Robot Framework and the keyword-driven approach to test automation – Part 2 of 3

03 Feb, 2016
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In part 1 of our three-part post on the keyword-driven approach, we looked at the position of this approach within the history of test automation frameworks. We elaborated on the differences, similarities and interdependencies between the various types of test automation frameworks. This provided a first impression of the nature and advantages of the keyword-driven approach to test automation.

In this post, we will zoom in on the concept of a ‘keyword’.

What are keywords? What is their purpose? And what are the advantages of utilizing keywords in your test automation projects? And are there any disadvantages or risks involved?

As stated in an earlier post, the purpose of this first series of introductory-level posts is to prevent all kinds of intrusive expositions in later posts. These later posts will be of a much more practical, hands-on nature and should be concerned solely with technical solutions, details and instructions. However, for those that are taking their first steps in the field of functional test automation and/or are inexperienced in the area of keyword-driven test automation frameworks, we would like to provide some conceptual and methodological context. By doing so, those readers may grasp the follow-up posts more easily.

Keywords in a nutshell

A keyword is a reusable test function

The term ‘keyword’ refers to a callable, reusable, lower-level test function that performs a specific, delimited and recognizable task. For example: ‘Open browser’, ‘Go to url’, ‘Input text’, ‘Click button’, ‘Log in’, ‘Search product’, ‘Get search results’, ‘Register new customer’.

Most, if not all, of these are recognizable not only for developers and testers, but also for non-technical business stakeholders.

Keywords implement automation layers with varying levels of abstraction

As can be gathered from the examples given above, some keywords are more atomic and specific (or ‘specialistic’) than others. For instance, ‘Input text’ will merely enter a string into an edit field, while ‘Search product’ will be comprised of a chain (sequence) of such atomic actions (steps), involving multiple operations on various types of controls (assuming GUI-level automation).

Elementary keywords, such as ‘Click button’ and ‘Input text’, represent the lowest level of reusable test functions: the technical workflow level. These often do not have to be created, but are being provided by existing, external keyword libraries (such as Selenium WebDriver), that can be made available to a framework. A situation that could require the creation of such atomic, lowest-level keywords, would be automating at the API level.

The atomic keywords are then reused within the framework to implement composite, functionally richer keywords, such as ‘Register new customer’, ‘Add customer to loyalty program’, ‘Search product’, ‘Add product to cart’, ‘Send gift certificate’ or ‘Create invoice’. Such keywords represent the domain-specific workflow activity level. They may in turn be reused to form other workflow activity level keywords that automate broader chains of workflow steps. Such keywords then form an extra layer of wrappers within the layer of workflow activity level keywords. For instance, ‘Place an order’ may be comprised of ‘Log customer in’, ‘Search product’, ‘Add product to cart’, ‘Confirm order’, etc. The modularization granularity applied to the automation of such broader workflow chains is determined by trading off various factors against each other – mainly factors such as the desired levels of readability (of the test design), of maintainablity/reusability and of coverage of possible alternative functional flows through the involved business process. The eventual set of workflow activity level keywords form the ‘core’ DSL (Domain Specific Language) vocabulary in which the highest-level specifications/examples/scenarios/test designs/etc. are to be written.

The latter (i.e. scenarios/etc.) represent the business rule level. For example, a high-level scenario might be:  ‘Given a customer has joined a loyalty program, when the customer places an order of $75,- or higher, then a $5,- digital gift certificate will be sent to the customer’s email address’. Such rules may of course be comprised of multiple ‘given’, ‘when’ and/or ‘then’ clauses, e.g. multiple ‘then’ clauses conjoined through an ‘and’ or ‘or’. Each of these clauses within a test case (scenario/example/etc.) is a call to a workflow activity level, composite keyword. As explicated, the workflow-level keywords, in turn, are calling elementary, technical workflow level keywords that implement the lowest-level, technical steps of the business scenario. The technical workflow level keywords will not appear directly in the high-level test design or specifications, but will only be called by keywords at the workflow activity level. They are not part of the DSL.

Keywords thus live in layers with varying levels of abstraction, where, typically, each layer reuses (and is implemented through) the more specialistic, concrete keywords from lower levels. Lower level keywords are the building blocks of higher level keywords and at the highest-level your test cases will also be consisting of keyword calls.

Of course, your automation solution will typically contain other types of abstraction layers, for instance a so-called ‘object-map’ (or ‘gui-map’) which maps technical identifiers (such as an xpath expression) onto logical names, thereby enhancing maintainability and readability of your locators. Of course, the latter example once again assumes GUI-level automation.

Keywords are wrappers

Each keyword is a function that automates a simple or (more) composite/complex test action or step. As such, keywords are the ‘building blocks’ for your automated test designs. When having to add a customer as part of your test cases, you will not write out (hard code) the technical steps (such as entering the first name, entering the surname, etc.), but you will have one statement that calls the generic ‘Add a customer’ function which contains or ‘wraps’ these steps. This wrapped code, as a whole, thereby offers a dedicated piece of functionality to the testers.

