Essential Acceptance Testing

Essential Acceptance Testing
Essential Acceptance Testing
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Table of Contents

Publishing notes

Version Notes
2013-02-17 First published
   
2012-02-22 Minor grammatical changes to the Introduction section.
   
  Process overview section is no longer prefixed as unfinished. It’s still likely to
  change but it more or less complete. Added to the sample PDF.
   
2013-03-04 Removed examples section, I’m aiming to complete this later and put it back in.
   
  Trimmed back what were essentially notes for myself in some sections. These sections now appear with
  headings and no content. I’ll probably add these in at the point when they’re mostly complete and read
  OK. Feel free to comment in the mean time on the comments section of the Leanpub page.
   
  Extended the story delivery lifecycle to include a ‘deliver’ step. Lots of spelling and grammar tweaks.
   
  Currently 39 pages (7,956 words) long.
   
2013-06-01 Added the suggestion to use an hexagonal architecture to the Alternatives section.
  This introduces a ports and adapters style of testing. It has a slightly simplified example which is
  expanded in the new How design can influence testing section. This section also includes
  code samples taken from the example application available via Github.
   
  James joined as co-author.
   
  Reworked Introduction section and our working definition of the term Acceptance Test.
  Pulled out a lot of the asides in this section, we’ll find a home for them at a later point.
   
  Various spelling and grammar tweaks.
   
  Currently 66 pages (14,625 words) long.
   
2013-06-xx  
   
   

Part 1 - An agile approach to acceptance testing

Part 1 introduces an acceptance testing approach centered around clearly defined requirements, customer authored acceptance criteria and the implementation of executable tests to exercise that criteria. This approach is used by many successful agile teams today.

Whilst this part describes the approach, Part 2 goes on to discuss why it’s not always the best approach.

Introduction

What is an acceptance test?

Before we start, we should agree on some working definitions. Deciding on a definition of acceptance test can be contentious. Different people have different interpretations. So what is an acceptance test?

An acceptance test is a set of examples or a specification that helps the customer “accept” that a system behaves as intended.

What would help a customer “accept” a system works as intended? The customer gains confidence if they’re able to define requirements and see those requirements manifest as behaviour in a running system. For example, the customer might define their expectations and verify these against running code in a demo. The important point here is that the customer’s criteria for acceptance are recorded and verified against a running system.

Recording the runtime behaviour of a system after the fact is only half the story. Deciding what that behaviour should be before starting work is the tricky part. Getting input from customers before building out the system is useful in ensuring we build the right system. Acceptance tests are a great vehicle for discussing and formalising these requirements.

An acceptance test is a set of examples or a specification that helps the customer “accept” that a system behaves as intended. The test is used to specify required behaviour and to verify that behaviour against a running system.

Many teams emphasize that acceptance tests should be customer authored. If we write software that nobody wants, there’s not much point in writing it. The customer can express their requirements in the form of acceptance criteria; a specification against which the system can be verified.

In Agile Testing, Lisa Crispin and Janet Gregory describe acceptance tests as

“Tests that define the business value each story must deliver. They may verify functional requirements or non-functional requirements such as performance or reliability … Acceptance test is a broad term that may include both business facing and technology facing tests.”

An important addendum to our definition then should be that acceptance tests don’t have to be about just business behaviour, they can also be about broader system qualities such as non-functional requirements and usability. It’s still about customer confidence.

Unfortunately, Crispin’s definition talks specifically about stories and business value. I say unfortunate because acceptance tests may or may not have anything to do with user stories. We’ll talk about stories later but in our definition, we’re talking generally about system behaviour and brushing over the idea that stories can describe that behaviour. A story isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for an acceptance test. Similarly, business value is a tricky thing to quantify, so measuring it in a test can be a challenge. We’ll talk more about that later too.

Applying the addendum to our definition gives the following.

An acceptance test is a set of examples or a specification that helps the customer “accept” that a system behaves as intended. The test is used to specify required behaviour and to verify that behaviour against a running system. Acceptance tests are not limited to confirming business behaviour but can also verify that broader, non-functional objectives have been met.

What are acceptance criteria?

We’ll often use the terms acceptance criteria and acceptance test interchangeably but really they’re distinct.

Acceptance criteria are the set of criteria that, when verified against a running system, give confidence to the customer that the system behaves as intended. They represent the requirements or specification for a small set of functionality and are written in such a way as to be quantifiable. They’re typically defined when doing analysis and since they’re mostly concerned with business requirements, the customer is best placed to define them. Non-functional requirements, despite affecting the customer, usually end up being championed by technical stakeholders.

Defining the criteria is a useful step in really understanding what’s required. It helps us define the scope of a feature so developers know when to stop. Importantly, it also helps the team to drive out a shared understanding of the requirements. Criteria should be implementation independent and written at a high level. We then implement the criteria in terms of one or more acceptance tests.

A single criterion (“the total basket value is displayed correctly”) may require multiple examples to be comprehensive (what exactly does it mean to “display correctly”?). That’s where implementing the acceptance criteria as executable acceptance tests comes in.

Referring back to our definition, we’re emphasising that tests are executable and criteria are not. An acceptance test is a physical test artifact. It may be a xUnit test written in the language of choice, a test script that requires a human to step through, a record-replay style UI test or even a checklist on a scrap of paper.

Adding this dimension to our definition gives us the following.

An acceptance test is a set of executable criteria that helps the customer “accept” that a system behaves as intended. The test is used to specify required behaviour and to verify that behaviour against a running system. Acceptance tests are not limited to confirming business behaviour but can also verify that broader, non-functional objectives have been met.

Acceptance criteria become acceptance tests. Attributes that describe acceptance tests also describe acceptance criteria with the additional fact that tests should be executable. Executing acceptance tests verify that the acceptance criteria have been met.

Attributes of acceptance criteria and tests

Acceptance Criteria Acceptance Tests
Document behaviour Document behaviour
Are specific Are specific
Are illustrative Are illustrative
Are quantitative Are quantitative
Require discussion Require discussion
Are agreed Are agreed
  Are executable

What is a story?

Acceptance criteria are usually discussed in terms of user stories so it’s worthwhile making sure we have a common understanding of what makes up a story. Agile processes often focus on stories as a way of gathering requirements and organising them into deliverable chunks that have business value. In Planning Extreme Programming, Kent Beck and Martin Fowler describe a user story as “a chunk of functionality that is of value to the customer”. It’s common to associate acceptance tests with stories. Once the tests are passing, a story is considered finished. There’s a close relationship between stories and acceptance testing.

Mike Cohen describes user stories as follows.

“User stories are short, simple description[s] of a feature told from the perspective of the person who desires the new capability, usually a user or customer of the system.”

He goes on to describe the typical template developed by Connextra

As a <type of user>, I want <some goal> so that <some reason>

Cohen’s description is the generally accepted definition of a user story and is so commonly discussed in terms of the Connextra structure that the two have become almost synonymous. In practice however, teams tend to settle on their own style of writing stories loosely based on the combination. Sometimes a short description is not enough. Some teams stick to the template whilst others expand it to write requirements out long hand. Some teams abandon it completely and just write abbreviated notes.

Settling on the appropriate scope for a story is also something teams can struggle with. Stories should be short enough to be achievable but still provide some level of business value. Stories help set the rhythm of development and help orientate the team. However, it’s easy to get confused by the difference between tasks and stories. It is useful to capture discrete tasks, things like “pay the suppliers” or “talk to Bob in Commodities about their new API”, but if these don’t add business value, chances are they’re not really stories.

The reason this matters is because “business value” is supposed to enable an opportunity for profit. If we’re not clear about the definition of the term story, it’s easy to create and focus development on tasks which don’t add value and so don’t contribute towards profit. You can think of the idea of “business value” as simply “cash” or “profit”. That way, you can ask yourself “would this story contribute to the bottom line?”. To get the most out of acceptance testing, a link from story to acceptance criteria needs to be established. That way, you can demonstrate when real value has been added to the system and elaborate on the details of exactly how.

To capture and track progress, some teams write stories on index cards, others write tasks or work items on post-its. Others still write up analysis in their issue tracking software or wiki.

Tasks vs stories

It’s easy to get confused with the difference between tasks and stories. The team lead role can suffer from this especially but keeping track of todo items needn’t muddy the waters when it comes to planning story delivery.

It’s important to realise that tasks or todo items fit more appropriately under project or team management activities and not story planning. That way, it’s easier to pick the right tool to manage them. David Allen’s Getting Things Done is a great way to manage your todo pile.

Bringing it all together

Why is this discussion important? How we interpret the definition of user stories has a knock on effect on how we choose to implement our acceptance testing approach. Sticking to the letter of Cohen’s story definition above can lead to ambiguous requirements. We need to think a little harder. His definition should encourage us to think about requirements from the customer’s perspective, clearly articulate the goal and solidify why it’s important (the so that clause).

