Foundation Series: Functional Testing of Software

Functional testing class

Functional Testing, also referred to as System Testing of software is the practice of testing the completed software to confirm that it meets the requirements defined for the software. A functional test is typically a test of user interactions, but can also involve communication with external systems. We contrast functional testing with unit testing. We also show how functional testing provides different benefits than unit testing.

This is a relatively long post for a Foundation Series post, so sit back with some coffee and relax. This primer will be worth it if its a new topic. If you know this stuff already, check out the links to other articles that go into more depth on points we make.

An Application is a Series of Flows

We can think of an application from the perspective of a user, as a series of interactions, or flows through the user interface.

Application flow

People are not usually forced to follow a fixed set of instructions, or a predefined sequence of actions in an application. They can interact with controls in a random order, skip controls entirely, or otherwise do stuff that developers don’t expect.

Unit Tests are Whitebox Tests

Unit testing, as we detailed in our telephone example, provides targeted test coverage of specific areas of the code inside the application. Unit tests are written by developers, to allow them to test that the implementation that they created is behaving as they intended. Unit tests don’t implicitly provide the start-to-finish coverage that functional tests usually provide. Unit tests are whitebox tests that assure that a specific behavior intended by the developer is happening. A weakness of using unit tests alone is that they will not identify when the developer misinterpreted the requirements.

unit testing

Functional Tests are Blackbox Tests

A functional test, however, is designed without insight into how the implementation works. It is a blackbox test. A functional test represents a set of user interactions with the application. The concept behind a functional test is to validate something about the state of the application after a series of events. According to Aberro Software, 80% of all functional tests are performed manually. That means that the most common functional test involves a tester making selections in a series of controls, and then evaluating a condition. This evaluation is called an assertion. The tester asserts that the software is in a specific state (an output is created, a control is filtered in a specific way, a control is enabled, a navigation option is disabled, etc).

full functional testing

Good functional requirements are written as concisely as possible. A requirement that supports a particular use case might state that the user specifies A, B, and C, and the application responds with D. A functional test designed to validate that requirement will almost always mimic this most common flow of events. The script that the tester follows will be to specify A, then B, then C. The tester will then evaluate the assertion that D is true. If D is false, then the test has failed.

A functional test may not cover the entire set of likely user interactions, but rather a subset of them.

Targeted functional testing

One problem with this approach is that it does not account for a user specifying (A, B, X, C) or (A, C, B). These variations in order of operations might cause the underlying code to execute differently, and might uncover a bug. For a tester to get complete coverage of the requirement (A + B + C => D), he would have to create multiple scripts. This is expensive, tedious, and often redundant. But a tester has no way to know if the multiple scripts are redundant, or required.

Combining Unit Tests and Functional Tests

When we combine both unit testing and functional testing approaches, we are implementing what is called graybox testing (greybox testing). This is also referred to as layered testing. Graybox testing provides two types of feedback into the software development process. The unit tests provide feedback to the developer that her implementation is working as designed. The functional tests provide feedback to the tester that the application is working as required.

Layered testing

Graybox testing is the ideal approach for any software project, and is a key component of any continuous integration strategy. Continuous integration is a process where the software is compiled and tested every day throughout the release cycle – instead of waiting until the end of the cycle to test. Read this plan for implementing continuous integration if you want more details.

Automating Functional Tests

Automating unit testing is both straightforward, and relatively inexpensive. Automating functional testing is more expensive to set up, and much more expensive to maintain. Each functional test represents a script of specific actions. A tester (with programming skills) can utilize software packages like WinRunner to create scripts of actions followed by assertions. This represents an upfront cost of programming a script to match the application, in parallel with the development of the application – and it requires a tester with specialized skills to program the script.

The maintenance cost of automating functional tests is magnified in the early development stages of any application, and throughout the life of any application developed with an agile process. Whenever an element of the user interface is changed, every script that interacts with that element can be broken (depending on the nature of the change). These broken scripts have to be manually updated to reflect these ongoing changes. In periods of heavy interface churn, the cost of maintaining the test suite can quickly become overwhelming.

In the real world, apparently 80% of teams find that this overwhelming cost of automated testing outweighs even the high cost of manual functional testing.

Improved Automation of Functional Tests

We can reduce the maintenance cost of keeping automated scripts current with the user interface by abstracting the script-coding from the script-definition. This is referred to as keyword and table scripting. A set of objects are coded by the tester and given keywords. Each object represents an element in the user interface. Script behavior (sequence of interaction) is defined in terms of these keywords. Now, when a UI element is changed, the keyword-object is updated and all of the scripts that reference it are repaired.

This, however, does not address issues where one control is refactored into two controls, the adding or removing of controls, or changes in the desired flow of interaction. There is still a very large (albeit smaller) maintenance burden. And the applications that use this approach (such as QTP) can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars. Another reason to do functional testing manually.


Functional testing is important to validating requirements. It is an important element of assuring a level of software quality. And it is still expensive with the best of today’s proven solutions. Even with the high cost, it is much cheaper than the risk of delivering a solution with poor quality. Plan on having functional testing as a component of any process to achieve software product success.

– – –

Check out the index of the Foundation series posts which will be updated whenever new posts are added.

6 thoughts on “Foundation Series: Functional Testing of Software

  1. A couple of additional things to consider:

    1. “Functional tests” is kind of a misnomer. “System testing” appropriately implies testing the system (as opposed to units within the system). The term “functional testing”, on the other hand, suggests testing the functions to the exclusion of nonfunctional requirements.

    2. The key to successful system testing is not so much determining if the system output D in response to A, B, and C. It’s the associated metrics (how fast was it, how easy was it, how accurate was it, etc.) that make things interesting.

    These points relate to what I’ve written about overemphasize functional requirements.

  2. Hey Roger, thanks for the comments!

    Definitely a misnomer when we look at it from a product-management perspective. However, it is the most common industry term, and from the perspective of QA, it is an appropriate name.

    I agree that performance testing, or otherwise characterizing the behavior is “the next step” in functional testing. With so many companies struggling to get adequate functional-requirement test coverage, it seemed like the right place to focus a Foundation Series post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.