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Kevin Lamping
Kevin Lamping

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Why You're Not Writing UI Tests

It's Friday afternoon.

Your tasks for the sprint are complete, except for one.

You've finally convinced your PM that a little free time to look into writing automated UI tests could really reduce bugs.

Taskboard with single task in todo: 'Spike: UI testing functionality'

And as you sit there, looking at the single item on your task board, there's a gnawing feeling inside you about the whole thing.

You have test anxiety.

You're excited to have the chance to try out automated testing; something you feel has a lot of benefit; but you're terrified you're going to waste this opportunity.

What if you spend all this time setting up your tests, but in the end nothing really comes of it?

There are so many ways it can go wrong:

  • The tests might be too fragile, breaking with every little change, to the point that you just stop running them.
  • Even if they're reliant, they may not test anything useful.
  • Or, after figuring out how to make them reliant and useful, if your teammates don't adopt running them, you'll have to be in charge of making every update to them.
  • Maybe the functionality you're testing is scrapped, rendering your new tests useless.
  • And just because you've been given the time today doesn't mean you'll have the time tomorrow to do the proper maintenance on the test suite.

That's a lot of ways for this testing train to derail.

No wonder you're feeling anxiety about all of this.

I know from personal experience how debilitating these fears can be; and that they aren't irrational to have.

It takes a lot of work to get a good automated test suite built out. It's not something you can do in the course of an afternoon.

Plus, it's really easy to take the wrong path; chasing after endless trails trying to solve a problem that isn't all that important in the long run.

To have any hope in avoiding all of this, the test anxiety and the wasted time, it's important to define what a "good test" is:

  1. Easy to write Tests are only valuable when they save you time in the long run. If it takes two weeks to write a single test, you're unlikely to see that time back.
  2. Easy to run The chances of you being successful with tests are directly related to how integrated they are in the development process. If running your tests requires all this extra work, you and your team will quickly lose interest/willpower in them. Ideally, tests take no effort to run, as they're fully integrated with your development environment.
  3. Highly Visible Make sure you know when and why tests fail. It does no good to spend time in tests if you ignore the results.
  4. Useful A test can do a lot of things, but if it doesn't actually help then what's the point? They should catch bugs, reduce manual testing effort and improve your overall test coverage.

Those are my criteria for good tests.

With this list, we can now look test anxiety square in the eye and tell it to shut the hell up.

Here's what we'd say:

I'm limiting my optimism

I'm confident these tests will help, but I also know that trying to test everything is a poor plan.

I'm going to try writing automation and run into issues where it's just not worth the cost of fixing them.

I'm going to be okay burning some of this effort in order to avoid endless rabbit holes of debugging.

I'm writing one test

To start my test automation effort, I have to think "vertically".

Depiction of all the parts of a test architecture, including build system and test reporting

If I started things off writing a dozen tests, they would all fail criteria #2 and #3, increasing the chance they become useless.

Instead, I'm going to zero in on a single test, write it, then fully integrate it into my system before writing any more.

This way I know that one test meets all the criteria of what a "good test" is.

Only then will I get back to writing more tests, which now automatically come with those core "good test" features built in.

I'm skeptical about what tests are worth it

Since I know that I won't be able to test everything, I also know that I need to be selective with what tests I write.

It may be easy to write a test for a simple static page, but I also know that functionality is unlikely to break and usually non-critical.

Instead, I focus on the "money-maker" pages. The user flows that drive life into the business, and would cause major pain if broken (both for the user and the company).

I'll also balance the gain of a test against the pain of writing it.

I'm not saying I won't make exceptions for important pages, but if a page has a lot of dynamic elements that will require weeks of work, I'm going to weigh that cost against how important that page really is.

I'm not writing automation for unreleased functionality

While test-driven development may work well for unit tests, it's a lot more difficult for UI tests.

I understand that writing UI tests too early can lead to a lot of rework, as these new pages will likely undergo various changes in the first few months of life.

Instead, I will think about how the new functionality impacts existing pages, and shore up my tests for those existing pages to ensure the new functionality doesn't interfere with them.

Then, once the new flows have settled out, I can go back and write my tests, confident they will stay.

I won't forget the side-benefits

With all these promises made, I know that there are still no guarantees in life. Technology may fail me, and the support that I had planned on just may not be there.

But I'm reassured in knowing that automated tests have several benefits outside of the automation itself:

They clarify requirements

In order to write an effective test, you have to know your expected inputs and outputs.

Sadly, many projects can go months into development without someone asking these basic questions.

Mock-ups are made and code is written, yet no one has asked the basic question: "How will the user get to what they need?”

By writing tests, you have to clarify exactly what you're expecting your user to do. When this happens, you may discover that your expected interaction path is actually a poor experience. Or that you've never defined an expected interaction path all together.