It’s also important to recognise that the Connextra template is not a literal mantra. Articulating the goal will likely take more than a single sentence on an index card. That’s where defining unambiguous acceptance criteria comes in.

If the story definition is vague, it’s difficult to define concise acceptance criteria. Without clear acceptance criteria, it’s difficult to be confident about what we’re supposed to develop. Without understanding what we’re supposed to develop, it’s difficult to know when we’ve actually built it.

Working from story definition through defining acceptance criteria to delivery is something David Peterson calls the Story delivery lifecycle. It brings together the ideas of stories, acceptance criteria and tests with a framework for iterative development that underpins common agile processes. We’ll take a closer look at it next.

Typical process overview

The story delivery lifecycle

A typical agile process used by many teams today revolves around the following steps often referred to as the story delivery lifecycle. The steps act as a guide to ensuring you’re working on incremental value, to highligh problems or misunderstanding early and give you the chance to adjust.

Story delivery lifecycle
1. Pick a story
2. Agree acceptance criteria
3. Develop functionality
4. Demonstrate and sign off
6. Repeat

Let’s go through these steps in more detail.

Pick a story

Picking the next story to play should be as simple as taking the next highest priority story from the list of options. Creating the option list or backlog is a little more interesting. Ideally, there should be ongoing work to identify concepts that, if realised, would help achieve business goals (cash). In the corporate environment, it’s typically the responsibility of the business analysts to come up with candidate features for a project.

What’s a Story?

There is often some debate about the definition of the term “story”. For the purpose of this discussion, lets assume that a story is just a way to decompose the requirements into achievable chunks that, if implemented, would add business value.

It’s common to physically write the story description on an index card. Teams might then use this as a token on the team’s project board to visualise it’s life, moving from left to right to indicate progress.

It would usually fall to the iteration planning of a Scrum process to move a set of stories from the backlog to the planned iteration. The team would then attempt to deliver these stories when starting the iteration. In a Kanban process, the backlog becomes the pool of candidate stories that are drawn from at any given time; it becomes the input queue for subsequent activities (such as agreeing acceptance criteria). In both cases, it helps if when picking up a story to work on, there is a good understanding of the business objective it realises. In other words, what’s the real value this story would deliver.

The next step is to express this value in the form of acceptance criteria.

Agree acceptance criteria

Inputs and outputs

Inputs:

  • Story
  • Additional conversations, analysis and information

Outputs:

  • List of examples and scenarios with expectations (the acceptance criteria)
  • Agreement from everyone that these demonstrate desired functionality
  • Additional documentation or context in whatever form is appropriate

Avoid:

  • Implementation details

It may be that the story you pick up lacks sufficient detail to answer the question “how do we know it’s done?”. To figure this out, you define the acceptance criteria and in doing so, better understand what’s really needed. You might explore example scenarios, edge cases and outcomes to help. The idea here is to describe the requirements not in terms of a series of instructions to follow (a traditional test script) but as an english description of the business goals. When you can prove these have been met, you know the story is done.

When you describe the high level business scenarios like this, you implicitly create a specification accessible to business and technical staff. You’re not concerned with the details of how things will be implemented. It’s a chance to focus on the business intent and make sure everyone involved understands what’s expected, the terminology and the business context.

This is best done with the business or customer. Get together and make sure everyone has a common understanding of what’s needed. Expect lots of discussion about the specifics and come up with concrete examples and scenarios. What questions, if answered, will convince the customer that the system is behaving as they specified?

Do we need a meeting to agree acceptance criteria?

No. You don’t need a meeting to define acceptance criteria, in fact, its great if you can keep discussing and clarifying them as you need to. You may find it useful however, to have a kick-off meeting where you can discuss a story’s background, context and goals.

Note that I’m not talking about an iteration planning meeting here, more like a story definition meeting. The difference is that we’re not trying to plan which stories are being played in an iteration. Instead we want to work up the team’s understanding of a story. To be most efficient, some analysis work should have already been undertaken.

Once you’ve written the criteria down, the next step is to formally agree them with interested parties. We’ll brush over how best to physically record the criteria but aim to have them in a format that will help you later when it comes to converting them into executable tests. You might record these on a Wiki, HTML pages stored with the source code or just on the back of the story card. The point is that after this step, everyone involved has agreed that the list of criteria is a reasonable effort at documenting the intent. It’s not set in stone but it captures the current understanding.

Remember that all this is done before writing any production code.

Tick off these items as you go through the Agree acceptance criteria phase.

  • Business analysis has been undertaken
  • Developers understand the business background, context and goals for a story
  • There is no ambiguity about business terms and everyone agrees on their definition
  • Acceptance criteria have been discussed and documented
  • Agreement has been reached on the acceptance criteria

Develop

Inputs and outputs

Inputs:

  • Story and context
  • Agreed acceptance criteria

Outputs:

  • Implemented (and potentially deployable) story functionality
  • Acceptance tests (converted from acceptance criteria)

Avoid:

  • Implementing anything unrelated to the story

As well as implementing the underlying features, the developers should be converting acceptance criteria into runnable tests during this phase. It may be that tests are written early in the development phase, before any real work has gone on and they’ll continue to fail until the story is completed. Or, it may be that the majority of development is undertaken before work on implementing the acceptance tests start.

Which approach you choose has interesting affects on developer testing. For example, if the coarse grained acceptance test is left until the end, you might focus on unit tests and use TDD to drive out design. TDD in this sense is a tool to aid design. When it comes to implementing the acceptance test, there’ll be very little left unknown. It can be a bit like test-confirm where you back fill the details to get a green test.

In contrast, when developers start with failing acceptance tests, the focus shifts. Acceptance tests are used to drive out coarse grained behaviour like unit tests drive out low level design choices. The acceptance tests themselves may change more frequently with more discussion with the customer taking place. The emphasis is on requirements (the story) and in this sense, the tests become more of a tool to help build requirements. This ATDD approach puts acceptance tests in the position that TDD puts unit tests in; at the beginning.

There’s an argument in claiming that unit tests may not even be needed with sufficient acceptance tests in place. The meaning of “sufficient” here is open for debate. If the edge cases that unit tests would have picked up are unlikely to materialise and if the cost of fixing these once in production is low, then why test upfront? Especially, if this upfront cost affects the time to delivery (and by extension your profits). To put the argument in the extreme, you could say that you’re not really doing ATDD if you’re still writing unit tests.

Unit tests give confidence at a low level but if the overall system behaviour doesn’t deliver the business proposition, you still won’t be making any money. The right answer to the wrong question is still the wrong answer. Acceptance tests should demonstrate the business proposition and so have monetary value whereas unit tests have design value.

Your team’s experiences and preferences will influence which approach you choose. Sometimes, the two compliment each other, other times they get in each others way and duplicate effort. Judicious testing takes care and practice.

Demonstrate

This step is about proving to customers that their requirements have been realised. It’s about giving them confidence. You can do this in whatever way works best for your team. A common approach is to run through a manual demo and walk through the passing acceptance tests huddled around a desk.

After the demo, if everyone agrees the implementation does what’s expected, the story can be marked as done and you can go round the cycle again with the next story. If there is disagreement or if new issues come up, it’s ok to go round the loop again with the same story. Agree, develop, demo and deliver.

If you discover incremental improvements could be made, you might create a new story and go round the loop with that. This is different from going through the cycle again with the same story which would be more iterative. Think of it like incrementally adding value rather than iteratively building value piece by piece before finally releasing. It’s like tweaking an already selling product in order to sell more (incremental improvement) as opposed to building a product out until the point it can start to sell (iterating).

A note on manual testing

If you’re lucky, there’s plenty of people on hand willing to perform some exploratory testing. This doesn’t have to wait until the end of an iteration, it can start as soon as a story is stable enough to test. Usually this would be when the story is finished and acceptance tests are passing. It’s useful to have a stable deployment environment for this.

Acceptance testing doesn’t negate the need for manual, exploratory style testing. Lisa Crispin calls this kind of testing critiquing the product. Some critiquing can be achieved using acceptance testing whilst more may require a manual approach or specialist tools. We’ll look more at this later when we talk about Brian Marick’s testing matrix and Crispin’s elaboration.

To some degree, acceptance test suites address the need for regression testing. That is to say that derivation of behaviour hasn’t been introduced if the acceptance tests still pass.

Deliver

When a story is finished, you may go round the loop again with a new story or choose to deliver the functionality directly to your production environment. This often gets less emphasis because it usually happens when multiple stories are batched up and deployed together, for example, at the end of an iteration. It’s actually a crucial step though as it is only after this point that potential story value can be realised.

