On preventing your test suite from becoming too user interface-heavy

In August of last year, I published a blog post talking about why I don’t like to think of automation in terms of frameworks, but rather in terms of solutions. I’ve softened a little since then (this is probably a sign of me getting old..), but my belief that building a framework might lead to automation engineers subsequently trying to fit every test left, right and center into that framework still stands. One example of this phenomenon in particular I still see too often: engineers building a feature-rich end-to-end automation framework (for example using Selenium) and then automating all of their tests using that framework.

This is what I meant in the older post by ‘framework think’: because the framework has made it so easy for them to add new tests, they skip the step where they decide what would be the most efficient approach for a specific test and blindly add it to the test suite run by that very framework. This might not lead to harmful side effects in the short term, but as the test suite grows, chances are high that it becomes unwieldy, that the time it takes to complete a full test run becomes unnecessarily long and that maintenance efforts are not being outweighed by the added value of having the automated tests any more.

In this post, I’d like to take the practical approach once more and demonstrate how you can take a closer look at your application and decide if there might be a more efficient way to implement certain checks. We’re going to do this by opening up the user interface and see what happens ‘under the hood’. I’m writing this post as an addendum to my ‘Building great end-to-end tests with Selenium and Cucumber / SpecFlow‘ course, by the way. Yes, that’s right, one of the first things I talk about during my course on writing tests with Selenium is when not to do so. I firmly believe that’s the on of the very first steps towards creating a solid test suite: deciding what should not be in it.

The application under test
The application we’re going to write tests for is an online mortgage orientation tool, provided by a major Dutch online bank. I’ve removed all references to the client name, just to be sure, but it’s not like we’re dealing with sensitive data here. The orientation tool is a sequence of three forms, in which people that are interested in a mortgage fill in details about their financial situation, after which the orientation tool gives an indication of whether or not the applicant is eligible for a mortgage, as well as an estimate of the maximum amount of the mortgage, the interest rate and the monthly installments payable.

Our application under test - the mortgage orientation tool

What are we going to automate?
Now that we know what our application under test does, let’s see what we should automate. We’ll assume that there is a justified need for automated checks in the first place (otherwise this would have been a very short blog post!). We’ll also assume that, maybe for tests on some other part of the bank’s website, there is already a solid automation framework written around Selenium in place. So, this being a website and all, it makes sense to write some additional checks and incorporate them into the existing framework.

First of all, let’s try and make sure that the orientation tool can be used and completed, and that it displays a result. I’d say, that would be a good candidate for an automated test written using Selenium, since it confirms that the application is working from an end user perspective (there is value in the test) and I can’t think of a lower level test that would give me the same feedback. Since there are a couple of different paths through the orientation tool (you can apply for a mortgage alone or with someone else, some people have a house to sell while others have not, there are different types of contracts, etc.), I’d even go as far as to say you’ll need more than one Selenium-based test to be able to properly claim that all paths can be traversed by an end user.

Next, I can imagine that you’d want to make sure that the numbers that are displayed are correct, so your customers aren’t misinformed when they complete the orientation tool. This would lead to some massive issues of distrust later on in the mortgage application process, I’d assume.. Since we’ve been able to add the previous tests so easily to our existing framework, it makes sense to add some more tests that walk through the forms, add the data required to trigger a specific expected outcome and verify that the result screen we saw in the screenshot above displays the expected numbers. Right?

No. Not right.

It’s highly likely that the business logic used to perform the calculation and serve the numbers displayed on screen isn’t actually implemented in the user interface. Rather, it’s probably served up by a backend service containing the business logic and rules required to perform the calculations (and with mortgages, there are quite a few of those business rules, I’ve been told..). The user interface takes the values entered by the end user, sends them to a backend service that performs calculations and returns the values indicating mortgage eligibility, interest rate, height of monthly installment, etc., which are then interpreted and displayed again by that same user interface.

