Automation Testing vs. Manual Testing: Will Automation Replace Manual QA?

Inna M. by Inna M. on 10/25/2022

Automation Testing vs. Manual Testing: Will Automation Replace Manual QA?

Software testing is one of the most rapidly growing tech industries, with the software testing market being valued at $40 billion in 2021 and with an anticipated Compound Annual Growth Rate of 6% between 2022 and 2030. The importance of quality assurance in the software industry is not up for debate, which is proven time and time again by seemingly promising solutions that eventually fail due to the lack of testing.

“How is a good software product different from a bad one? A good product is both well-developed and well-tested. A bad product can be well-developed or underdeveloped, but it’s always undertested. Testing is what separates good software from bad software and helps the stakeholders make sure that the product is consistent with everyone’s expectations and requirements.”

Andrii Nikitenko, Head of Operations at TestFort

Traditionally, software testing can be divided into various categories based on different parameters. However, the most common division is manual testing vs. automated testing. But what is the difference between automated testing and manual testing? When to choose automation testing and when manual testing? And does automation replace manual testing? This is exactly what we are going to discuss today.

What is manual testing?

Manual testing is a type of software testing where the tests are executed by the QA engineer by hand, without the use of any automation tools. It has been around for as long as software development itself and is the most vital component of the quality assurance process. Without manual testing, popular software products would never be able to perform as well as they do, have as much of an appealing UI, and be able to withstand possible attacks.

Key uses of manual testing

Manual testing is the first type of QA a company usually considers in an effort to maintain or improve the quality of the application. And in many cases, it remains the only type of testing used on a project. Here are a few situations when the use of manual QA makes the most sense:

  1. When the product is in the initial development phase. At this stage, the functionality and state of the application are subject to frequent changes, and manual testing is better equipped to deal with those changes. Automation testing, on the other hand, needs significant resources to be successful at this stage, which is not always justifiable.
  2. When the project is short-term and small. As mentioned above, launching testing automation requires a significant amount of human and material resources, as well as time, unlike manual testing, which can be introduced to the project in a matter of days. This is why it’s the preferred solution for small and medium projects.
  3. When testing the usability of the product. Some automation testing tools are doing a pretty good job of mimicking human behavior when interacting with the UI. Still, they are not yet able to fully imitate the many, often unpredictable things a human tester can think of when testing the usability of a solution.
  4. When ad-hoc or exploratory testing is involved. Besides usability testing, these are the two types of testing that heavily rely on real human interaction with the product. It is possible to automate these types of testing to a degree, but at the moment, the results don’t come close to manual testing.
  5. When dealing with physical products. Testing physical devices, such as IoT products, car devices, or medical tech, is not always easy to automate, and it doesn’t always need to be automated. Flexible manual testing that can be easily adjusted to fit the needs of a product is a much better option in most cases.
manual testing

When manual testing is not the best option

Part of the discussion regarding the question “Is manual QA dying?” is due to the certain limitations that manual QAs are sometimes facing. Here is when the QA team should reconsider the decision to use manual testing:

  1. When you don’t have enough human resources. Having your manual QA team focus on repetitive tasks means they may not be able to allocate enough time to testing other important parts of the application.
  2. When you cannot afford to have human error. No matter how skilled a manual QA is, there is always a risk of human error, and sometimes the cost of it is simply too high.
  3. When you plan a long-term project. Automation testing is much better equipped to deal with large amounts of repeated tests than manual testing.

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What is automation testing?

Automation testing is a software testing technique that involves the use of automation tools and frameworks to execute the same test case suite over and over again. The key difference between manual and automated testing is that manual testing is entirely dependent on the human in front of the computer. In contrast, automated tests can be written once and run repeatedly with little to no human interaction.

Key uses of automation testing

While the advantages of manual QA are undeniably vast, we wouldn’t be having the discussion over automation testing vs. manual testing if it wasn’t for the immense benefits of using automation QA where it’s appropriate. But how do you choose automated testing over manual testing? Here is when to automate testing to achieve even more efficiency of testing and increase the quality of the product:

  1. When running repeated tests. This is one of the most common cases in favor of using automation: when the same test case suite is performed every day or multiple times a day, it makes perfect sense to automate it and then only make minor changes when needed.
  2. When using performance or load testing. These two types of testing require a lot of time and effort from the QA team, as finding vulnerabilities in the product’s performance can be difficult. Using testing automation is a sensible way of testing the performance of a product from different angles.
  3. When there is a large number of test cases. After the QA team has been working on the product for a while, the number of test cases can reach a few thousand or more. Consequently, the manual team risks spending weeks going through the suite while the rest of their work falls behind. This is where automation testing comes to the rescue.
  4. When you need to rule out human error. We have already talked about the human touch being invaluable for the process of testing, but there are also situations where it’s critical to make sure that human error doesn’t skew the results of testing. When implemented correctly, automation QA eliminates that risk.
  5. When dealing with large amounts of data. For example, one of the many instances where automation testing is the best possible option is database testing. A well-written test suite can go through millions of entries in far less time than it would take a manual QA to do a fraction of the task.

