Benefits of Visual AI over Pixel-Matching & DOM-Based Comparison Solutions

Getting Started — June 9, 2022

The visual aspect of a website or an app is the first thing that end users will encounter when using the application. For businesses to deliver the best possible user experience, having appealing and responsive websites is necessary.

More than ever, customers expect apps and sites to be intuitive, fast, and visually flawless. The number of screens across applications, websites, and devices is growing faster, with the cost of testing rising high. Managing visual quality effectively is now becoming a MUST.

What is Visual Testing?

Why Visual AI Beats Pixel and DOM Diffs for Web App Testing

Visual testing is the automated process of comparing the visible output of an app or website against an expected baseline image.

In its most basic form, visual testing, sometimes referred to as Visual UI testing, Visual diff testing or Snapshot testing, compares differences in a website page or device screen by looking at pixel variations. In other words, testing a web or native mobile application by looking at the fully rendered pages and screens as they appear before customers. This was historically done manually or by using error prone pixel-matching and DOM-based tools.

The Pixel-Matching Approach

This refers to Pixel-by-pixel comparisons, in which the testing framework will flag literally any difference it sees between two images, regardless of whether the difference is visible to the human eye, or not.

While such comparisons provide an entry-level into visual testing, it tends to be flaky and can lead to a lot of false positives, which is time-consuming.

When working with the web, you must take into consideration that things tend to render slightly different between page loads and browser updates. If the browser renders the page off by 1 pixel due to a rendering change, your text cursor is showing, or an image renders differently, your release may be blocked due to these false positives.

Here are some examples of what this approach cannot handle:

Pixel-based comparisons exhibit the following deficiencies:

  1. They will be considered successful ONLY if the compared image/checkpoint and the baseline image are identical, which means that every single pixel of every single component has been placed in the exact same way. 
  2. These types of comparisons are very sensitive, so if anything changes (the font, colors, component size) or the page is rendered differently, you will get a false positive.
  3. As mentioned above, these comparisons cannot handle dynamic content, shifting elements or different screen sizes, so it’s not a good approach for modern responsive websites.

The DOM-Based Approach

Images courtesy of the AKC

In this approach, the tool captures the DOM of the page and compares it with the DOM captured of a previous version of the page.

Comparing DOM snapshots does not mean the output in the browser is visually identical. Your browser renders the page from the HTML, CSS and JavaScript, which comprises the DOM. Identical DOM structures can have different visual outputs and different DOM outputs can render identically.

Some differences that a DOM diff misses:

  •  IFrame changes but the filename stays the same
  •  Broken embedded content
  •  Cross-browser issues
  •  Dynamic content behavior (DOM is static)

DOM comparators exhibit three clear deficiencies:

  1. Code can change and yet render identically, and the DOM comparator flags a false positive.
  2. Code can be identical and yet render differently, and the DOM comparator ignores the difference, leading to a false negative.
  3. The impact of responsive pages on the DOM. If the viewport changes or the app is loaded on a different device, components size and location may change, this will flag another set of false positives.

In short, DOM diffing ensures that the page structure remains the same from page to page. DOM comparisons on their own are insufficient for ensuring visual integrity.

A combination of Pixel and DOM diffs can mitigate some of these limitations (e.g. identify DOM differences that render identically) but are still suspect to many false-positive results.

The Visual AI Approach

Modern approaches have incorporated artificial intelligence, known as Visual AI, to view as a human eye would and avoid false positives.

Visual AI is a form of computer vision invented by Applitools in 2013 to help quality engineers test and monitor today’s modern apps at the speed of CI/CD. Visual AI inspects every page, screen, viewport, and browser combination for both web and native mobile apps and reports back any regression it sees. Visual AI looks at applications the same way the human eye and brain do, but without tiring or making mistakes.

QA Engineers can’t reasonably test the hundreds of UI elements on every page of a given app, they are usually forced to test a subset of these elements, leading to a lot of production bugs due to lack of coverage.

With Visual AI, you take a screenshot and validate the entire page. This limits the tester’s reliance on DOM locators, labels, and messages. Additionally, you can test all elements rather than having to pick and choose. 

Visual AI overcomes the problems of pixel and DOM for visual validations, and has 99.9999% accuracy to be used in production functional testing. Visual AI captures the screen image, breaks it into visual elements using AI, compares the visual elements with an older screen image broken into visual elements (using AI), and identifies visible differences.

Visual AI identifies the layout – location and spacing. Within the layout, Visual AI identifies elements algorithmically. For any checkpoint image compared against a baseline, Visual AI identifies all the layout structures and all the visual elements. Visual AI will identify differences in the layout, as well as differences within the visual elements contained within the layout.

Each given page renders as a visual image composed of visual elements. Visual AI treats elements as they appear:

  • Text, not a collection of pixels
  • Geometric elements (rectangles, circles), not a collection of pixels
  • Pictures as images, not a collection of pixels

One of the unique and cool features of Applitools is the power of the automated maintenance capabilities that prevent the need to approve or reject the same change across different screens/devices. This significantly reduces the overhead involved with managing baselines from different browsers and device configurations.  

When it comes to reviewing your test results, this is a major step towards saving team’s and testers time, as it will help to apply the same change on a large number of tests and will identify this same change for future tests as well. Reducing the amount of time required to accomplish these tasks translates to reducing the cost of the project.

Visual Testing Frameworks and Open-Source Tools

Nowadays there are several automated visual regression testing tools available on the market. Choosing one may depend upon your needs and budget, as well as what you want to accomplish and how. Take into consideration however that most of them use the Pixel or DOM-based approach, and it might be challenging to use these tools to test large scale production systems. There are also free open-source visual validation tools available out there (based on pixel to pixel matching). At this time Applitools is the only solution that leverages Visual AI. 

Conclusion

DOM-based tools don’t make visual evaluations. DOM-based tools identify DOM differences. These differences may or may not have visual implications. DOM-based tools result in false positives – differences that don’t matter but require human judgment to render a decision that the difference is unimportant. They also result in false negatives, which means they will pass something that is visually different.

Pixel-based tools don’t make evaluations, either. Pixel based tools highlight pixel differences. They are liable to report false positives due to pixel differences on a page. In some cases, all the pixels shift due to an enlarged element at the beginning – pixel technology cannot distinguish the elements as elements, this means pixel technology cannot see the forest from the trees.

Automated Visual Testing powered by Visual AI, can successfully work with the challenges of Digital Transformation and CI-CD by driving higher testing coverage while at the same time helping teams increase their release velocity and improve visual quality.

Be mindful when selecting the right tool for your team and/or project, and always take into consideration:

  • Organizational maturity and opportunities for test tool support 
  • Appropriate objectives for test tool support 
  • Analyze tool information against objectives and project constraints 
  • Estimate the cost-benefit ratio based on a solid business case 
  • Identify compatibility of the tool with the current system under test components

Are you ready?

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