So, since the business logic that we’re verifying isn’t implemented in the user interface, why use the UI to verify it in the first place? That would highly likely only lead to unnecessarily slow tests and shallow feedback. Instead, let’s look if there’s a different hook we can use to write tests.

I tend to use on of two different tactics to find out if there are better ways to write automated tests in cases like these:

  1. Talk to a developer. They’re building the stuff, so they’ll probably know more about the architecture of your application and will likely be happy to help you out.
  2. Use a network analyzing tool such as Fiddler or WireShark. Tools like these two let you see what happens ‘under water’ when you’re using the user interface of a web application.

Normally, I’ll use a combination of both: find out more about the architecture of an application by talking to developers, then using a network analyzer (I prefer Fiddler myself) to see what API calls are triggered when I perform a certain action.

Analyzing API calls using Fiddler
So, let’s put my assumption that there’s a better way to automate the tests that will verify the calculations performed by the mortgage orientation tool to the test. To do so, I’ll fire up Fiddler and have it monitor the traffic that’s being sent back and forth between my browser and the application server while I interact with the orientation tool. Here’s what that looks like:

Traffic exchanged between client and server in our mortgage orientation tool

As you can see, there’s a mortgage orientation API with a Calculate operation that returns exactly those numbers that appear on the screen. See the number I marked in yellow? It’s right there in the application screenshot I showed previously. This shows that pretty much all that the front end does is performing calls to a backend API and presenting the data returned by it in a manner attractive to the end user. This means that it would not make sense to use the UI to verify the calculations. Instead, I’d advise you to mimic the API call (or sequence of calls) instead, as this will give you both faster and more accurate feedback.

To take things even further, I’d recommend you to dive into the application even deeper and see if the calculations can be covered with a decent set of unit tests. The easiest way to do this is to start talking to a developer and see if this is a possibility, and if they haven’t already done so. No need to maintain two different sets of automated checks that cover the same logic, and no need to cover logic that can be tested through unit tests with API-level checks..

Often, though, I find that writing tests like this at the API level hits the sweet spot between coverage, effort it takes to write the tests and speed of execution (and as a result, length of the feedback loop). This might be because I’m not too well versed in writing unit tests myself, but it has worked pretty well for me so far.

Deciding what to automate where: a heuristic
The above has just been one example where it would be better (as well as easier) to move specific checks from the UI level to the API level. But can we make some more generic statements about when to use UI-level checks and when to dive deeper?

Yes, we can. And it turns out, someone already did! In a recent blog post called ‘UI Test Heuristic: Don’t Repeat Your Paths‘, Chris McMahon talked about this exact subject, and the heuristic he presents in his blog post applies here perfectly:

  • Check that the end user can complete the mortgage orientation tools and is shown an indication of mortgage eligibility and associated figures > different paths through the user interface > user interface-level tests
  • Check that the figures served up by the mortgage orientation tool are correct > repeating the same paths multiple times, but with different sets of input data and expected output values > time to dive deeper

So, if you want to prevent your automated test suite from becoming too bloated with UI tests, this is a rule of thumb you can (and frankly, should) apply. As always, I’d love to hear what you think.

An experiment in creating better tool-centered automation training

Last week, I delivered the second part of a two-evening API testing training at my former employer. They contacted me a while ago to see if I could help them in offering test automation training for their employees, as well as for their clients and other contacts. When I was still working with them, I used to deliver automation training as well, and it felt really great to be asked back, even though I have left them almost three years ago now.

But that’s not what this post is about.

