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Is manual testing dead?

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Is manual testing dead?
Mario Matthee
Chief Operating Officer of the DVT Global Testing Centre

Is manual testing dead?

To stay relevant, software testers must focus on what makes manual testing essential to the software being tested: humanisation.

By Mario Matthee, COO at DVT Global Testing Centre

Software testing has evolved, along with the advent of highly efficient and progressive software development methodologies like agile and its derivatives.

Gone are the days when a software developer would ‘test' his own code and send it into production, where it would be subjected to further testing. Iterative development has eclipsed this antiquated form of manual software testing with automated alternatives, and the role of the software tester itself is shifting, with business analysts increasingly taking on testing responsibilities for their own projects.

Despite the fractures, I'm not calling ‘time of death' on manual testing anytime soon. In fact, manual testers will play an increasingly important – albeit far more specialised – role, as software development fragments into specific niches, from enterprise-scale mainframe to consumer-grade mobility.

The advances in test automation have taken the spotlight off the bare-knuckles world of manual testing, but automating for the sake of it can be counterproductive and costly. While automation is ideally suited to the fast-paced world of agile development, and is increasingly critical for regression testing, it falls short in two scenarios: new builds and human experience.

It can be prohibitively expensive to design test automation scripts for new products that are still in development – and therefore constantly changing. Keeping automation scripts current could end up costing more than the software is worth, so the only way to get the application stable enough for automation is through manual testing.

Secondly – and particularly in the mobile space, where new applications are a dime a dozen these days – there's no substitute for human experience when it comes to usability testing. Sure, once an app has been out in the wild long enough, it can be stated fairly confidently that test automation will keep its future iterations fresh and bug-free, but by that time most of the usability issues will have been ironed out, and software testers are testing for stability and legacy compatibility rather than usability.

Hammer blow

But, for new apps, or apps that have been completely redesigned, there's no automation scripts I know of that can see the ‘bigger picture' or predict with any degree of certainty how real humans will react to it. For business-critical applications, leaving usability decisions to a script is like polishing glass with a hammer – it can be done for a while, but ultimately, it's going to crack.

Another aspect of manual testing that's difficult to automate is field testing. This is true for many mobile applications, but more so with the growing popularity of app-driven wearables like watches and fitness devices. Stability is one thing, but automation can't possibly account for the diversity of human demographics these devices are designed for.

This brings me to an interesting crossroads. Manual testing, at least in the traditional sense, is clearly in decline, while automation is in the ascendancy, and the blurred lines between developers, project owners and business analysts are becoming even more so.

Automation is very much a work in progress. It's ideal for simple applications, or in cases where new features are added to older applications that have already been tested to death. Manual testing, on the other hand, is the old curmudgeon in the room; it's been there, done that, and has all the experience, but is rapidly being replaced by the younger, fitter, better-looking model.

As such, there's only one clear path for manual testers to travel to avoid extinction: specialisation. By that, I don't mean taking up abstract roles limited to exotic devices or industries, but rather focusing on what makes manual testing essential to the software being tested: humanisation.


The human touch is synonymous with quality, and quality assurance ultimately requires the human touch. Automated tests are just that; they don't necessarily react to a design feature or usability cue as a human would. A manual tester will be using the software as it would work on launch, and therefore provides a real-time view of any human issues an automation script might miss. Any flaws that are only likely to be triggered by organic human use will likely also be found by manual testers.

Manual testing is the old curmudgeon in the room.

Of course, this is nothing new; history has shown up hundreds of examples of traditional roles that have been overtaken by progress, only to resurface in unexpected ways and in places the people that replaced them least expected them to. The shoemaker was replaced by the factory, but people are not going to send their shoes to the factory when the stitching comes loose, and there's a reason why the world's most coveted shoes are still lovingly made by hand.

Manual testing is also far more flexible than it is given credit for. When a developer (or client) has one of those ‘lightbulb moments' that fundamentally changes the course of an application or project, ideally, the change should take place (and be tested) immediately. Doing so without completely retooling the automation scripts and processes for the previous iteration of the software is almost impossible without significant cost and time delays. Not so with manual testing; just test and see the results right there, without delay.

Despite the benefits, manual testers are still an endangered species. Modern training and courseware tends to steer testing into the developer's domain, and manual testing is often considered an afterthought or consequence of inadequate development skills. More resources are also funnelled into sophisticated test automation, with major advances in artificial intelligence set to drive the wedge between automation and manual testing even wider.

For manual testing to survive these changes, it needs to adapt quickly and show its value where it matters most: in the hands of everyday users.

The more people depend on their smart devices to think and act for them, the more they need real people to build software applications in their own image. Likewise, the more they rely on autopilot to manage every aspect of their lives, the more manual testers are needed to ensure they're heading in the right direction.