Low-code – the Bigger Picture

Low-code test automation is part of a bigger trend in IT. Forresters and Gartner call it the “Citizen Developer” – the general idea that many business activities can be achieved by business users and citizens directly without the need for big IT projects… initially.

For the last 10 years we have mockingly called Robot Process Automation (RPA) a “poor man’s integration”, in the sense that instead of building sic “real” integration, we build an RPA robot to handle the interface. But it’s equally low-code when your Apple Shortcuts trigger application events or you use Airtables or SmartSheets instead of MS Office tools.

In the mocking from IT teams, we do tend to forget that low-code tools are a short-term efficient and user-friendly way for organizations without a big IT budget to solve some common problems. That it can very well make business sense to RPA data between systems until the last silo has been cemented over.

There is a clear trend that the business units of large enterprises are getting more tech-savvy and can do more IT things on their own: order a new OS, configure a new form, populate tables, and configure collaborative work products. Previously these actions would have mockingly been called “shadow IT” when outside the realm of the IT units. Now it’s more out in the open – and where the IT spend money is.

Low code is, when you squint at it, all about the visualization and abstraction of something that previously took coding in IDEs, tinkering in Excel sheets, and similarly skilled IT labor to configure. It’s really nothing new in the history of IT. For large global enterprise companies, it has always been about consolidating business IT systems and redefining new coherent ways of working.

Replace the existing system suite of 10+ tools with one Software-as-a-Service Solution to create and maintain product information, so that it can be kept in one place and inspire additional digital transformation.

The strategic objective for a large global company in 2022

The current journey for these global enterprises is to move the IT savvy-ness into the business units and make the business units more autonomous in their IT spending. There’s no need to hire an external outsourcing company to maintain the IT operations when most can be done by a few internal staff inside the cloud dashboards or similar admin modules of Salesforce and ServiceNow.

Give it some time, though.

While low-code and RPA can in some cases be effectively coded by business experts – they will soon need some good old computer science techniques to maintain the RPA and low-code shoe strings. At the end of the day, visual code is still code. And low-code test automation is just part of a bigger picture.

Hunches and Hard Truths

Recently I was in a network call on the use of automation and machine learning in detection of skin issues (EDB 5.0 in Danish only). Similarly I was reading about automation in the legal space. Both these stories align with the struggles we see in the discussions around how much we can automate. We can model it on this simple continuum between hunches and hard truths:

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Automation is for Other Roles Too

Automation of business tasks is no longer for the software developers only. Similarly test automation is no longer for testers and test engineers only. Both these trends help to create smarter testing performed by non-testers.

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It’s a Model – not the Truth

Usually when we discuss Observability, Testability, Modern Testing Principles, it should be with the disclaimer from what context the lessons originate and that Your Mileage Will Vary.

There are so many different IT projects out there – that assuming every IT project is about source code is quite a blind spot. Projects that deal with commercial standard systems or outsourced software might have source code underneath – but many teams does not have access to the source. Additionally, many legacy systems from the 90’es and older does not have the same automation capabilities as we have now.

Not all software projects are about consumer facing native apps and websites. While they are numerous there’s still plenty of systems out there for internal and business-to-business use. While the trends from CI/CD are picking up for B2B and internal systems, things doesn’t move so fast.

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RPA – Tomorrows Best Practise

Recently I was reviewing the offering of the Microsoft Power automate desktop offering, and I realized: Robot Process Automation is still the rave – every tool vendor and their dog has an offering in this space:

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For RPA to succeed …

TLDR: For RPA tools to succeed for automation you need to add engineering practices.

BTW: All automation projects require good software engineering practices.

Yes, you can use RPA tools to do test automation. And yes, you can have business persons designing the flows. BUT in order to succeed you need to apply some software engineering practices.

Robot Process Automation (RPA) tools like tools like LeapWork , Blue Prism  and UiPath  can be used to build business automation – it’s their core job. It’s the enterprise version of the Apple iOS shortcuts, “If This, Then That” or home automation. And they can be used for test automation – in some contexts.

The RPA tools are interesting because they seem to have a low barrier of entry. Some let you design the flows and robots visually, others using flowcharts. Either way it’s a low-code way of developing solutions. It seems compelling to let business end users prepare the flows and bots, it’s all plug & play.

Until it’s not.