It can be incorporated into the story delivery lifecycle when continuous delivery ideas are applied with the aim to deploy individual stories as they’re ready. It’s a fairly sophisticated position to take and requires careful crafting of stories so that they add demonstrable value. It also implies a well groomed and automated build and deployment procedure.

The expanded story delivery lifecycle

The expanded story delivery lifecycle

Part 2 - Discussion and alternatives

Having introduced the typical strategy used by many agile teams today, Part 2 discusses some of the pros and cons. It highlights several common pitfalls and strategies to avoid them.

Problems acceptance testing can fix

The typical process described previously isn’t a panacea; it’s always worth considering what problems you’re actually facing before adopting any new process. Acceptance testing isn’t always appropriate so it’s worth considering your circumstances and what problems acceptance testing can fix.

Communication barriers

The typical process described in Part 1 can be useful in encouraging communication. There’s a formal vehicle (the acceptance test artifacts) that must be created and agreed and it puts checkpoints in place to emphasise the agreement (for example, using stickers as sign-off).

Stickers as sign-off

A great technique to visualise progress of a story is to use stickers to represent agreement or sign-off at the various stages. For example, when business analysts agree to the acceptance criteria, a story’s index card might get a green sticker. When testers agree, a blue sticker and when developers agree, a yellow one. You can have as many stickers as you like. As an alternative, you could use columns on your board and move stories across columns to indicate agreement.

The whole purpose of the story delivery lifecycle is to spot problems early and adjust. In that spirit, it makes sense to prevent progress to the next step until previous steps have be completed. For example, don’t start development until you have the full set of stickers. If this causes delays and ‘blocked’ work, missing stickers can help highlight where the bottleneck lies.

When not using this approach, if you find that requirements are being misunderstood or not delivered as the customer intended, forcing formal communication like this may be useful. It’s a technique that may help overcome underlying communication problems and if there’s already good communication, it can be used to document the dialogue.

It doesn’t mean that the story delivery lifecycle is a substitute for spontaneous and continued communication. It can be tempting to lean on formal mechanisms like this as the only communication mechanism but this can lead to its own problems (discussed in the Problems acceptance testing can cause) section.

The process is intended to encourage communication not to stifle it. You create artifacts that can be shared, referred back to and you demonstrate these executable artifacts to the stakeholders. It doesn’t preclude speaking to them whenever you feel like it. If you discover new insight, you’re free to adjust the acceptance criteria and tests; to go round the loop again.

Lack of shared memory

The acceptance tests document a shared (and agreed) understanding of features. As time goes on, its easy to forget how a particular feature is supposed to behave. If acceptance tests are in a customer friendly format, they form reference documentation that will always be accurate; a live record of the system’s behaviour.

Tools like Yatspec, Concordion and Concordion.NET emphasise this aspect and can be used to create HTML documentation to share. You can organise this however you like. You might show features grouped by area, iteration and even use it to document a low level API.

An example of a Concordion HTML overview. Tests are grouped under tabs and users can drill down into the detail.

An example of a Concordion HTML overview. Tests are grouped under tabs and users can drill down into the detail.

Lack of collective understanding of requirements

It’s very difficult to appreciate what a customer really wants from broken fragments of conversations or email trails. There’s a lot of room for ambiguity. By slowing down and carefully going over examples and collaboratively creating acceptance criteria, the hope is that any misunderstanding will come up early and be addressed. It’s often the case that specific questions about error and edge cases will surface and cause the customer to think harder about their requirements.

Writing acceptance criteria down in the form of tests isn’t the only tool available here. Conversation, previously generated documentation, spreadsheets, flow diagrams, gorilla diagramming, anything and everything all feed into the process. Acceptance tests just document the understanding.

Blurring the “what” with the “how”

When it comes to business goals it’s the “what” that’s important and not the “how”. At least, when it comes to making money, focusing on the goal is very different than focusing on the details of how to achieve it. If these ideas are blurred, all kinds of problems can arise.

Acceptance testing aims to help separate goals from implementation. Goals are defined as acceptance criteria and the development team are left to implement and prove that the criteria have been met in whatever way they feel is appropriate. The criteria describe the “what” and proving this is more important than “how”. In practice, technology choice can undermine this aspiration. For example, if a testing technology exposes too much detail about the system design or criteria are written in technical terms (rather than business terms), the business will acclimatise to the detail and may miss the high level objectives. Defining technically oriented stories (with little real value) can be another example of blurring the lines.

Ambiguous language

Often customers and developers have their own language for things. When there’s ambiguity in terminology, misunderstanding or confusion is bound to arise.

For example, in finance, the noun trade can mean very different things to different departments. The direction of a transaction, buy or sell can be inverted depending on what side of the fence you sit on. Getting this right in your system is obviously going to be important.

Not assuming anything and defining terms clearly in acceptance tests can be a good way to ensure some consistency. This takes discipline though and relies on people bringing up inconsistent use of terminology as it happens. Individuals may also need to be brave and ask the “obvious” questions.

Common language is formalised in an acceptance test, crystallising it’s definition. The goal here is to achieve an ubiquitous language.

Lack of structure and direction

Iterative development favours planning; iterations are planned ahead of time. The stories to deliver are fixed at the start of an iteration. Although the iterations are short, it still imposes rigidity. The balance is in offering the delivery team stability as well as being responsive to changes in business priorities.

By stability, I mean that the goal for the next week or so is well known and the team know where they’re heading and why. They’re free from process distraction. With it, scope creep and fire fighting can be kept to a minimum and the team is free to focus on multiple, small, achievable deliveries.

Having an established process like the story delivery lifecycle can give structure to delivery and contribute to sustainable pace. Such a process certainly offers clear boundaries and check points. Crossing them helps establish a rhythm or cadence and gives the team a chance to celebrate what they’ve achieved. People know where they stand.

Compare this to the prospect of working on a large multi-feature chunk of work with no clear goals and no end in sight. Morale and discipline suffer. Edward Deming talked about this when discussing the Seven Deadly Diseases to effective management. He described what he considered the most serious barriers to business. Specifically, a lack of structure and direction implies a lack of constancy of purpose to plan and so encourages short term thinking.

This point may well be more about decomposition than adopting an acceptance testing process. People just handle small tasks better. There is a personal psychology aspect but there’s also advantages for the business in dealing in small features. It reduces risk and allows for quicker change of direction.

Team engagement

The story delivery cycle can give the entire team (developers, testers and the business) the opportunity to understand the motivations and contribute to the planning and execution of solutions. Along with creating the rhythm or cadence already mentioned, it can help galvanise the team around small, frequent delivery milestones. Compare this to teams that actively encourage “shelf stacking”, where developers are spoon fed technical tasks with no real engagement and expected to simply stack the shelves without understanding why.

Problems acceptance testing can cause

Communication crutch

The typical process described above encourages communication but it also formalises it. It places check points which are designed to ensure that key conversations take place and agreement is established.

However, it can also encourage the team to focus on these as the only required conversations. If developers find it hard to have conversations with the business, it may be that they’ll make a token effort under the umbrella of “agreeing acceptance criteria” and forgo more meaningful conversations.

Hand off behaviour

In agreeing acceptance criteria, the whole team (testers, developers and business) should be engaged and collaborating. With discrete steps it can be easy to assign responsibilities to roles and hand off responsibility when your step is done. I’m not sure if this kind of process really encourages collective responsibility.

For example, in one team I worked with, testers would speak with the business to define acceptance criteria and draft acceptance tests. These were then handed off to the development team who would alter the draft tests to fit in with the code structure before implementing the feature. When done, developers would demo to the business but it would often bear little resemblance to what they agreed with the testers.

The problem here was that each stage was accompanied with a hand off and a loss of continuity. This leads to a chinese whispers affect. Business would hand off to testers. Testers would hand off to developers. Developers would hand off to the business. It turns out that developers didn’t like talking to the business and so hijacked the process to avoid interacting with them directly.

The intention behind having defined steps is around breaking down communication barriers, but examples like this show that we can misuse it to reinforce existing barriers.

Technical overexposure

If we’re not careful, the business can end up knowing too much about the technology choices. The business may feel that they need to be aware of the system architecture or technical decisions in order to approve a working system. In reality, it’s really none of their concern. The business should be concerned that their business goals can be met and should learn to trust the technical staff to deliver an architecture that can support that objective. This goes both ways as the technical staff have to earn that trust.

Business staff are not best placed to make technical decisions and knowing too much about technology empowers them to do so. It’s the same for technical staff; technical staff are not best placed in making business decisions. That’s not to say that business and technology staff shouldn’t collaborate but they should be realistic and honest about their limitations.

If the business are acclimatised to focus on technology, it can be difficult to refocus on high-level business value. It can help to be upfront about this and have an honest discussion with the entire team.