When automation testing is not the best option

Despite what some may say, and even despite some companies now exclusively having automation testers in their QA departments, it is premature to say that a project can survive on automation QA alone. So can automation replace manual testing? It doesn’t look very likely right now, especially in the following situations:

  1. When you only plan to run tests once or twice. When running the same tests repeatedly is not in the picture, automation testing does not make a lot of sense.
  2. When there are no predictable results to be achieved. Because automation testing typically involves tests that can either fail or pass, there needs to be a clear understanding of the desired results of testing.
  3. When timing is an issue. While automation is known to save time for the team in the long run, setting up automated tests takes time that you may not have on a particular project. Moreover, automation QAs and developers can have different ideas about the time it takes to complete a task.

“I am convinced that good communication is at the heart of any successful software project. Specifically, thanks to efficient communication, developers will quickly learn not to make unnecessary changes in the code just because they feel like it and thus cause a large volume of tests to fail. For example, a developer can choose to change a lowercase letter to a capital letter where it doesn’t really matter, and a bunch of tests becomes no longer valid. Transparent, effective communication helps eliminate that risk.”

Serhii Belevitnev, Automation QA at TestFort
3 Automation Testing vs. Manual Testing

Manual vs. automation testing: Cost, human resources, time to market, and accessibility for newcomers

There are different ways to compare and distinguish between manual and automation testing. We can look at the things these two methods can achieve and the tools they use. However, some of the most important aspects of the automation testing vs. manual testing debate can be found in a more practical realm. Behind every QA project, whether it’s manual or automated, there are human and material resources. Time to market is also an important metric that needs to be accounted for. Here is a breakdown of those key parameters.

Cost

By some estimates, the cost of software testing can account for as much as 60% of the overall cost of a software project. And there is no secret that testing automation costs more money than manual testing at the beginning of the project when it takes high-paid automation QAs and sophisticated tools to set up the automation process. 

However, thanks to test reusability and other factors, automation testing also helps save money in the long run. This is why automation tests are particularly appropriate for long-term and large-scale projects, whereas manual testing is best suited for smaller, short-term testing challenges.

Human resources

A skilled and experienced team of manual testers can make a lot of difference in the quality of a software product. Still, there is no denying the fact that any manual QA operation requires a significant amount of human resources. As every test case will be created, run, documented, and reviewed by hand, manual testers will always have their plates full, no matter how big the team is.

Automation testing, on the other hand, helps optimize the use of human resources. Sure, automation QAs may be more expensive to hire, but when a single automation QA engineer is doing the work of several manual QAs, it’s definitely a good investment to hire one.

Accessibility for newcomers

As long as the software industry exists, there is going to be a need for software testers. This is a rapidly growing and changing industry that never fails to attract newcomers. And we can say with confidence that most newcomers prefer to become manual testers for one simple reason: the entry threshold for manual QAs is significantly lower than that for automation QAs. Manual QA engineers don’t need deep knowledge of coding or automation frameworks to join the industry.

At the same time, it doesn’t mean that a manual QA is destined to stay in the same position forever. Plenty of manual testers eventually make the switch to automation. However, that shouldn’t be viewed as a vertical career move or as an example of evolution in QA. Rather, it’s a lateral move, as both manual and automation testing engineers have the same end goal — they just use different skills and tools to achieve it.

“There are situations where software developers switch to QA automation, and there are situations where engineers become automated testers with no prior experience with QA. However, the best possible outcome result-wise is when a manual QA makes a switch to automation. That way, they already know how testing works and have the right mindset for discovering the bugs, which ultimately makes them good at their job.”

Serhii Belevitnev, Automation QA at TestFort

As for the situation when a developer switches to QA automation, this career move has its benefits, such as deep knowledge of code needed to effectively automate large volumes of test cases. However, this situation is not without its challenges, as many former developers have a very particular approach to writing test cases for automation.

“In my experience, a former software developer who is now doing testing automation can often write tests that are more likely to pass, and it’s not always a conscious decision — it’s just a way their brain is conditioned to function after years of creating software designed to work flawlessly. A former manual QA, on the other hand, is more likely to want to get to the root of the problem and locate the bug at the lowest possible level. And that is an approach to testing that delivers the most consistent results.”

Serhii Belevitnev, Automation QA at TestFort

At the end of the day, both manual and automation QA are attractive fields for newcomers, and although they require different mindsets and sets of skills, both of them can be excellent career paths.

Time to market

In a time where the competition in the software market is stiffer than ever and there already seems to be a software product for everything, fast time to market can be the one critical advantage the company needs to succeed. This is why this parameter also matters for the manual testing vs. automated testing discussion.

With its reasonable resource use and ability to launch fast, manual testing is a good fit for an application that is in the active development stage. However, because it takes a large group of testers and a long time to cover every aspect of a software product, manual testing doesn’t always positively impact the product’s time to market.