Until the RPA robots design is only kept in the head of one person or until the flows/bots is a mess of interdependencies and cross links, that somehow the business still relies heavily on. And you have yet again created a spaghetti solution to add to the pile…

via DevHumor

The bigger the visual flowcharts in your RPA designer the more the project is a coding project. And you need to apply software development practices like version control, BDD style documentation and designing solutions loosely coupled and highly cohesive.

Sometimes you can teach the people the details, sometimes you can have a guide (tool smith) to enable them – sometimes it’s best to let the engineers tackle the automation. That depends on your gameplay and map of the world. What end users are good at is intrinsic domain knowledge the novel and the uncharted – not coding nor town planning.

Loosely coupled and highly cohesive.

The terms loosely coupled and highly cohesive is from the world of Computer Science, and most examples are around coding in object oriented languages like Java. In java, and in the flowcharts and visual scripts of RPA tools, you can group things into reusable “building bricks” or functions or sub flows. The Computer Science word for this is encapsulation.

It turns out it’s important how you group the bricks, and what the inputs and outputs are. Vladimir Khorikov summarizes with the following (my emphasis):

  • Cohesion represents the degree to which a part of a code base forms a logically single, atomic unit.
  • Coupling represents the degree to which a single unit is independent from others.
  • It’s impossible to achieve full decoupling without damaging cohesion, and vise versa.
  • Try to adhere to the “high cohesion and low coupling” guideline on all levels of your code base.
  • Don’t fall into the trap of destructive decoupling.

Without good engineering practices any automation initiative is, at best, just a smartass expensive one trick pony.

No Code, No Test?

If the testing activity can be integrated into the coding activity, who tests if there is no code involved? Does there have to be code in order for there to be a test activity – and when does the scale tip for testing to happen?

There is a new type of business applications emerging – the “Low Code / No Code” products. The WordPress platform like this one I’m writing from now could be one example. AirTable could be another example of a higher order solution, that enables some user to quickly and without code organize and automate information. What we see in the testing tools space with Cypress and Mabl, is similarly a trend, where the test cases and scripts are directly linked to the end-2-end business purpose, not the underlying technologies. Low Code tools has emerged as yet another type of “customization” and “configuration” business solution.

Evolution line and groups of products (Wardley Maps X-axis)

The trend is clear and has been on the horizon for a while.

Low-Code/No-Code will disrupt this entire pattern, as enterprises realize they can be even more successful with their digital transformations if they do away with hand-coding altogether, adopting Low-Code/No-Code across their organizations instead. “No-Code is here, and it doesn’t care about making your IT organization more efficient,” explains E. Scott Menter, Chief Strategy Officer at BP Logix. “Its only purpose is to turn your business into a digitally integrated, audit-defying, silo-resistant object of their customers’ desire.”

The Low-Code/No-Code Movement: More Disruptive Than You Realize

If a consultant can automate their unique process into a tool in hours, they can solve customer’s problem faster and show the value of their efforts. If a small business owner can build an app for their needs, they can increase business efficiency with automation and save valuable time to expand their business.

No-code Revolution. Why Now?
Wardley Mapping y-axis: User proximity / Code needed

To me there is a direct correlation between amounts of code required and business needs and end user visibility. The less “scripting” a business end user needs to do and “scripting languages” to understand the better. Airtable, as mentioned above, wins over spreadsheets in the end.

Similarly the faster cycles and feedback of Low Code tools is more attractive to the business than having “code high” teams develop applications. The “slow and high” code projects are never realized.

Wardley map: Low code evolves and outmaneuvers “high code”

One way to see this trends, is that while “Robot Framework” and other web-based open source “RPA like” frameworks exist, the emerging approach for testing standard software solutions trends towards Low Code:

Perhaps RPA tools and similar Low-Code tools can be compared to the macros of If This Then That, where you can automate tedious repetitive tasks – also among your business tools. But even with low-code tools the complexity of the scripts can make it a mess, and the visual scripts needing coding practices.

Similarly, the need for explicit testing of the business functionality emerges at some point in the evolution of the “low code” solutions. Every solution moves from Experiment to emerging practice and end as a standard/best-practice. The explicit testing need emerges along the way but becomes less visible on the left-side products/commodities.

Yet to me – testing happens everywhere. Testing is key to the experiments of the pioneer, testing is key for the settler bundling solutions and testing is key for the town planner to secure stable operations.

Simple illustration of the Pioneers, Settlers & Town Planners Model.

