Everyone in the software industry would agree that testing and quality assurance have become an imperative part of the software development life cycle in ensuring the release of a high quality product. Manual testing is an indispensable piece in this overall mix. To look at the future of manual testing, one has to first consider the history of testing to see how it has evolved.
In the 1990s, testing was just beginning to take shape as a discipline of its own. Not all products were tested before release leading to a number of quality issues from the field. Then came in a phase, when developers themselves tested the code they wrote which although was an improvement, still had a lot of issues since they were not able to do justice testing their own code. A lot of issues were missed in the process. To address these shortcomings, the field of independent testing emerged; it was initially largely manual and black box in nature, where the tester would test the product from an external user stand point. While they brought in a lot of value from an end user stand point, a complete black box focus was not sufficient to help them understand defects and issues from an end to end workflow. Their testing was very superficial and incomplete because a lot of issues often existed at an internal level, which they were not aware of. All of this led to missed issues, testers who were disconnected from the rest of the development team, testers unable to hold meaningful conversations with the developers, thus impacting the reputation of the test team. Until this time, most testing was manual with minimal automated testing which was primarily record and play focused. This was not necessarily the best automation strategy, but certainly helped reduce the manual work around repetitive tests.
Then came in a phase in early 2000’s where testers started delving more into the gray and white box areas of testing which provided a much need face lift to the discipline as a whole. They were able to add a lot of value understanding the system internals and coupling automation with manual testing to provide the required test coverage. Automation also evolved into more robust and maintainable models including framework based approaches which truly helped save time for the tester to focus on areas where their competency and attention were needed the most. Testers started enjoying the well deserved respect the profession was beginning to command along with shrinking deltas in their salaries compared to their development counterparts.
In the years that followed the industry was gradually moving into a phase where automation was the in-thing. In my opinion this was driven by a couple of core reasons. One because, most projects were beginning to adopt an agile development model, where time was a huge constraint and automation really came in handy to save test execution time. Second, the testing community was getting split in a sense, where automation testers were commanding more respect and the status of intellectually smarter than their manual testing colleagues. These together pushed automation to a prime spot and tried leaving manual testing to the more junior testers with not much experience. While some of this was inevitable because web based products started gaining prominence involving a lot of B2B communication (touching upon several areas such as web services, complex databases where manual testing was not possible or was impractical), there were still several areas where a manual tester could specialize. Such a specialized focus in manual testing was getting over-shadowed by the undue importance on test automation.
Current times are when we are beginning to witness a change again, where the industry is beginning to specialize in areas where manual testing will re-gain focus. These span both new technologies that are evolving as well as new areas of testing focus. For e.g. a lot of gesture based technology and touch technology are seeping in (some well known products in the current day include iPad, Kindle, Kinnect etc). Data input in such cases via automation is a challenge. Also, manual testing is becoming more prominent and meaningful in areas such as accessibility and usability testing where the tester needs to simulate end user actions which are not always automatable. Consider areas such as verifying that the alt text for an image has been set correctly, which is impossible to automate as of today. A couple of other relevant blogs I would like to point you to, in this context are: Keeping pace with the changes in the computing world and No one left behind.
One needs to understand that, test automation while very important and inevitable in ensuring product quality within the constraints and complex scale of operations that we work within, is only a piece of code and set of instructions. It does not have intelligence of its own and like a software program will merely follow instructions that the tester has mandated. It cannot replace the intelligence of the manual tester, get a pulse of the end user needs and wants. The years ahead are especially exciting with the specialized test opportunities that are going to be available to the manual tester. Manual testing will come back to lime-light and enjoy its own respect alongside with test automation. The test manager plays an especially important role in these critical years to nurture manual and automated testing arriving at the right balance and focus needed for both. S/He needs to work on building a set of strong test engineers in both areas, offerings ample room for career specialization and more importantly creating a balance in the demand and supply of both these areas in ensuring a product of exceptional quality in the market place.