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pinExecutable Documentation Doesn’t Have To Slow You Down [Test-XML-1]

Overload test issue   Author: Seb Rose
Comprehensibility of end-to-end scenarios and quick feedback of unit tests are competing goals. Seb Rose introduces Cucumber with tags to meet both needs. [Generated from XML by Martin Moene; old XSL, apparently not matching current XML.]

Business engagement

First, we need to address the lack of engagement of the business. The regular complaint is that the business people are too busy to spend time working on the examples with the development team, and the only way round this is to point out that unless someone who understands the business’s needs is involved in the product evolution, then it’s unlikely that the end result is going to be satisfactory. There are lots of ways to arrange business involvement, from having a fully empowered Product Owner co-located with the development team, through to scheduling regular times that a business person will be available to work with the team. The key point is that whoever works with the team needs to be authorised to make decisions regarding the development of the product – if all questions lead to an “I’ll get back to you on that” then there will be problems.

A less satisfactory solution is for the development team to produce all the examples and then have them reviewed and signed-off. Many of the benefits of deriving the examples collaboratively are lost if you work this way:

Notice that I’m not talking about automation at all. No tools have been mentioned. Nor have I introduced any of the techy acronyms (BDD [ North ], ATDD [ Hendrickson ], SbE [ Adzic11 ], EDD, TDD). I’m talking about collaboration pure and simple. This style of collaboration has been popularised by the Agile Manifesto [ Agile ], one of whose principles states:

The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.

You don’t have to be agile to work like this (most organisations that think they are ‘agile’ don’t work like this), but working like this will improve communication in any organisation and remove many of the hurdles from the real job of delivering something that the customer wants.

Automated examples

At this point you can decide to go no further, but there is great value to be had by considering automating some (or all) of the examples that were collaboratively authored:

Once you have decided to automate, you’ll need to choose your approach. For the purposes of this article I will use examples written in Gherkin [ Cucumber ] (which interprets examples for Cucumber [ Cucumber ]). I am a fan of Cucumber/Gherkin, but there are many other tools available, most of which will automate the execution of examples.

Let’s assume we have the example below, that deals with registering at some website:

Feature: Sign Up Scenario: New user redirected to their own page When I sign up for a new account Then I should be taken to my feeds page And I should see a greeting message

When Cucumber runs this scenario (example) it tries to match each step (introduced by the keywords Given, When, Then, And, But) with some glue code that exercises the system under test. The glue code can be written in various languages, depending on which port of Cucumber you are using, but for the purposes of this article I will limit myself to Java and so will be using Cucumber-JVM [ Hellesøy12 ]. Each method in the glue code is annotated with a regular expression, against which Cucumber tries to match the text of each step:

  • if the method returns without raising an exception the step passes
  • if an exception propagates out of the method the step fails
  • How you implement the step definitions is up to you, and depends on the nature of your system. The example above might:

    The point is that the text in the example describes the behaviour, while the step definitions (the glue code) specify how to exercise the system. An example glue method would be:

    Examples everywhere

    Newcomers to this style of working often adopt a style in which every example is executed as an end-to-end test. End-to-end tests mimic the behaviour of the entire system and create an example’s context by interacting directly with the UI, and the full application stack is involved throughout (databases, app servers etc.). This sort of test is very useful for verifying that an application has deployed correctly, but can become quite a bottleneck if you use it for validating every behaviour of the system. The Testing Pyramid (see Figure 1) [ Fowler12 ] was created to give a visual hint about the relative number of ‘thick’ end-to-end tests and ‘thin’ unit tests. In the middle are the component/integration tests that verify interactions within a subset of the entire system. (The ‘Exploratory and Manual’ cloud at the top is a reminder that not all tests can be automated, and that the amount of effort needed here is very system dependent.)

    It may be reasonable to use the example scenario above as a ‘Happy Path’ end-to-end test, demonstrating that the whole application is hanging together. However, there are some other situations that emerged when this feature was discussed, some of which were:

    These questions are still independent of how the system is actually going to be implemented, but we can start fleshing out some examples:

    Scenario: Duplicate user registration Given I already have an account When I sign up for a new account Then I should see the “User already exists” error message

    Scenario: Unacceptable credentials at signup Given my credentials are unacceptable When I sign up for a new account Then I should see the “Unacceptable credentials” error message

    These extra examples could be implemented using the whole application stack, but then the runtime of the example suite begins to rise as we execute more end-to-end tests. Instead, we could decompose these examples into:

    Scenario Outline: Display correct error message When the registration component returns an <error> Then the correct <message> should be returned

    Examples:| error | message || error-code-user-already-exists | "User already exists" || error-code-unacceptable-credentials | "Unacceptable credentials" |

    Scenario: Detect duplicate user Given user already exists When the registration component tries to create the user Then it will return error-code-user-already-exists

    Scenario: Unacceptable credentials at signup Given the credentials are unacceptable When the registration component tries to create the user Then it will return error-code-unacceptable-credentials

    Speed, completeness and comprehensibility

    These examples should run a lot faster, but are no longer written in business language (if you want an explanation of Scenario Outline look at the Cucumber documentation). They have lost some of their benefit and have become technical tests, mainly of interest to the development team. If we choose to ‘push them down’ into the unit test suite, where they seem to belong, then we will have lost some important documentation that is important to the business stakeholders.

    This demonstrates the conflict between keeping the examples in a form that is consumable by non-technical team members and managing the runtime of the executable examples. Teams that have ignored this issue and allowed their example suite to grow have seen runtimes that are counted in hours rather than minutes. Clearly this limits how quickly feedback can be obtained, and has led teams to try different solution approaches, none of which are ideal:

    In a recent blog post I introduced the Testing Iceberg (see Figure 2) [ Rose ], which takes the traditional Testing Pyramid and introduces a readability waterline. This graphically shows that some technical tests can be made visible to the business, while there are some end-to-end tests that the business are not interested in. We want to implement our business examples in such a way that they:

    Using Cucumber

    There are a few features of Cucumber that I need to introduce before describing the technique I use to keep my examples consumable by the business without sacrificing performance of the suite.


    Any Cucumber scenario can have one or more free text tags applied to it:

    @this_is_a_tag@a_different_tag@regressionScenario: What just happened? When I do something Then something should happen

    When invoking Cucumber you can pass in tags as arguments to identify which scenarios should be executed. This is useful when trying to partition the example suite, to build a regression suite or a smoke test suite, for example.


    Cucumber also allows you to provide setup/teardown hooks in your glue code that are run before and after each example.

    Tagged hooks

    And finally, Cucumber allows you to write tagged hooks, which are only run before scenarios that have matching tags (matching can use complex logic – see the documentation).

    Putting it all together

    Scenario: Duplicate user registration Given I already have an account When I sign up for a new account Then I should see the "User already exists" error message

    The benefits of working like this are:

    It is the business who should prioritise how to evolve a product, based on their understanding of the customers needs. Face to face communication between the business and the development team can help develop a ubiquitous language that can be used to document the behaviour of the system in a manner that is clear and unambiguous to all concerned. The examples that are produced during these conversations can then be automated, but there is an ongoing tension between the comprehensibility of end-to-end scenarios and the quick feedback of unit tests. Using Cucumber and tags it is possible to write the examples in an end-to-end style, but modify how they are executed (and hence their runtime costs) by applying or removing tags, without adversely affecting the comprehensibility of the example itself. 













    Overload test issue