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Your QA tester's hierarchy of needs: what is the agile testing pyramid?

Posted by Brian Borg on Oct 08 2020

The agile testing pyramid helps testers understand how to implement automated testing. This valuable guide was originated by agile expert, Mike Cohn.

The pyramid provides a starting place for new QA testers to jump off from, and it gives a 'single source of truth' for established QA testers to refer back to. In doing so, it meets a range of needs. This is what we're talking about:

agile testing pyramid onpath testing QA

A quick disclaimer about the agile testing pyramid

First off, yes, there are many other ways of visualizing this process. A diagram that illustrates something this complex or abstract is never going to tell the whole story.

Over the years the number of tiers, arrows, asterisks and thought bubbles added to this diagram could make your head spin. We're keeping the visual simple, and will unpack some of the nuance here.

It's all about ROI

'It costs almost five times more to fix a coding defect once the system is released that it does to fix it in unit testing.'

— Paul Grossman, IT consultant, in 'Automated testing ROI: fact or fiction?'

The two categories at the bottom of the pyramid - unit and component testing - represent those types of testing that benefit most from automation. As you move up the hierarchy, the return on investment is less (and naturally reaches a zero point at the moment you hit manual and exploratory tests, which are non-automated). The earlier and more often in the process you test, the better and more cost-effective the outcome.

Why automate testing?

As your testing process matures, you may start to recognize opportunities for:

  • More test coverage at the same cost
  • Increasingly efficient test cycles
  • Testing that scales and can be used across projects
  • A lower price tag on fixing bugs in development
  • Fewer defects that make it through to production

These benefits are much more evident at the base of the pyramid, so if you're considering automating your testing, that's where to start. Why? Well...

It costs to automate high-level tests

As you move higher up the agile testing pyramid, you encounter issues like:

  • Test fragility (tests that break easily and unexpectedly, even when changes 'shouldn't' have influenced the test)
  • Longer feedback time
  • Increased effort levels
  • Higher costs to implementation
  • More specialized knowledge required

For example, UI tests break easily, often because the UI structure changes over time. Low-level tests are faster and more stable, so this is where we recommend you put the vast majority of your effort. Then, write very few higher-level tests, like end-to-end tests. Use tools like Selenium to avoid the testing ice-cream cone.

Quite the climb

At the start of your journey, the agile testing pyramid can look pretty unscalable. But, if you break it down, that summit is closer than you might think. For more information about testing types, see our article on software testing basics

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