Automation testing is able to generate test results significantly faster than manual testing and can locate more bugs in the same amount of time than manual QA. And given that the same automation test case suite can be run every day and bring relevant results, it can definitely decrease the time to market. At the same time, it’s important to remember the Pesticide Principle paradox — if the test case suite is not regularly reviewed and updated, it can lead to the product only performing well within the limits of the suite.

Are manual and automation testing really each other’s opposites?

There used to be a time — and a very recent one, in fact — when both software companies and individual QA engineers believed in a rigid distinction between manual and automation testing. Many believed that a manual engineer does not need to be proficient in testing automation, and there were a lot of automation QAs who joined the testing industry with no knowledge of testing whatsoever, only with a possession of coding skills.

Luckily, this attitude has proven to be faulty since then, as it doesn’t take into account the sizable area where those two skill sets come together to form a bigger one that is able to do more in less time and with fewer resources being used.

“Manual and automated testing are not two mutually exclusive concepts. We are witnessing a tendency for the strict division between these two types of testing to gradually disappear. Many companies no longer divide their testing engineers into manual and automation testers. Instead, all of them identify as QA engineers and work together on every single aspect of the testing process.”

Andrii Nikitenko, Head of Operations at TestFort

According to one study, 76% of QA engineers are now somehow involved in automation testing. It means that the line between automation vs. manual testing is even further blurred, and the division is only going to get less noticeable in the upcoming years. Some of the most in-demand testing engineers are going to be professionals who possess both sets of skills and can effectively manage an all-encompassing testing process.

Manual testing vs. automation testing: The ultimate showdown

The automation testing vs. manual testing debate wouldn’t be complete without a detailed look at each type’s benefits and limitations. Here is a comparison of manual and automation testing using the most important criteria in QA.

FeatureManual testingAutomation testing
Done byManual QA engineers and manual testing toolsAutomation QAs with knowledge of code and testing frameworks
TimeCan be launched very quicklyCan take weeks to set up
CostRelatively low, as manual QAs are not paid as much as automation QAs and can use existing equipmentHigh, as automation QAs are more expensive and additional equipment may be needed
ROILow, as manual test cases are not always reusableHigh, as it helps save resources on repeated tests
Programming skills requiredNoYes
RepetitionA manual QA running the same tests time after time can lose focus and miss bugsCan be repeated over and over again with the same efficiency
Human errorProne to human errorNot prone to human error
ReliabilityGenerally reliable when not affected by human errorReliable as long as the test case suite is regularly maintained
Best suited forExploratory testing, Usability testing, Ad-Hoc testing, Functional testing with rapidly changing parametersRegression testing, Performance testing, Load testing, Database testing, API testing
Not suited forLarge volumes of regression and large amounts of dataTesting challenges that heavily rely on human interaction
Automation Testing vs. Manual Testing

Where do we go from here?

Software development is one of the most rapidly transforming industries, and software testing isn’t far behind. Already today, companies actively use advanced technologies to increase the scope and accuracy of their testing efforts. Here are the trends that influence the near future of manual and automated testing:

  • Big data. The more equipped systems are becoming to handle big data and the more big data there is to handle, the use of testing automation makes more and more sense for projects dealing with bulks of information.
  • Machine learning. This technology can significantly shorten the time for a team to get the feedback after rolling out new features: machine learning algorithms analyze thousands of tests, selecting and running only those that are likely to fail.
  • Artificial intelligence. AI is already widely used in automation testing and is going to become an even bigger tool. Just one of the many possible uses of AI in testing is simulating the behavior of real users to save time on manual UI testing.

Considering all of this, it’s definitely premature to say that software testing as a whole or manual testing as its most important part are going away any time soon. Rather, we can expect the line between automation vs. manual testing to become even more blurred, while QAs who can successfully use manual and automated testing techniques in their work become even in higher demand and earn higher wages.

Bottom line: Can automation replace manual testing?

After everything we’ve said above, one question remains: Does automation replace manual testing?

“The use of manual or automation testing isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Just like you cannot say that every software project needs to be developed using exclusively Python or JavaScript programming languages, you also cannot say that every project only requires manual or automated testing. There are projects that don’t require QA automation whatsoever, and there are projects where manual testing alone simply won’t cut it. This is why we will carefully analyze the specifics of the project before deciding whether and when to automate testing. However, I can say that a typical project will only benefit from both types being used.”

Andrii Nikitenko, Head of Operations at TestFort

The discussion over when to do automation testing and when to go for manual QA has been around for as long as the software industry has been distinguishing between those two methods of testing. And right now, it looks like there cannot be a universally accepted outcome of this debate. There is a growing number of cases where testing automation can make a world of difference, and there is still a huge need for skilled manual testers. So there is no right or wrong position regarding manual testing vs. automation testing as long as the desired results are achieved in the end.

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Written by
Inna M., Technical Writer

Inna is a content writer with close to 10 years of experience in creating content for various local and international companies. She is passionate about all things information technology and enjoys making complex concepts easy to understand regardless of the reader’s tech background. In her free time, Inna loves baking, knitting, and taking long walks.

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