Cargo cult

One of the biggest problems with the traditional acceptance test process is the temptation to focus on the practices and not the reasons behind them. Just like a cargo cult, practitioners can be lured into following behaviours in the hope that the benefits will magically manifest. It’s a causal fallacy; tests aren’t the goal unto themselves.

The best recourse is to continually evaluate the process. Having something to actually measure against makes this much less subjective but coming up with meaningful heuristics is notoriously difficult.

Command and control structures

The agree, demo, sign off checkpoints are designed to ensure key things happen during development. However, the steps can be misused to support command and control structures and put pressure on the team if they don’t complete steps.

The steps are supposed to be a guide. Getting a sticker or moving an index card across the board are not goals unto themselves. Progress indicators like this can highlight bottlenecks and show progress but if these symptoms are used as a stick to beat the team, the overall situation won’t improve.

We shouldn’t lose sight that the steps in any system should not be about targets and outputs but about understanding the team’s capabilities. If we can demonstrate that the biggest bottleneck in the system is getting the business to go through acceptance criteria, we’ve exposed an underlying problem to address. We shouldn’t plaster over it by working around it or blame individuals which can lead to defensive behaviours.

Construct validity

The story delivery cycle is premised on a story having business “value”. In practice, it can be very difficult to define this value. Often, we assume real value (i.e. cash) will come later and speculative value (i.e. features) will come from stories. There is obvious tension between real value and theoretical value. For example, some business models adopt a “build it and they will come” approach. They may interpret business value in the story sense to mean incremental features but its real value may well be in attracting users and capturing their life time value (revenue).

Defining business “value” can easily suffer from a lack of construct validity. Are the things we measure reflective of the underlying value we’re postulating? Are we creating a “value” construct that really models our goals?

Artificial constraints

We have to be careful not to constrain ourselves artificially. The given/when/then pattern advocated by BDD encourages a certain way to frame our thought process. This isn’t always appropriate and we should avoid assuming it is. At the heart of agile principles is the idea to adapt, we should always be mindful of this and continually review process.

Business value

This section is not yet written

I’m interested in what ‘business value’ actually is. If stories are supposed to have business value, how can we define and measure this “value”? I suspect there’s the idea of potential or speculative value as well as real value (cash).

This section will explore these ideas as I’m curious that why, as a peer group, we tend to do speculate on value and rarely attempt to measure it.

This section may never be written but if you think it would make an interesting read, let me know. Make suggestions via the comments on the Leanpub page.

Defining “value”

Measuring “value”

Alternatives to acceptance tests

Don’t write acceptance tests

There’s always the option not to write acceptance tests.

If you genuinely don’t have a customer or if you are your own customer, it’s worth thinking carefully about whether there’s value in following the story delivery lifecycle in full.

A big part of acceptance testing is ensuring you achieve what the customer intended. The customer is the audience and acceptance tests aim to give them confidence. Without a business customer, testing is more about supporting the development team and is typically technology focused. Brian Marick developed these ideas back in 2003 in a series of posts where he discussed tests in terms of their position along two axis; if they support the development team or critique the product (the x axis) and if they’re more technology focused or customer facing (the y axis).

In Brian Marick’s testing matrix, testing focus tends to shift from the upper to lower quadrants when you don’t have a customer.

Brian Marick's testing matrix

Brian Marick’s testing matrix

You may shift emphasis onto coarse grained style testing, exercising large parts of the system with scenarios driven out by the development team and not the business. You can think of this as component testing if it helps. Test whatever you feel needs testing. Start the stack up, drive the application through it’s UI or test multiple components using a ports and adapters style. The choice is yours.

The key to this point is that you should understand if you really need to write customer focused, business facing tests. You can then make a deliberate decision about defining acceptance criteria upfront. You’ll understand where to spend effort in terms of the testing matrix above and can make decisions about the types of test to write.

Another way to visualise your testing is to use consider where your tests fit in terms of the testing pyramid developed by Mike Cohn in Succeeding in Agile. Cohen suggests a balance of testing types; write fewer tests that exercise the UI than tests that exercise core services (behaviours) and components (unit tests). This is just one approach though and not gospel. It’s certainly possible to invert the triangle and still have an effective testing strategy (we touched on this in the previous overview section).

The testing triangle; fewer tests exist that exercise the UI than core services (behaviours) and components (units)

The testing triangle; fewer tests exist that exercise the UI than core services (behaviours) and components (units)

Use a ports and adapters architecture

The traditional view of acceptance tests is that they are heavy weight, long running and coarse grained. This is because they usually test multiple components, often repeatedly over different scenarios. They’ll often exercise the UI and database and start up the full stack.

Alistair Cockburn’s Hexagonal or ports and adapters architecture talks about decoupling these components to provide a lightweight alternative. When you decompose to components that can be tested independently, you can be more flexible about composing test scenarios. That way, scenarios no longer have to contain repeated fragments.

Cockburn’s canonical example talks about decoupling the database and/or UI so that the core system can be tested with or without these components. You can apply the principle to a much finer degree however if you build you’re application in such a way as to clearly demarcate component boundaries and allow alternate components to be be plugged in at these boundaries.

In order to replace a long running traditional style acceptance test with an equivalent ports and adapters style test, you need to overlap tests to replicate the coverage. For example, lets assume we need to verify the following;

“when a asks for their portfolio value, today’s stock price is retrieved from Yahoo, multiplied by the number of stocks the client owns and the total is displayed in the UI”

There’s essentially three components here, the UI, the business logic components (the “domain model”) and an external Yahoo stock price service. The traditional view might interact with these like this.

We don’t need to interact with all of these at once to verify the statement above. Instead, we can verify the following in separate tests with overlapping concerns.

  1. When we ask for the portfolio value in the UI, a specific message is sent to the domain model.

    The response from the domain model updates a specific field on the UI appropriately

    We can test the UI independently by using a test double for the domain model; a stub or mock that we use in place of a real component. The test double is represented as a shaded circle below.

  2. When the domain model receives a message from the UI, it calls out to a market data service (for stock prices).

    The response from the market data service is returned to the client in the agreed message format.

    Again, we can test the domain model without the real market data service using a test double.

  3. An integration test is also needed to verify that the domain model’s message makes the correct call to a real Yahoo service, verifying that the previous test is actually representative.

These verifications overlap each other to verify the overall behaviour in a series of steps rather than in one big go. Putting it all together it would look like the following. The dashed lines show how tests need to overlap to provide completeness. Shaded circles are fake components, unfilled circles are real components or services.

This is a slightly simplified description. See the How design can influence testing section for more details.

Don’t specify

We’ve talked about specifying upfront but defining a specification upfront, albeit incrementally, is still a form of upfront design and has an inherent cost associated with it. It’s an improvement over traditional waterfall “big upfront design” but it may be that you’re able to eliminate it all together.

If you can deliver features quickly enough and cheaply enough, you can agree behaviour with the customer against the deployed, live features. To do this effectively, it makes sense to have very small requirements or stories and to be talking to the business constantly. You should expect to deploy several iterations of a feature before getting it right and so it may not be appropriate for all businesses. Google practice these ideas by deploying experimental features to a subset of their environment to gather feedback.

It’s a difficult technique to pull off though as it presupposes that the stories have demonstrable value and can be small enough to deliver cheaply. In some domains it may just not be possible to deliver “work in progress” if it isn’t technically correct. Finance applications for example may not be able to tolerate imprecise calculations. Domains may also be constrained by regulatory requirements.

Measure, don’t agree

Arguably the most important success criterion is whether a feature directly affects your revenue. If a deployed feature is making or saving you money, it’s a success. You may get additional feedback by deploying often to a live environment. If you can move away from agreeing acceptance criteria and defining acceptance tests upfront towards understanding how features affect key business metrics, you can start to measure these and use them to course correct.

William Deming popularised the ideas of solving problems using a critical thinking framework based on Walter Shewhart’s work on statistical process control at Bell Labs in the 1930’s. The Shewhart Cycle, later known as the Plan Do Check Adjust (or Act) Cycle emphasises continuous improvement based on careful planning, execution, reflection and adjustments. If you can gather meaningful statistics about deployed features, you can start to apply Deming’s principles and act (or adjust) based on the measurements. The aim is to take speculation out of it and make genuinely informed decisions.

Identifying business metrics inputs directly into the check step of Deming's PDCA cycle

Identifying business metrics inputs directly into the check step of Deming’s PDCA cycle

A trivial example might be to gather information about how much a partially complete feature is actually being used. If there’s no uptake after a few days in production, you’ll have more information to go on when deciding to continue work on the feature. Taking it further, if you then realise the partial feature is actually costing more money that it’s generating, you might make the call to drop it.

In short, start measuring meaningful indicators and show the business. Rather than agree with the business what might be valuable upfront, prove to them what is valuable against production.