Consequently, a keyword may encapsulate sizeable and/or complex logic, hiding it and rendering it reusable and maintainable. This mechanism of keyword-wrapping entails modularization, abstraction and, thus, optimal reusability and maintainability. In other words, code duplication is prevented, which dramatically reduces the effort involved in creating and maintaining automation code.

Additionally, the readability of the test design will be improved upon, since the clutter of technical steps is replaced by a human readable, parameterized call to the function, e.g.: | Log customer in | Bob Plissken | Welcome123 |. Using so-called embedded or interposed arguments, readability may be enhanced even further. For instance, declaring the login function as ‘Log ${userName} in with password ${password}’ will allow for a test scenario to call the function like this: ‘Log Bob Plissken in with password Welcome123’.

Keywords are structured

As mentioned in the previous section, keywords may hide rather complex and sizeable logic. This is because the wrapped keyword sequences may be embedded in control/flow logic and may feature other programmatic constructs. For instance, a keyword may contain:

  • FOR loops
  • Conditionals (‘if, elseIf, elseIf, …, else’ branching constructs)
  • Variable assignments
  • Regular expressions
  • Etc.

Of course, keywords will feature such constructs more often than not, since encapsulating the involved complexity is one of the main purposes for a keyword. In the second and third generation of automation frameworks, this complexity was an integral part of the test cases, leading to automation solutions that were inefficient to create, hard to read & understand and even harder to maintain.

Being a reusable, structured function, a keyword can also be made generic, by taking arguments (as briefly touched upon in the previous section). For example, ‘Log in’ takes arguments: ${user}, ${pwd} and perhaps ${language}. This adds to the already high levels of reusability of a keyword, since multiple input conditions can be tested through the same function. As a matter of fact, it is precisely this aspect of a keyword that enables so-called data-driven test designs.

Finally, a keyword may also have return values, e.g.: ‘Get search results’ returns: ${nrOfItems}. The return value can be used for a myriad of purposes, for instance to perform assertions, as input for decision-making or for passing it into another function as argument, Some keywords will return nothing, but only perform an action (e.g. change the application state, insert a database record or create a customer).

Risks involved

With great power comes great responsibility

The benefits of using keywords have been explicated above. Amongst other advantages, such as enhanced readability and maintainability, the keyword-driven approach provides a lot of power and flexibility to the test automation engineer. Quasi-paradoxically, in harnessing this power and flexibility, the primary risk involved in the keyword-driven approach is being introduced. That this risk should be of topical interest to us, will be established by somewhat digressing into the subject of ‘the new testing‘.

In many agile teams, both ‘coders’ and ‘non-coders’ are expected to contribute to the automation code base. The boundaries between these (and other) roles are blurring. Despite the current (and sometimes rather bitter) polemic surrounding this topic, it seems to be inevitable that the traditional developer role will have to move towards testing (code) and the traditional tester role will have to move towards coding (tests). Both will use testing frameworks and tools, whether it be unit testing frameworks (such as JUnit), keyword-driven functional test automation frameworks (such as RF or Cucumber) and/or non-functional testing frameworks (such as Gatling or Zed Attack Proxy).

To this end, the traditional developer will have to become knowledgeable and gain experience in the field of testing strategies. Test automation that is not based on a sound testing strategy (and attuned to the relevant business and technical risks), will only result in a faster and more frequent execution of ineffective test designs and will thus provide nothing but a false sense of security. The traditional developer must therefore make the transition from the typical tool-centric approach to a strategy-centric approach. Of course, since everyone needs to break out of the silo mentality, both developer and tester should also collaborate on making these tests meaningful, relevant and effective.

The challenge for the traditional tester may prove to be even greater and it is there that the aforementioned risks are introduced. As stated, the tester will have to contribute test automation code. Not only at the highest-level test designs or specifications, but also at the lowest-level-keyword (fixture/step) level, where most of the intelligence, power and, hence, complexity resides. Just as the developer needs to ascend to the ‘higher plane’ of test strategy and design, the tester needs to descend into the implementation details of turning a test strategy and design into something executable. More and more testers with a background in ‘traditional’, non-automated testing are therefore entering the process of acquiring enough coding skills to be able to make this contribution.