Be aware that while testing is happening, it is not necessary by the tester. Don’t hawk the testing activity, let the experts play their part , have testers for the remaining exploration and have tools for the rest. The trend of less testers and more testing is still active and testing is shifting to the future even faster these days. A test happens every time a person doing something thinks and ask questions like: let me try this, could you test this, what happens if?

There doesn’t have to be code for testing to happen.

When to use RPA in testing

This post is my current take on using Robot Process Automation (RPA) tools for automation in testing. RPA tools comes in different shapes, some are better at some things than others. Similarly it has to do with the tool stack of the system under test.

First some definitions/terms.

RPA/RDA definiton: I use the original Horses for Sources definitions: “increase productivity, support human operators in completing tasks and activities” (RDA) and “increase process efficiency, reduce manual labor by automating transaction intensive activities” (RPA). In more practical terms RDA is across the desktop while RPA is more about background processinga poor man integration between systems.

The class of RPA tools: To me there are at least 4 groups of tools that all claim the RPA label: Test automation (LeapWork, Tricentis), Business Process Optimization (UiPath, BluePrism, Kofax kapow/RPA, Automation Anywhere…), Web only (Testim.io, Cypress.io) and Coding frameworks (Robot Framework, RoboCloud, AppliTools).

System under Test: There is more to a system under test than a web page with backends or an app for a smart phone. Explore the notion of System under Test. You might not have access to the source code – as the test pyramid assumes.

The enterprise challenge: Large businesses and organizations unfortunately struggle, as their IT stack is much more that web only. They want the benefits of continuous testing to their whole technology stack. Existing automation best practices doesn’t seem to address testing on top of IT systems that are older than SAFe, agile and Test-Driven Development.

Automation in Testing: See the AiT definition and namespace: “using automation to support their testing outside of automated checks“. Use tools and automation to handle all the tedious tasks of your active testing activity. Use automated checks to cover the binary requirement confirmations.

When to use RPA tools

Putting RPA tools in play in test automation do enable digital transformation and acceleration of the test activities. There are many parameters to evaluate when to use RPA tools in a testing context:

Simple flow chat for deciding to use RPA tools

Hence, the sweet spot for using RPA tools is a as an execution muscle for mainframe solutions, commercial standard applications and legacy systems with inactive or unavailable codebases. The test management system is still key in providing an overview over all testing activities across CI/CD pipelines, RPA and tests based on human evaluation.

If your system under test is web only, you can follow the modern testing principles and build in Observability in (https://charity.wtf/) and a lot of the things in the code. Plenty of best practices around ci/cd for web systems. Obviously it depends on how well the knowledge about the system is codified – but you can work on that within your org/team too. It’s more tricky of the source code of your web SUT is not available to you and render new locators every time you deploy or refresh. … for that consider to move up the stack and use Cypress or Testim.

Remember – there are no silver bullets.

Visual Tests are Still Code

Among the currently shiny new test automation things are visual “script-less” test automation tools. But the visual test flows are still code – and thus require discipline to structure and maintain. Otherwise you are just adding yet another layer of spaghetti code.

Among the current shiny new test automation tools are visual “script-less” automation tools like LeapWork [9], Blue Prism [10] and UiPath [7]. These tools are a part of a new class of business process automation tools called “Robot Process Automation” (RPA) [4]. There are two sub types of – “RPA” which focuses on processing data and Robot Desktop Automation (RDA).

RDA is interesting in the context of test automation [9], as they can automate GUI interactions – also on top of enterprise package applications (SaaS, COTS, OOTB etc. [2]). The test automation challenge for most of these enterprise applications (SAP, MS Dynamics [6] etc.) is that they come with no access to the code-base, even if these are pure-play web based – the GUI is all there is.

All you can to these type of business solutions is usually to add customization and configurations by entering or editing data directly in through the GUI. Some of these systems allow configurations and customization in the form of config-file – they really should be under change control [3], as they are part of the pipeline. 

visual tests are code

part of the ship

part of the crew

Bootstrap Bill Turner

Using RDA tools for test automation [9] is a novel [1] uncharted approach [12]. The editing of the “tests”/flows is usually done in a stand-alone application studio (Graphical IDE) with interactions to the solution under test (across the GUI and over Citrix and RDP) and to any test management and issue tracking system.

Interestingly the other more “data processing” RPA tools like Automation Anywhere [5] uses a VB-Script like syntax. Writing and maintaining “scripts” like that is quite like the common approaches to GUI automation using frameworks like Siluki, tagUI, Applitools [11].

