting mixed up with application code. Right-click on your project, select Properties and in the Source tab, select ‘Add Folder’. Name this folder ‘test’ for instance and add it to your project.

It’s a good idea to structure the test code in your test folder similar to the application code to be tested. So, if the Java class you are writing tests for is in package x.y.z in the ‘src’ folder, your test code for this class is placed in package x.y.z in the ‘test’ folder. Create this package in the ‘test’ folder by right-clicking it and selecting ‘New > Package’.

One of the features of Eclipse is that it can automatically generate JUnit test skeletons for you based on the definition of the class you’re writing tests for. To do so, right-click on the package you’ll place the test code in and select ‘New > JUnit Test Case’. Name your test class – I prefer adding ‘Test’ to the name of the class to be tested, so tests for class are placed in – and select the class under test using the button ‘Select’ next to ‘Class under test:’. Click ‘Next’ and select the methods for which you want to generate JUnit tests.


Click ‘Finish’ to generate JUnit test skeletons for the selected methods. The code generated should be similar to this:

package com.ontestautomation.selenium.objectmap;

import static org.junit.Assert.*;

import org.junit.Test;

public class ObjectMapTest {

	public void testObjectMap() {
		fail("Not yet implemented");

	public void testGetLocator() {
		fail("Not yet implemented");


The annnotation @Test is used by JUnit to indicate the start of a test case. The generated test code is neatly placed in the right package in your Java project:


Running your test
To run your JUnit tests, simply right-click the test code file and select ‘Run As > JUnit Test’. Your test methods will be executed and a new tab opens displaying the test results:


Both tests fail for now as they have not yet been implemented. That is, no actual tests are being executed so far as we haven’t written the tests itself yet. Below you see a simple test for the getLocator method that tests whether the object retrieved from the object map using this method is equal to the object that is expected.

public void testGetLocator() {
	ObjectMap objMap = new ObjectMap("");
	try {
		By testLocator = objMap.getLocator("bing.homepage.textbox");
		assertEquals("Check testLocator object","sb_form_q"),testLocator);
	} catch (Exception e) {
		System.out.println("Error during JUnit test execution:\n" + e.toString());

If we rerun the test code, we now see that the test for the getLocator method passes, meaning we have successfully implemented and run our first JUnit test!


Useful features
To write more advanced and better maintainable tests, JUnit provides some nice features. The most important of these features are:

  • The ability to test for expected exceptions. If you want to validate that the method you developed throws the right exception under the right circumstances, you can easily verify this with JUnit, using the expected=NameOfException.class notation:
public void testGetLocatorException() throws Exception {
	ObjectMap objMap = new ObjectMap("");
	By testLocator = objMap.getLocator("unknownobject");
  • The ability to create test suites using the @Suite annotation. Using this you can run a set of test classes by calling a single test suite class.
  • The ability to parameterize tests with test data, using the @Parameterized annotation. Using this you can make your unit tests data driven and run the same tests using multiple sets of test data without the need for duplicate test code.
  • The ability to easily export test results to continuous integration frameworks, such as Jenkins. JUnit generates reports in an XML format that can easily be interpreted by Jenkins and similar CI frameworks. This results in a very readable graphical representation of your JUnit test results:


Further reading
For more information on JUnit, you can visit the sites below:

An Eclipse project including the tests I’ve demonstrated above and the reports that have been generated can be downloaded here.

Happy unit testing!

Building and using an Object Repository in Selenium Webdriver

One of the main burdens of automated GUI test script maintainability is the amount of maintenance needed when object properties change within the application under test. A very common way of minimizing the time it takes to update your automated test scripts is the use of a central object repository (or object map as it’s also referred to sometimes). A basic object repository can be implemented as a collection of key-value pairs, with the key being a logical name identifying the object and the value containing unique objects properties used to identify the object on a screen.

Selenium Webdriver offers no object repository implementation by default. However, implementing and using a basic object repository is pretty straightforward. In this article, I will show you how to do it and how to lighten the burden of test script maintenance in this way.

Note that all code samples below are written in Java. However, the object repository concept as explained here can be used with your language of choice just as easily.