However, by having (hitherto) inexperienced people authoring code, severe stability and maintainability risks are being introduced. Although all current (i.e. keyword-driven) frameworks facilitate and support creating automation code that is reusable, maintainable, robust, reliable, stable and readable, still code authors will have to actively realize these qualities, by designing for them and building them in into their automation solutions. Non-coders though, in my experience, are (at least initially) having quite some trouble understanding and (even more dangerously) appreciating the critical importance of applying design patters and other best practices to their code. That is, most traditional testers seem to be able to learn how to code (at a sufficiently basic level) rather quickly, partially because, generally, writing automation code is less complex than writing product code. They also get a taste for it: they soon get passionate and ambitious. They become eager to applying their newly acquired skills and to create lot’s of code. Caught in this rush, they often forget to refactor their code, downplay the importance of doing so (and the dangers involved) or simply opt to postpone it until it becomes too large a task. Because of this, even testers who have been properly trained in applying design patterns, may still deliver code that is monolithic, unstable/brittle, non-generic and hard to maintain. Depending on the level at which the contribution is to be made (lowest-level in code or mid-level in scripting), these risks apply to a greater or lesser extent. Moreover, this risky behaviour may be incited by uneducated stakeholders, as a consequence of them holding unrealistic goals, maintaining a short-term view and (to put it bluntly) being ignorant with regards to the pitfalls, limitations, disadvantages and risks that are inherent to all test automation projects.

Then take responsibility … and get some help in doing so

Clearly then, the described risks are not so much inherent to the frameworks or to the approach to test automation, but rather flow from inexperience with these frameworks and, in particular, from inexperience with this approach. That is, to be able to (optimally) benefit from the specific advantages of this approach, applying design patterns is imperative. This is a critical factor for the long-term success of any keyword-driven test automation effort. Without applying patterns to the test code, solutions will not be cost-efficient, maintainable or transferable, amongst other disadvantages. The costs will simply outweigh the benefits on the long run. Whats more, essentially the whole purpose and added value of using keyword-driven frameworks are lost, since these frameworks had been devised precisely to this end: counter the severe maintainability/reusability problems of the earlier generation of frameworks. Therefore, from all the approaches to test automation, the keyword-driven approach depends to the greatest extent on the disciplined and rigid application of standard software development practices, such as modularization, abstraction and genericity of code.

This might seem a truism. However, since typically the traditional testers (and thus novice coders) are nowadays directed by their management towards using keyword-driven frameworks for automating their functional, black-box tests (at the service/API- or GUI-level), automation anti-patterns appear and thus the described risks emerge. To make matters worse, developers remain mostly uninvolved, since a lot of these testers are still working within siloed/compartmented organizational structures.

In our experience, a combination of a comprehensive set of explicit best practices, training and on-the-job coaching, and a disciplined review and testing regime (applied to the test code) is an effective way of mitigating these risks. Additionally, silo’s need to be broken down, so as to foster collaboration (and create synergy) on all testing efforts as well as to be able to coordinate and orchestrate all of these testing efforts through a single, central, comprehensive and shared overall testing strategy.

Of course, the framework selected to implement a keyword-driven test automation solution, is an important enabler as well. As will become apparent from this series of blog posts, the Robot Framework is the platform par excellence to facilitate, support and even stimulate these counter-measures and, consequently, to very swiftly enable and empower seasoned coders and beginning coders alike to contribute code that is efficient, robust, stable, reusable, generic, maintainable as well as readable and transferable. That is not to say that it is the platform to use in any given situation, just that it has been designed with the intent of implementing the keyword-driven approach to its fullest extent. As mentioned in a previous post, the RF can be considered as the epitome of the keyword-driven approach, bringing that approach to its logical conclusion. As such it optimally facilitates all of the mentioned preconditions for long-term success. Put differently, using the RF, it will be hard not to avoid the pitfalls inherent to keyword-driven test automation.

Some examples of such enabling features (that we will also encounter in later posts):

  • A straightforward, fully keyword-oriented scripting syntax, that is both very powerful and yet very simple, to create low- and/or mid-level test functions.
  • The availability of dozens of keyword libraries out-of-the-box, holding both convenience functions (for instance to manipulate and perform assertions on xml) and specialized keywords for directly driving various interface types. Interfaces such as REST, SOAP or JDBC can thus be interacted with without having to write a single line of integration code.
  • Very easy, almost intuitive means to apply a broad range of design patterns, such as creating various types of abstraction layers.
  • And lots and lots of other great and unique features.


We have now an understanding of the characteristics and purpose of keywords and of the advantages of structuring our test automation solution into (various layers of) keywords. At the same time, we have looked at the primary risk involved in the application of such a keyword-driven approach and at ways to deal with these risks.

Keyword-driven test automation is aimed at solving the problems that were instrumental in the failure of prior automation paradigms. However, for a large part it merely facilitates the involved solutions. That is, to actually reap the benefits that a keyword-driven framework has to offer, we need to use it in an informed, professional and disciplined manner, by actively designing our code for reusability, maintainability and all of the other qualities that make or break long-term success. The specific design as well as the unique richness of powerful features of the Robot Framework will give automators a head start when it comes to creating such code.

Of course, this ‘adage’ of intelligent and adept usage, is true for any kind of framework that may be used or applied in the course of a software product’s life cycle.

Part 3 of this second post, will go into the specific implementation of the keyword-driven approach by the Robot Framework.

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