Log, don’t specify

As described in Part 1, when agreeing acceptance criteria, stakeholders get together to agree the specification and then development gets underway. When done, everyone gets together and confirms that the tests verify the criteria.

Using traditional specification frameworks like Concordion or FIT, HTML “specifications” document important events, inputs and outputs of a test. The HTML is then instrumented and run with the framework to produce styled HTML artifacts indicating success or failure. These are the kind of artifacts you can share with business to verify requirements and document system behaviour. There’s usually a setup cost in authoring then instrumenting these artifacts.

You can flip this on its head if you skip the specification step and instrument your test code directly to document behaviour as it executes. Matt Savage coined the phrase “log, don’t specify” to capture the idea of writing acceptance tests in such a way as to capture and communicate key events during a test but without specifying an upfront “specification”. The idea is to use a more lightweight approach when the upfront formalisation of acceptance criteria becomes too onerous.

The Yatspec framework does this for the Java community. It logs events in HTML as they happen based on conventions and constraints to the way you write your tests. This has a cost in itself as the natural language structure it requires may not come easily for all test problems. The theory though is that this instrumentation cost is lower than, for example, Concordion’s upfront costs. That’s something you’ll have to judge for yourself however.

Example of Yatspec output documenting system behaviour. The test code logs runtime behaviour

Example of Yatspec output documenting system behaviour. The test code logs runtime behaviour

How design can influence testing

How you design your architecture will directly affect how easy your application is to test. If you decouple a system’s components, it makes them easier to test in isolation. This has the additional benefit of creating a more flexible architecture. This chapter describes how a ports and adapters approach can make testing easier and more efficient. We introduce a sample application and show how testing is complicated by a coupled design and how the de-coupled alternative is easier to test. The sample application is available on Github.

Sample application

Lets imagine a system concerned with helping customers manage their stock portfolio. It displays details about stocks owned and allows the customer to buy and sell directly with an exchange. The system is made up of a browser based UI and a RESTful backend server. The backend uses a market data service provided by Yahoo to retrieve stock prices and connects directly to an exchange to execute trades.

One important aspect of the sample application is that the UI is deployed as a separate app from the RESTful server. It’s made up of static HTML and JavaScript and is served by an embedded HTTP server. The RESTful backend is deployed separately with an embedded HTTP server and is called by the UI to perform the business logic. This separation decouples the UI logic from the business logic and allows us to develop the two independently, potentially with differing technologies.

Currently, only basic information is displayed about a customer’s stocks so stakeholders have decided on the next piece of work and have described it as follows.

“As a retail customer, when I ask for my portfolio’s value, current stock prices are retrieved from the market and the total value of my stocks is calculated and displayed.”

In further discussion, the stakeholder clarifies that the calculation is done by multiplying a stock’s current price by the quantity that the user holds. If the user holds 10,000 Google shares, each worth $810 each then their portfolio would be worth $8.1m.

The UI might look something like this.

Coupled architecture

If a system is built with components tightly coupled, the only way to test a scenario is with a coarse grained system test. In our example application, we could test against real Yahoo with something like this.

Listing 1: Coarse grained test starting up the full stack


 1 public class PortfolioSystemTestWithRealYahoo {
 2     private final Server application = Fixture.applicationWithRealYahoo();
 3     private final Browser browser = new Browser();
 4 
 5     @Before
 6     public void startServers() {
 7         application.start();
 8     }
 9 
10     @Test
11     public void shouldRetrieveValuation() {
12         browser.navigateToSummaryPage().requestValuationForShares(100);
13         waitFor(assertion(portfolioValuationFrom(browser),
14             is("91,203.83")), timeout(seconds(5)));
15     }
16 
17     @After
18     public void stopServer() {
19         application.stop();
20         browser.quit();
21     }
22 }

It exercises all of the components but it’s naive as it relies on Yahoo being up and returning the expected result. It starts up the entire application in the @Before which in turn starts up the web container, initialises the UI and market data components. The browser is then fired up and used to simulate the user’s interaction (line 12). The result is scraped directly from the browser (line 13).

Page driver pattern

Abstracting the business intent from the UI mechanics means that UI “driver” code isn’t coupled to a specific UI. If done carefully, switching the UI would mean just implementing a new adapter. Notice how in the above we avoided the following.

browser.navigateToSummaryPage()
  .setNumberOfSharesTextBoxTo(100)
  .clickRequestValuationButton();

and used the following instead.

browser.navigateToSummaryPage().requestValuationForShares(100);

The assertion on the result is wrapped in a call to poll the UI periodically (the call to waitFor on line 13) because the request from the browser to the application is asynchronous. Notice the long timeout value of five seconds because Yahoo is a publicly available service with no guarantees of responsiveness. It may take this long or longer to respond. It’s another brittle aspect to this test.

The waitFor is shown inline above for illustrative purposes, a more object-oriented approach would be to push this into the browser object and hide the asynchronousity and timeout details from the client.

Pushing the asynchronous handing into the browser model


    browser.navigateToSummaryPage()
        .requestValuationForShares(100)
        .assertThatPortfolioValue(is("91,203.83"));

We can improve the test slightly by faking out Yahoo and forcing it to return a canned response (a price of 200.10 for each request). Lines 15-17 below set up any HTTP call to the URL /v1/public/yql to respond with a valid HTTP response containing the response string from line 14.

Listing 2: Same test but with a faked out market data service


 1 public class PortfolioSystemTestWithFakeYahoo {
 2     private final Server application = Fixture.applicationWithRealYahoo();
 3     private final FakeYahoo fakeYahoo = new FakeYahoo();
 4     private final Browser browser = new Browser();
 5 
 6     @Before
 7     public void startServers() {
 8         application.start();
 9         fakeYahoo.start();
10     }
11 
12     @Test
13     public void coarseGrainedTestExercisingPortfolioValuation() {
14         String response = "{\"quote\":{\"Close\":\"200.10\"}}";
15         fakeYahoo.stub(
16               urlStartingWith("/v1/public/yql"),
17               aResponse().withBody(response));
18         browser.navigateToSummaryPage().requestValuationForShares(100);
19         waitFor(assertion(portfolioValuationFrom(browser),
20             is("20,010.00")), timeout(millis(500)));
21     }
22 
23     @After
24     public void stopServers() {
25         application.stop();
26         fakeYahoo.stop();
27         browser.quit();
28     }
29 }

Both tests exercise the happy path through the entire system. If we want to check what happens when no price is available from Yahoo or if Yahoo is down, we’d repeat the majority of the test to do so. If we want to test user errors on input, we’d startup the application unnecessarily.

On the surface, we’re testing different behaviours but we’re actually exercising the same code over and over again. It’s something James likens to taking a car out for a test drive.

“Imagine purchasing a new car and taking it out for a test drive. When you return to the showroom, the car has performed flawlessly but just to be sure you take it out again, this time with the windows down. Then again with the glove compartment open. Then again with the seats fully reclined.

You could keep on testing the car in this way but there comes a point when the cost of evaluating the car begins to outweigh the risk of something going wrong. It’s the same with software. The cost of developing and maintaining high level tests should be weighed against the uncertainty and risk of something going wrong.”

Decoupled architecture using ports and adapters

Rather than running several coarse grained tests, let’s decouple the system by defining explicit boundaries between components using interfaces and design a set of tests to exercise the interaction between those boundaries. The tests should compliment each other to provide the same level of confidence as coarse grained tests (for example, tests like Listing 1).

Ports and adapter symbols

A port (interface)
   
A component
   
An adapter
   
Access adapters only via ports
Components only communicate with ports

The next step is to describe the system architecture in terms of boundary ports (interfaces), their adapters (implementations) and core application logic components. For our application, it might look something like this.

All communication to the domain model is done via a port and adapter pair. The exception, Yahoo, is explained later. We’ve broken down the previous coarse grained architecture into a series of ports, their adapters and domain components.

Using the decoupled ports and adapters approach to create comparable coverage to the earlier coarse grained tests, we’d design tests around the following.

  • Testing the UI display and behaviour (Example 1)
  • Testing the outgoing messages (Example 2)
  • Testing the Portfolio HTTP API (Example 3)
  • Testing the Portfolio valuation calculation (Example 4)
  • Testing the Market Data API (Example 5)
  • Testing real Yahoo! Market Data (Example 6)
  • Testing end-to-end (system tests)

Lets have a closer look at each of these next. You can also refer to the source code of the sample application for more details.

Example 1: Testing the UI display and behaviour

Testing the UI display is about verifying the UI behaviour without exercising backend components. For example, we might want to verify that if the user asks for the current portfolio’s value in the UI that it’s displayed with correct rounding and with commas. You might also be interested if currencies are displayed, negative numbers are shown in red or informational text is displayed in the event that no value is available.