This API testing training was in some ways an experiment I have wanted to conduct for a while now. I see a lot of individuals and organizations offering automation training, and most of it is specific to one single tool. In itself, this isn’t inherently a bad thing, but I’ve got one big problem with a lot of these tool-centered courses: instead of teaching you how to create a sound automation approach around one or more tools, they simply go through the most important features of a single tool and teach the participants some (sometimes useful) tricks. I know. I’ve delivered those courses in the past as well. If you’re a tool vendor / creator, I can understand why you would want to do that. But I think there’s more to good automation education than teaching you all the ins and outs of a specific tool. Let’s call them the 3 C’s:

  • Context – A tool is often only useful in a specific context. This context includes the skills of the people that will use the tool, the development and delivery process that the tool is to be made part of, and much more. Without context, it’s very hard to decide if a specific tool is the right one for the job.
  • Competition – For nearly all tools out there, there’s at least one competitor on the market (but often much more) that can be used to complete the same task. It is therefore essential for good training to introduce more than one option, have the participants get some hands on experience with all of them and let them decide what would work best for their tasks and team.
  • Cutting the crap – Tool-specific training might give the idea that the tool the participants are being trained in is the best thing since sliced bread. Which in turn leads people to try and automate anything and everything with a single tool. Which in turn all too often leads to crap. In other words: what’s the point in knowing all different types of waits available in Selenium if you don’t know how to decide what is a good scenario to automate using Selenium in the first place?

So, instead of delivering my API testing training around REST Assured alone (which I’ve done a number of times in the past), I decided to introduce three different tools to the participants: REST Assured, the open source version of SmartBear SoapUI and Parasoft SOAtest. After an introduction into what constitutes API testing, why it is useful and what you can test using APIs, I let the participants create a number of basic API tests with each of these tools (pretty much the same tests three times over), so they could experience firsthand how the features provided by each of the tools compare. Moreover, since I chose tools that are at opposite ends of the API test tool spectrum (REST Assured is a Java library for RESTful APIs, SOAtest is a commercially licensed enterprise-grade tool that supports a wide variety of protocols and message types, with SoapUI somewhere in between), participants get a much broader view of API testing than they’d get by learning REST Assured alone.

The feedback I received afterwards confirmed what I hoped to achieve with my experiment: all the attendees thought it was great to see more than a single tool, and since I gave them pointers to material for further exploration, they could decide for themselves in which direction their further education will take them.

I recently launched another course in which I try to do something similar, although in another fashion: instead of teaching people how to use Selenium WebDriver (i.e., teaching them the API and some useful Selenium-only tricks), I explain what types of tests should be created using Selenium, and I teach them how I would approach creating readable, maintainable and reliable tests with Selenium, Cucumber/SpecFlow, JUnit/NUnit and ExtentReports. Again: providing context and cutting the crap (you can argue about whether or not I’m covering ‘competition’ in this one) instead of teaching people all of the methods and features of a single tool.

I hope to deliver this type of automation training much more often in the future, and I’d love to see other automation training providers follow suit. For those of you who’d like some more details on the training objectives and subjects covered in this API testing training, please click here.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. What to you constitutes good automation training?

Extending my solution with API testing capabilities, and troubles with open source projects

In last week’s blog post, I introduced how I would approach creating a solution for creating and executing automated user interface-driven tests. In this blog post, I’m going to extend the capabilities of my solution by adding automated tests that exercise a RESTful API.

Returning readers might know that I’m a big fan of REST Assured. However, since that’s a Java-based DSL, and my solution is written in C#, I can’t use REST Assured. I’ve spent some time looking at alternatives and decided upon using RestSharp for this example. Why RestSharp? Because it has a clean and fairly readable API, which makes it easy to use, even for non-wizardlike programmers, such as yours truly. This is a big plus for me when creating test automation solutions, because, as a consultant, there will always come a moment where you need to hand over your solution to somebody else. And that somebody might be just as inexperienced when it comes to programming as myself, so I think it’s important to use tools that are straightforward and easy to use while still powerful enough to perform the required tasks. RestSharp ticks those boxes fairly well.