Applitools etc. are coding frameworks you can apply if you have the application code base or want to write test automation directly as code. There could be benefits in coding UI testing in all web-only projects directly using Selenium and Applitools. Most enterprise business solutions are often stand-alone applications, or their web code is horrible to hook into, as often the selectors seems randomly generated (been-there-done-that).

Hence the primary driver for RDA adoption in for test automation is to take the RDA & RPA [4] tools and apply their strengths in process automation of enterprise business solutions [2] to drive the test execution. And of a business flow could be “automating” activities during onboarding [7] or an SAP purchase order as below images:

Another key driver for adoption of RPA for test automation is their visual approach in presenting interactions/tests as flows. Some do it gracefully and user-friendly (LeapWork) – others have a more old-school workflow/swim lane approach (Blue Prism, UiPath). In both cases the visual flows illustrate an interaction across multiple GUI applications to perform business actions (yes, this still happens).

These drivers probably to make the barrier to entry seem more manageable. The visual ones very easily turn into visual spaghetti code if you don’t keep an eye on it and use sub flows, low coupling and high cohesion [13].  … as with any other non-trivial code (of a certain McCabe complexity [14]). One interesting way to go about a “coding” practice for visual test cases could be inspired by how BDD can be implemented in LeapWork [8] with annotation and self-referencing unit tests.

At the end of the day even a visual test automation project is a coding project, that should be part of the project code base like everything else [3]. And probably best maintained by software engineers within the project team (where possible) – unless you want a team of test engineers spending all day playing catch-up to maintain the automation code.

  1. Since 2017’ish.
  2. COTS/OOTB = Commercial of the shelf, out of the box
  3. https://twitter.com/mipsytipsy/status/1146968926493929472
  4. https://www.horsesforsources.com/2019_RTS_survey_070619
  5. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/automation-anywhere-example-neil-kolban/
  6. https://www.leapwork.com/blog/automate-testing-microsoft-dynamics-365-crm
  7. https://www.uipath.com/blog/how-rpa-can-help-companies-rethink-hr-tasks
  8. https://www.capgemini.dk/bdd-in-leapwork/#tab5
  9. https://dojo.ministryoftesting.com/dojo/lessons/rpa-as-a-power-tool-for-testing  
  10. https://crunchytechbytz.wordpress.com/2018/03/13/automation-with-blue-prism/
  11. https://applitools.com/features
  12. https://jlottosen.wordpress.com/2019/04/20/broaden-the-scope-of-sut/
  13. https://medium.com/clarityhub/low-coupling-high-cohesion-3610e35ac4a6
  14. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyclomatic_complexity

Assumptions of the Test Pyramid

This may be a heresy to some… While the Test Automation Pyramid as a model may be right in many contexts, – but the model will be similarly wrong in other test automation contexts.

First let’s look at one of the assumptions of the Test Automation Pyramid:

Martin Fowler, 2012

Fowlers assumption (2012) is that UI automation is slow and expensive. Similarly Cohen (2009) writes that testing in the UI is “brittle, expensive, and time consuming“. Recently (2019) there have been developed at least two types of tools that break those assumptions – and make it relatively faster and cheaper to have automated GUI tests than before.

Example 1: Tools like Applitools Eyes let’s you do prepare test automation code that compare images of the UI. Angie Jones has an excellent code example of how to compare PDF files.

Example 2: Robot Desktop Automation tools gives the possibility of automating and autotomize end user business processes. These kind of tools can be used to write, maintain and schedule end user activities.

I have performed an analysis that shows that using RDA for test automation has similar costs and speed as with using Selenium for test automation … but then not all projects are web projects.

Still, the underlying assumption of both Applitools and the pyramid above is that the system under test consists of accessible code on the service and unit layers.

UI testing may be all there is!

In the context of Software-as-a-Service, standard commercially packaged applications and solutions – the business still want to test the system they are starting to use, but they have no access to the code. While they must reasonably expect the vendor to have tested the solution, the business implementing the IT package would want to test it in their setting using their own people.

As testing professionals we can help the business both not to request the kitchen sink, while also test all the things (that matter). As with all other testing – even the dreaded UAT – some of it is simple repeatable tasks (checks) while others are more subtle experiments (tests).

Perhaps we can estimate a ratio between the checks and the tests? Perhaps that ratio has more checks..? That would depend on what the business would like to know (what is their perception of quality) and how well the domain is codified (Genesis / Commodity).

There is a discussion and collection of alternative pyramids on “The Club”.