We’d like to be able to make assertions without having to go through the backend so we’ll use a real UI but a fake backend. Taking our system component diagram from earlier, we’ll be faking out the first port below. We’re interested in exercising the components within the dotted line only and as you’ll see as we progress, all the components will eventually be covered in overlapping dotted boundaries.

In terms of our sample application, the UI makes a HTTP GET call to the backend. It’s implemented by a ajax call inside a HTML page. In testing however, we’ll replace the Portfolio with a test double and therefore just test that the UI correctly displays whatever the test double returns. Specifically then, we’d

  • Start up the UI server (remember this is basically serving static HTML but is started as it’s own app)
  • Setup a fake Portfolio server with a canned response against specific HTTP GET calls
  • Use the browser in the test to click the refresh valuation control
  • Verify the canned response is displayed as intended within the UI

For example, we could setup the fake server to respond with a value of 10500.988 for a GET against /portfolio/0001. When the UI is used to make the request, we can verify the response is shown as $10,500.99. This would exercise the UI logic to round the result, introduce commas and add a currency symbol.

Note that we don’t verify how the request actually interacts with the Portfolio. This is a subtle omission but decouples the details of the request from how a response is used leaving us to test more display scenarios without worrying about request details. If we were to verify the request, any changes to the request API would cause changes to this test even though it’s only about display logic.

We’ll fake out the server component and the UI would make a real HTTP request. An alternative approach would be to put the ajax call behind our own JavaScript interface and substitute this during testing. That way, we can exercise the UI without making a real HTTP call. In this case, the test diagram would look like the following.

Lets look at an example to verify monetary values are displayed with thousands separated by commas (1,000,000 and not 1000000). We’ll describe the requirements with the following specification;

When I ask for the portfolio value in the UI, it’s formatted with commas

Given a portfolio value of 10500.988

When a user refreshes the portfolio page

Then the portfolio value is requested and displayed on the UI as 10,500.99

We’ll use Concordion as the framework for automating this as a test. We use HTML to document the specification and use Concordion to execute it like a regular JUnit test. You markup the HTML to encode instructions that Concordion interprets at runtime to call application logic and make assertions. After it’s done, it outputs the result as a modified version of the specification. It’s not important that we’re using Concordion. What is important is that we’re producing readable artifacts for the customer.

The HTML specification for our example would look like the following.

Listing 1.1: HTML Specification marked up with Concordion instrumentation


 1 <html xmlns:concordion="http://www.concordion.org/2007/concordion">
 2 <body>
 3 <h1>Portfolio Valuation</h1>
 4 
 5 <h2>Given</h2>
 6 <p>
 7     A portfolio value of <b>10500.988</b>
 8 </p>
 9 
10 <div class="details hidden">
11     <div class="example">
12         <p>
13             The response from the server contains the body of
14         </p>
15         <pre concordion:set="#body">10500.988</pre>
16     </div>
17 </div>
18 
19 <h2>When</h2>
20 <p concordion:execute="requestPortfolioValue(#body)">
21     A user refreshes the portfolio page
22 </p>
23 
24 <h2>Then</h2>
25 <p>
26     The portfolio value is requested and displayed on the UI as
27     <b concordion:assertEquals="getPortfolioValue()">10,500.99</b>
28 </p>
29 
30 </body>
31 </html>

Concordion uses a test fixture to match the specification to an executable test. In science, a fixture is often physical apparatus used to support a test specimen during an experiment. The experiment or test is distinct from the apparatus that supports it. Unit testing frameworks often muddy this idea because they expect tests to include test support code (the fixture part) as well as the actual test scenarios (the experiment part).

When we use a HTML specification like Listing 1.1, we can create fixtures which are more about supporting the test and the test scenarios themselves are encoded in the specification. We can create differing scenarios in HTML but reuse the same fixture. Our fixture for the above might look like the following.

Listing 1.2: Test fixture for use with scenarios described in HTML specifications


 1 @RunWith(ConcordionRunner.class)
 2 @ExpectedToPass
 3 public class UiPortfolioValueDisplayTest {
 4     private final HttpServer ui = new UiServer();
 5     private final FakeHttpServer application = new FakeHttpServer(8000);
 6     private final Browser browser = new Browser();
 7 
 8     @Before
 9     public void start() {
10         ui.start();
11         application.start();
12     }
13 
14     public void requestPortfolioValue(String body) {
15         application.stub(
16             urlEndingWith("/portfolio/0001"),
17             aResponse().withBody(body));
18         browser.navigateToSummaryPage().requestValuationForShares(100);
19     }
20 
21     public String getPortfolioValue() throws InterruptedException {
22         return browser.navigateToSummaryPage().getPortfolioValue();
23     }
24 
25     @After
26     public void stop() {
27         ui.stop();
28         application.stop();
29         browser.quit();
30     }
31 }

By annotating the fixture with @RunWith(ConcordionRunner.class), the class can be run like a regular JUnit test. It will use the Concordion runner to find and parse the HTML specification calling into the fixture as appropriate. Notice that there is no @Test methods, the fixture is run using the JUnit framework but it’s the HTML specification that acts as the test.

The HTML sets up the fake server to respond with 10500.988 by setting a “variable” on line 15 (Listing 1.1) which is passed into the requestPortfolioValue() method of the fixture. As the HTML is interpreted and when it reaches line 20, it’ll call the method on the fixture. At this point, the fixture will control an instance of the browser, refresh the page and cause a GET request to be made.

The GET request causes the canned response to be returned ready for display. It’s JavaScript in the UI that receives this response and introduces the commas. It’s this that we’re really trying to test so we add an assertion in the Concordion markup at line 27 (Listing 1.1). This line will get the actual value from the UI using the fixture’s method and compare it with the HTML element. After running, Concordion updates the specification with a successful result shown in green.

Example 2: Testing the outgoing messages

In the previous example, we made no verifications against the request mechanism so that we could focus solely on display semantics. The next example focuses on the request mechanics. We’re interested in exercising the interaction between the UI and the Portfolio port.

The previous test asks “when I ask for a portfolio value in the UI, how is it displayed?”, this test is concerned with what it actually means to ask for a portfolio’s value?

When the UI asks for a valuation, a specific message is sent over the wire. This example would verify the request and response formats. For example, if the request is sent as JSON, the JSON content could be verified. The response body could also be verified against a specific JSON format and the HTTP response code verified to be 200 (OK). How the response is actually used is left to other tests.

Specifically, we’d

  • Start up the UI server
  • Setup a fake Portfolio server with an expectation against a specific HTTP request
  • Use the browser to refresh the valuation
  • Verify the request expectation and return a canned response
  • Verify that a response was received but not how it is used in the UI

When the UI asks for the current value, a message is sent to the Portfolio component. Testing the outgoing messages would use a real UI to call a test double (representing the Portfolio’s port) so that we can assert expectations on the message format. If we had multiple UIs (for example a desktop client), we’d need to test how each of them communicate with the port. The port represents the API and the outgoing messages from each UI should be tested against the API specification.

An example specification interested in the Portfolio’s API might look like this.

What does it mean to ask for a portfolio value?

When the user asks for the current portfolio valuation in the UI

Then a request for the portfolio value is made to the application and the response is returned

With a corresponding fixture as follows.

Listing 2.1: Test fixture for working with UI to Portfolio requests


 1 @RunWith(ConcordionRunner.class)
 2 @ExpectedToPass
 3 public class UiPortfolioValueRequestTest {
 4     private final HttpServer ui = new UiServer();
 5     private final FakeHttpServer application = new FakeHttpServer(8000);
 6     private final Browser browser = new Browser();
 7 
 8     private final static String expectedUrl = "/portfolio/0001";
 9 
10     @Before
11     public void start() {
12         ui.start();
13         application.start();
14     }
15 
16     public String requestPortfolioValue() throws MalformedURLException {
17         application.stub(
18             urlEndingWith("/portfolio/0001"),
19             aResponse().withBody("1000"));
20         browser.navigateToSummaryPage().requestValuationForShares(100);
21         return expectedUrl;
22     }
23 
24     public String verifyHttpGet() throws InterruptedException {
25         try {
26             application.verify(urlEndingWith(expectedUrl));
27             return "request for the portfolio value is made";
28         } catch (AssertionError e) {
29             return "request for the portfolio value was not made";
30         }
31     }
32 
33     public boolean verifyResponseReturned() throws InterruptedException {
34         browser
35             .navigateToSummaryPage()
36             .assertThatPortfolioValue(isRenderedInTheUi());
37         return true;
38     }
39 
40     @After
41     public void stop() {
42         ui.stop();
43         application.stop();
44         browser.quit();
45     }
46 }

Like the previous example, a canned response is setup (lines 17-19) only this time, the fixture can verify that the UI made the correct type of request (line 26). It asserts that the correct URL was accessed using the HTTP GET method. The test can then go on to verify the response is correct (line 36). In this case, it just verifies that the response makes it’s way onto the UI but doesn’t test anything specific.