A sample feature and scenario for a RESTful API
Again, we start with the top level of our test implementation: the feature and scenario(s) that describe the required behaviour. Here goes:

Feature: CircuitsApi
	In order to impress my friends
	As a Formula 1 fan
	I want to know the number of races for a given Formula 1 season

Scenario Outline: Check the number of races in a season
	Given I want to know the number of Formula One races in <season>
	When I retrieve the circuit list for that season
	Then there should be <numberOfCircuits> circuits in the list returned
	| season | numberOfCircuits |
	| 2017   | 20               |
	| 2016   | 21               |
	| 1966   | 9                |
	| 1950   | 8                |

Note that I’ve added a tag @api to the scenario. This is so I can prevent my solution from starting a browser for these API tests as well (which would just slow down test execution) by writing dedicated setup and teardown methods that execute only for scenarios with a certain tag. This can be done real easy with SpecFlow. See the GitHub page for the solution for more details.

The step definitions
So, how are the above scenario steps implemented? In the Given step, I handle creating the RestClient that is used to send the HTTP request and intercept the response, as well as setting the path parameter specifying the specific year for which I want to check the number of races:

private RestClient restClient;
private RestRequest restRequest;
private IRestResponse restResponse;

[Given(@"I want to know the number of Formula One races in (.*)")]
public void GivenIWantToKnowTheNumberOfFormulaOneRacesIn(string season)
    restClient = new RestClient(Constants.ApiBaseUrl); //http://ergast.com/api/f1

    restRequest = new RestRequest("{season}/circuits.json", Method.GET);

    restRequest.AddUrlSegment("season", season);

The When step is even more straightforward: all is done here is executing the RestClient and storing the response in the IRestResponse:

[When(@"I retrieve the circuit list for that season")]
public void WhenIRetrieveTheCircuitListForThatSeason()
    restResponse = restClient.Execute(restRequest);

Finally, in the Then step, we parse the response to get the JSON field value we’re interested in and check whether it matches the expected value. In this case, we’re not interested in a field value, though, but rather in the number of times a field appears in the response (in this case, the length of the array of circuits). And, obviously, we want to report the result of our check to the ExtentReports report we’re creating during test execution:

[Then(@"there should be (.*) circuits in the list returned")]
public void ThenThereShouldBeCircuitsInTheListReturned(int numberOfSeasons)
    dynamic jsonResponse = JsonConvert.DeserializeObject(restResponse.Content);

    JArray circuitsArray = jsonResponse.MRData.CircuitTable.Circuits;

    OTAAssert.AssertEquals(null, test, circuitsArray.Count, numberOfSeasons, "The actual number of circuits in the list is equal to the expected value " + numberOfSeasons.ToString());

Basically, what we’re doing here is deserializing the JSON response and storing it into a dynamic object. I wasn’t familiar with the dynamic concept before, but it turns out to be very useful here. The dynamic type can be used for objects of which you don’t know the structure until runtime, which holds true here (we don’t know what the JSON response looks like). Then, we can simply traverse the dynamic jsonResponse until we get to the field we need for our check. It may not be the best or most reusable solution, but it definitely shows the power of the C# language here.

The trouble with RestSharp
As you can see, with RestSharp, it’s really easy to write tests for RESTful APIs and add them to our solution. There’s one problem though, and that’s that RestSharp no longer seems to be actively maintained. The most recent version of RestSharp was released on August 26 of 2015, more than a year and a half ago. There’s no response to the issues posted on GitHub, either, which also doesn’t bode very well for the liveliness of the project. For me, when deciding whether or not to use an open source project, this is a big red flag.

One alternative to RestSharp I found was RestAssured.Net. This project looks like an effort to port the original REST Assured to C#. It looks useful enough, however, it suffers from the same problem that RestSharp does: no activity. For me, that’s enough reason to discard it.

Just before writing this post, I was made aware of yet another possible solution, called Flurl. This does look like a promising alternative, but unfortunately I didn’t have the time to try it out for myself before the due date of this blog post. I’ll check it out during the week and if it lives up to its promising appearance, Flurl stands a good chance of being the topic for next week’s blog post. Until then, you can find my RestSharp implementation of the RESTful API tests on the GitHub page of my solution.