Tests expose assumptions

Along that line of thought, tests require you to be straight-forward. In order for a UI test to be successful, you must have a definitive list of instructions for the computer to run.

Because of this, assumptions that the team has made in how the software works are often exposed via automated tests.

Many assumptions are made from an accessibility standpoint. We unknowingly assume a user can visually see a website, forgetting that at least one out of every five people have a physical impairment.

It's easy to define a flow in how you would use the software, but how the user does can be entirely different.

By testing the code outside of the human operating system, you're able to step away from your internal biases and preferences and experience the system from a different viewpoint.

You're simply testing the code more

No matter what, you're testing the website.

By running your automation, you're adding extra time that the code has been interrogated, giving your team one more chance to catch that sneaky bug that only appears every 15 runs.

And even if you don't get your automation running, you're still inspecting the code to figure out how you want your test to run. Even doing this can expose hidden flaws or minor bugs that would go unnoticed otherwise.

It's certainly not the most efficient, but it can still be effective.

You've got this

The key to all of this is remembering the core values of a good test.

They are:

  1. Easy to write
  2. Easy to run
  3. Highly Visible
  4. Useful

This means you'll need to spend time thinking instead of doing. Thinking about what's important to test and how the tests are going to operate in the wild.

It may feel wasteful, but this contemplation can be the key to getting a good start at testing.

If you're suffering from test anxiety, understand the fears behind it and build confidence you can avoid them.

Top comments (12)

erhankilic profile image
Erhan Kılıç • Edited

I wrote an acceptance test with Codeception for AngularJs project for two months. After two months they wanted me to join backend team because frontend project is always evolving and tests must always be updated. Today I'm helping frontend team to build better frontend project, lol :)
But writing these tests added lots of knowledge to me.

hilaberger92 profile image
Hila Berger

Hi Kevin,
Great article, I really enjoyed reading it.
Just a quick question:
You wrote: "What if you spend all this time setting up your tests, but in the end nothing really comes of it?" and "It takes a lot of work to get a good automated test suite built out. It's not something you can do in the course of an afternoon. "
I agree that it takes time to build a good test suite. My question is, how much time do you consider as too much time spent on setting up the tests?
At what point will you stop the process because it takes too much time?

klamping profile image
Kevin Lamping

That's a great question and I think it really depends on what value you can get out of the tests. It may be worth it to spend a week or two getting a test environment set up if you're on a team of 10 and really need the automation. On the other hand, if it's just you and you're working on a project with a small budget, you probably need that time for other things. I think just being honest with what you can afford time-wise is best.

hilaberger92 profile image
Hila Berger

Thanks a lot! I couldn't agree more :)
Which framework do you use to write your tests?

Thread Thread
klamping profile image
Kevin Lamping

I use WebdriverIO for UI tests. I wrote a post about it here:

Thread Thread
hilaberger92 profile image
Hila Berger

Great, thanks :)

bgadrian profile image
Adrian B.G.

For a lot of reasons, mainly because it's the hardest part to test, it has the highest development velocity so it has the lowest Return of Investment result. I mostly refer on "how the UI looks", not the behavior. I'm all for testing the components logic and states, data flows and models, but not the actual UI too, not for fast moving products at least.

Though I like that a lot of ppl are working on simpler ways to test UIs

jessekphillips profile image
Jesse Phillips

I would caution UI testing. This can be the first place people reach for after unit testing. Look to test integration before the UI.

I'm still trying out this strategy but the framework we are putting together will isolate the UI from the backend with Wiremock. This will give us validation of the communication from UI to the backend and how the UI behaves to respons. Not sure what web socket mocking looks like.

mikefreedman12 profile image
Mike Freedman

There are so many benefits to writing UI tests, even if you have a suite of high quality unit tests

  1. UI tests tend to get easier to write over time. There tends to be more code reuse when there is consistent look and feel across your application.

  2. Your testing the absolute outermost layer of your architecture, all the code is being reached, there is no logic being overlooked

  3. The same UI test can be run in so many different ways that can be useful for checking system quality

    a. Run the same test on different browsers
    b. Run the same test in a Load Test
    c. Run the same test with various Mock internet speed, quirks mode, etc.

  4. When tests fail, screenshots can show the impact the error has to the user experience, and help prioritize the severity of the bug.

klamping profile image
Kevin Lamping

Yep, UI tests have a lot of power to them! I'm a big fan and these are all great benefits that you don't find with many other testing methods out there!

jessekphillips profile image
Jesse Phillips

Your focus gragh is the critical first step. I suggested a pipeline with no tests to start and got laughed at. We actually have similar but different web apps and the response was like, why can't we work on both at the same time... Because each test raises the bar for everyone to use the tests (the system didn't support selecting tests)

droidmakk profile image
Afroze Kabeer Khan. M

Codecept is the best way to write of UI tests, Though setting up the environment was little bit hefty for me. As I was new for the webdriver.