In the result below, the specifics of what it means for a request to be valid are omitted. The language in the test talks in abstract terms about the request (“a request for the portfolio value is made and the valuation is returned”). This decouples the language in the test from it’s implementation. That way, this test should be insulated against changes to the response or rendering formats.

Example 3: Testing the Portfolio HTTP API

Once we’re satisfied with the communication between UI and Portfolio, we can look at the behaviour of the Portfolio in detail. This component is responsible for exposing an interface for requesting valuations and processing any valuation requests. The interface is implemented as a HTTP adapter to accept incoming requests. It turns the HTTP call (the external API) into a Java call (the internal API) and a Java result into a HTTP response.

An important point to note is that these tests will assume that the RESTful infrastructure is tested elsewhere. Rather than start up a HTTP server, configure RESTful endpoints and make a real HTTP client request, the tests will work with underlying components directly. This separates the configuration and infrastructure (of the HTTP server) from the behaviour (the business logic classes) tests. We’ll defer the infrastructure tests until later (see Testing end to end). Starting up the full stack and exercising the same path through the system for different business scenarios is wasteful when only a small proportion of the test varies.

In Java terms, you can think of this as starting up a servlet container and testing a servlet along with it’s configuration in the web.xml versus testing the Servlet directly. We don’t really need to test a servlet running within the container, we can safely assume the web container works and that configuration will be tested elsewhere.

An example specification might look like this.

Valuations are returned in response to HTTP requests

When a HTTP request for a valuation is received

Then the total portfolio valuation will be returned to the requester

With a corresponding fixture used to verify the HTTP adapter works as intended.

Listing 3.1: Test fixture for the Portfolio’s port HTTP adapter


 1 @RunWith(ConcordionRunner.class)
 2 @ExpectedToPass
 3 public class PortfolioValuationTest {
 4     private final Mockery context = new JUnit4Mockery();
 5 
 6     private final Valuation valuation = context.mock(Valuation.class);
 7     private final PortfolioResource portfolio =
 8         new PortfolioResource(valuation);
 9 
10     public boolean verifyValuationResponse() {
11         context.checking(new Expectations() {{
12             oneOf(valuation).value(); will(returnValue(new Money("9.99")));
13         }});
14 
15         Response response = portfolio.value(null);
16         assertThat(response.entity().toString(), is("9.99"));
17         return true;
18     }
19 }

The PortfolioResource class is accessed when a HTTP request is received. It implements the external API mentioned above or in other words, it plays the role of the Portfolio port. The RESTful framework used to route the GET call here is a JAX-RS (JSR-311) framework called Utterlyidle running in an embedded HTTP server. A common alternative is to use Jersey. Either way, we’re not interested in testing these frameworks or their configuration here. We’re assuming that a HTTP GET is relayed to the PortfolioResource class and the value method is executed. Line 15 above calls the method directly in the test to simulate this.

The PortfolioResource class shown below uses an instance of Valuation as a collaborator to perform the actual calculation and at line 12, sets the result in the HTTP response body. We use JMock in the test to implement a test double for Valuation and simply verify that it’s used and it’s result is bundled in the HTTP response body in Listing 3.1 at line 16.

Listing 3.2: The PortfolioResource class represents the HTTP adapter


 1 public class PortfolioResource {
 2     private final Valuation valuation;
 3 
 4     public PortfolioResource(Valuation valuation) {
 5         this.valuation = valuation;
 6     }
 7 
 8     @GET
 9     @Path("/portfolio/{id}")
10     public Response value(@PathParam("id") String id) {
11         return response(OK)
12             .entity(valuation.value())
13             .build();
14     }
15 }

This may seem very much like a unit test. That’s because it is. It focuses narrowly on specific questions and can only be called an acceptance test because of the way its used (to give customer’s confidence via the HTML output). There’s nothing in our definition of an acceptance test that precludes it being written as a unit test.

Example 4: Testing the Portfolio valuation calculation

One or more tests will be needed to verify the calculation logic of the domain model. How does the Portfolio actually go about summing the stocks and where does it get their prices? Given the previous example shows that HTTP requests are translated into a Java messages to get a valuation, these tests will go into more detail as to what is involved in valuing the portfolio.

For example, you might include tests to verify the summing of stock prices a customer owns, how the system responds when prices can not be retrieved or if a customer has no stocks to value. Our example is going to look at the simple case of how a single stock is valued, which is done by looking up the price in the Market Data component.

The test must interact with Market Data in order to price the stocks the customer holds so the test will use a real Portfolio component but use a test double for the Market Data interface. We talk about a customers book as a way to record what stock quantities a customer holds. So for example, we might say that a customer has a position of 100 against Google on their book.

An example scenario might look like this.

Calculating the value of a single stock with a closing price

Given a customer book containing 100 shares in AMZN and a stock price for AMZN of 261.82

When a request for a valuation is received

Then the total portfolio valuation will be 26182.00

with a corresponding fixture.

Listing 4.1: Test fixture for the Portfolio’s calculation logic


 1 @RunWith(ConcordionRunner.class)
 2 @ExpectedToPass
 3 public class PortfolioValuationCalculationTest {
 4     private final StubMarketData marketData = new StubMarketData();
 5     private final StubBook book = new StubBook();
 6     private final Valuation portfolio = new Portfolio(book, marketData);
 7 
 8     public void setBook(String symbol, Integer quantity) {
 9         book.add(new NumberOfStocks(fromSymbol(symbol), quantity));
10     }
11 
12     public void setMarketDataPrice(String symbol, String price) {
13         marketData.add(fromSymbol(symbol), new Money(price));
14     }
15 
16     public String getTotalPortfolioValue() {
17         return portfolio.value().toString();
18     }
19 
20 }

The previous example mocked out the valuation component (at line 12 in Listing 3.1) whereas this test uses the real class to calculate prices (defined at line 6 and executed at line 17). It works with the MarketData and Book components to get the information it needs. These are stubbed at lines 4 and 5. Given these test doubles, we can setup stocks on a customer book along with corresponding prices in this fixture and verify different scenarios using HTML specifications like the following.

Listing 4.2: HTML Specification marked up with Concordion instrumentation


 1 <html xmlns:concordion="http://www.concordion.org/2007/concordion">
 2 <body>
 3 <h1>Portfolio Valuation</h1>
 4 
 5 <h2>Given</h2>
 6 <p>
 7     A customer book <span concordion:execute="setBook(#symbol, #quantity)">
 8     containing <b concordion:set="#quantity">100</b> shares in
 9     <b concordion:set="#symbol">AMZN</b></span> and a stock price in the
10     <span concordion:execute="setMarketDataPrice(#symbol, #price)"> market
11     data system for <b>AMZN</b> of <b concordion:set="#price">261.82</b>
12     </span>
13 </p>
14 
15 <h2>When</h2>
16 <p>
17     A request for a valuation is received
18 </p>
19 
20 <h2>Then</h2>
21 <p>
22     The total portfolio valuation will be
23     <b concordion:assertEquals="getTotalPortfolioValue()">26182.00</b>
24 </p>
25 </body>
26 </html>

As before, the HTML interacts with the fixture to setup the stubs (lines 7 and 10), execute the function under test and verify the results (line 23). The result would look something like this.

Example 5: Testing the Market Data API

The previous example was concerned with calculation logic once we have stock quantities and prices but we still need to test how stock prices are actually retrieved. Stock prices change frequently and are typically supplied by large institutions like Bloomberg for a fee. In production, we’re using a free data feed supplied by Yahoo!

We have a Market Data API to get the prices, so we focus on testing this here. For example, we might verify what happens when stock prices are happily retrieved or what happens when stock prices are unavailable.

The example specification below outlines what we expect to happen, in terms of interaction with the Market Data component, when a valuation is requested.

Market data API

When a request for a valuation is received for a book containing AMZN and GOOG stocks

Then market data is queried for AMZN and GOOG

With a corresponding fixture Setting expectations against the market data API.

Listing 5.1: Test fixture for the market data API


 1 @RunWith(ConcordionRunner.class)
 2 @ExpectedToPass
 3 public class MarketDataTest {
 4     private final Mockery context = new JUnit4Mockery();
 5 
 6     private final MarketData marketData = context.mock(MarketData.class);
 7     private final StubBook book = new StubBook();
 8     private final Portfolio portfolio = new Portfolio(book, marketData);
 9 
10     public MultiValueResult verifySymbolCheckedWas(
11             final String firstSymbol, final String secondSymbol) {
12         book.add(fromSymbol(firstSymbol)).add(fromSymbol(secondSymbol));
13         context.checking(new Expectations() {{
14             oneOf(marketData).getPrice(fromSymbol(firstSymbol));
15             oneOf(marketData).getPrice(fromSymbol(secondSymbol));
16         }});
17         portfolio.value();
18         context.assertIsSatisfied();
19         return multiValueResult()
20             .with("firstSymbol", firstSymbol)
21             .with("secondSymbol", secondSymbol);
22     }
23 }

Notice the verification is in the form of expectations. We’re saying here that we expect a certain interaction between the portfolio and the marketData components but not verifying how any return values might be used by the portfolio.