Creating the object repository
First, we are going to create a basic object repository and fill it with some objects that we will use in our test script. In this article, I am going to model a very basic scenario: go to the Bing search engine, search for a particular search query and determine the number of search results returned by Bing. To execute this scenario, our script needs to manipulate three screen objects:

  • The textbox where the search string is typed
  • The search button to be clicked in order to submit the search query
  • The text field that displays the number of search results

Our object map will a simple .properties text file that we add to our Selenium project:
Our object mapThe key for each object, for example bing.homepage.textbox, is a logical name for the object that we will use in our script. The corresponding value consists of two parts: the attribute type used for uniquely identifying the object on screen and the corresponding attribute value. For example, the aforementioned text box is uniquely identified by its id attribute, which has the value sb_form_q.

Retrieving objects from the object repository
To retrieve objects from our newly created object map, we will define an ObjectMap with a constructor taking a single argument, which is the path to the .properties file:

public class ObjectMap {
	Properties prop;
	public ObjectMap (String strPath) {
		prop = new Properties();
		try {
			FileInputStream fis = new FileInputStream(strPath);
		}catch (IOException e) {

The class contains a single method getLocator, which returns a By object that is used by the Selenium browser driver object (such as a HtmlUnitDriver or a FirefoxDriver):

public By getLocator(String strElement) throws Exception {
		// retrieve the specified object from the object list
		String locator = prop.getProperty(strElement);
		// extract the locator type and value from the object
		String locatorType = locator.split(":")[0];
		String locatorValue = locator.split(":")[1];
		// for testing and debugging purposes
		System.out.println("Retrieving object of type '" + locatorType + "' and value '" + locatorValue + "' from the object map");
		// return a instance of the By class based on the type of the locator
		// this By can be used by the browser object in the actual test
		else if(locatorType.toLowerCase().equals("name"))
		else if((locatorType.toLowerCase().equals("classname")) || (locatorType.toLowerCase().equals("class")))
			return By.className(locatorValue);
		else if((locatorType.toLowerCase().equals("tagname")) || (locatorType.toLowerCase().equals("tag")))
			return By.className(locatorValue);
		else if((locatorType.toLowerCase().equals("linktext")) || (locatorType.toLowerCase().equals("link")))
			return By.linkText(locatorValue);
		else if(locatorType.toLowerCase().equals("partiallinktext"))
			return By.partialLinkText(locatorValue);
		else if((locatorType.toLowerCase().equals("cssselector")) || (locatorType.toLowerCase().equals("css")))
			return By.cssSelector(locatorValue);
		else if(locatorType.toLowerCase().equals("xpath"))
			return By.xpath(locatorValue);
			throw new Exception("Unknown locator type '" + locatorType + "'");

As you can see, objects can be identified using a number of different properties, including object IDs, CSS selectors and XPath expressions.

Using objects in your test script
Now that we can retrieve objects from our object map, we can use these in our scripts to execute the desired scenario:

public static void main (String args[]) {

		// Create a new instance of the object map
		ObjectMap objMap = new ObjectMap("");

		// Start a browser driver and navigate to Google
		WebDriver driver = new HtmlUnitDriver();

        // Execute our test
        try {
        	// Retrieve search text box from object map and type search query
        	WebElement element = driver.findElement(objMap.getLocator("bing.homepage.textbox"));
			element.sendKeys("Alfa Romeo");
			// Retrieve search button from object map and click it
			element = driver.findElement(objMap.getLocator("bing.homepage.searchbutton"));;
			// Retrieve number of search results using results object from object map
			element = driver.findElement(objMap.getLocator("bing.resultspage.results"));
			System.out.println("Search result string: " + element.getText());
			// Verify page title
			Assert.assertEquals(driver.getTitle(), "Alfa Romeo - Bing");
		} catch (Exception e) {
			System.out.println("Error during test execution:\n" + e.toString());

You can see from this code sample that using an object from the object map in your test is as easy as referring to its logical name (i.e., the key in our object map).

Object repository maintenance
With this straightforward mechanism we have been able to vastly reduce the amount of time needed for script maintenance in case object properties change. All it takes is an update of the appropriate entries in the object map and we’re good to go and run our tests again.

Thanks to Selenium Master for explaining this concept clearly for me to apply.

An example Eclipse project using the pattern described above can be downloaded here.