We’re saying that when when prices are queried for Amazon and Google, the market data component is accessed using the getPrice method of the API and that’s all.

The result would look something like this. Again, notice that no results are explicitly stated, only that the market data “is queried for AMZN and GOOG”.

Example 6: Testing real Yahoo! Market Data

We’d also need tests to ensure that the real Yahoo market data component operates as expected. We’ve already built our market data adapter that we fake out in the previous tests (Example 5.) but now we need to make sure that how we expect fake market data components to behave in tests is actually how they behave with real Yahoo.

We’ve shown that when the market data API is queried for say, Amazon or Google, that a specific API method is called, now we need to show what happens when it’s called.

For example, testing that a specific request should be made to Yahoo when a price is requested might look like this.

Specific HTTP message to Yahoo

When the price for AMZN is requested by the portfolio for the date March 26, 2013

Then the correct Yahoo! HTTP GET request is made

With a fixture as below.

Listing 6.1: Test Yahoo’s query endpoint


 1 @RunWith(ConcordionRunner.class)
 2 @ExpectedToPass
 3 public class YahooTest {
 4 
 5     private Date date;
 6     private final FakeYahoo yahoo = new FakeYahoo();
 7     private final String host = "http://localhost:" + FakeYahoo.port;
 8     private final Yahoo client = new YqlWebService(anApacheClient(), host);
 9     private final Clock clock = new FrozenClock(date) {
10         @Override
11         public Date now() {
12             return date;
13         }
14     };
15     private MarketData marketData = new YahooMarketData(client, clock);
16 
17     @Before
18     public void start() {
19         yahoo.start();
20     }
21 
22     public String getPriceFromYahoo(String symbol, String date) {
23         String response = "{\"quote\":{\"Close\":\"200.10\"}}";
24         this.date = new Date(date);
25         yahoo.stub(
26                 urlStartingWith("/v1/public/yql"),
27                 aResponse().withBody(response));
28         marketData.getPrice(fromSymbol(symbol));
29         List<LoggedRequest> requests
30             = yahoo.requestsForHttpGet(urlStartingWith("/v1/public/yql"));
31         return new WiremockLoggedRequest(requests).toString();
32     }
33 
34     @After
35     public void stop() {
36         yahoo.stop();
37     }
38 }

There’s a lot of setup in this test. The main thing to note is that a fake Yahoo server is setup (line 6) and the internal component that acts as the client (at line 8) is configured to point to it. The client will make a real HTTP request to the fake server. The fake server allows us to interrogate the messages it received for the purposes of the test (line 29).

The assertion against a specific HTTP message is defined in the HTML specification. The result looks like this.

In principle, tests like this should be runnable against a real instance of Yahoo or our locally controlled fake Yahoo.

Keeping fakes in sync with real services

We’ve verified that we make the right API calls to Yahoo but used a fake Yahoo to do so. The tests go through the production Yahoo class but talk to a different end point which we own. There’s a danger that the behaviour we set on these fake services can get out of sync with the real services. If Yahoo change their API, we’d want a test to fail. Faked out tests could still pass.

For example, if we’ve build our tests expecting market data to respond with a HTTP response code of 404 (Not Found) for a price that isn’t yet available, we should prove that’s what Yahoo would actually return. Working from a specification is one thing but we’d prefer to have a test fail if our mocks and real market data components get out of sync.

Testing end-to-end (system tests)

The previous examples focus on specific scenarios, interacting with a limited number of components but they overlap to simulate the broader path through the system. They run within a reduced context (for example, not within a fully started application stack) and avoid duplication. This does however mean that so far, we’ve never run all the components together at the same time.

To address this, we still need to write some additional end-to-end tests. From the introduction of the decoupled architecture above, we still need to address the following points. I’m describing these as end-to-end as it reflects the notion of multiple components working together. It doesn’t mean that we’ll use real external systems though, the tests will be entirely within our own system boundary.

The few end-to-end tests required would startup the full stack and fake out external systems. They’d probably use the UI for input and are really there as litmus tests to ensure the production configuration of components is correct. We’d only run one or two test scenarios as we will have already tested the edge-cases and are just checking that the application is assembled correctly. These tests would be more about infrastructure that functionality.

People often get hung up on this kind of test. They worry that without exercising many scenarios through a fully assembled application, the system may not work in production. You have to have confidence in the previous tests and that they demonstrate the system’s behaviour. You really shouldn’t need many of these heavier, end-to-end tests.

Summary of test coverage

When all the examples are run together they give a sensible amount of coverage without the duplication. The tests are meant to be demonstrative rather than exhaustive; they don’t represent the full suite of tests you’d write in a production system but give you an idea of what component interactions should be tested. You may or may not choose to include addition business scenarios or interactions.

The diagram below visualises the overall coverage offered by the examples.

The examples combine for overall coverage

The examples combine for overall coverage

Benefits using ports and adapters

Getting the design of your tests right using ports and adapters means you wont be duplicating effort, you’ll have created a efficient test suite that runs quickly. In a similar way that TDD gives you a flexible design, a ports and adapters design will encourage loosely coupled components with very flexible composability. You’ll have built a very adaptable architecture.

Applying ports and adapters to your test code; creating a composable architecture and abstracting your test language, means that you’ll have created tests narrowly focused on business requirements. A change to a small piece of production code shouldn’t break dozens of acceptance tests. Applying these ideas should get you someway there.

A lot of these ideas are really just about abstraction. If you apply any abstraction correctly, you should see decoupling. Ports and adapters allows you to decouple your architecture, empowering you to test small groups of components in isolation. This frees you up to use abstract language in your specifications, insulating them against implementation changes.

Disadvantages using ports and adapters

Decomposing a system into discrete but overlapping areas is actually quite difficult. It often feels like a protracted process and once done, it’s difficult to keep all the overlapping parts in your head. When you come to write a new set of tests, you’ve got to first understand previous tests and how they interconnect. Reasoning about where new ones might fit in is hard and its difficult to get feedback if you’ve got it wrong. Build times may go up but you probably won’t notice that you’re duplicating effort.

It can also be hard to win over business stakeholders, testers and developers. It’s much more natural for people to accept the system is working a certain way if they see if running in it’s entirety. Despite logical arguments that a decoupled testing approach can yield equivalent coverage, it’s just human nature to accept the empirical over the intellectual argument.

Introducing these ideas late in a project lifecycle is less likely to succeed. If you’ve already got a slow and duplication heavy build, it’s probably not the right technique for a quick fix. It takes sustained effort to get right and is easier to introduce right from the start of a new project. If you’re willing to retrofit to an existing system, be prepared to re-architect large parts of it.

Common pitfalls

This section is not yet finished

This section is not yet finished. It’s a work in progress, a lean publishing effort. It will include a description of common pitfalls and how to avoid them. At the moment, it just lists them with no explanation.

Help set the direction, get involved and make suggestions via the Leanpub page.

Features hit production that the customer didn’t want

Users describe solutions not problems

Users can’t tell how the system is supposed to behave

Users can’t tell if feature x is already implemented

Tests repeat themselves.

The acceptance test suite takes forever to run

Intermittent failures in tests

Q&A

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No questions have been answered yet. Feel free to contribute questions or answers via the Leanpub page.

What do we mean when we say “acceptance testing”

How do I manage large numbers of acceptance tests?

How do you map acceptance tests to stories in say JIRA?

How does applying acceptance testing techniques help us focus on reducing complexity?

When would you not write stories? Acceptance criteria?

How does agile acceptance testing differ from conventional UAT?

What are some other testing strategies? How does acceptance testing fit in?

How do you layer various types of testing to maximise benefit?

How does exception testing fit with unit and end-to-end tests?

Aren’t acceptance tests slow with high maintenance costs?

What’s the best way to leverage CI servers like TeamCity and Jenkins?

Where does BDD fit in?

Can I run acceptance tests in parallel?

How can I run acceptance tests which exercise business processes than span multiple business days?

How should I setup and tear down data?

Part 3 - Specification testing frameworks

Part 3 discusses Java specification testing frameworks such as Concordion, Yatspec and Fit.

Concordion is a Java framework but has been ported to most popular languages including .NET (Concordion.NET). It’s emphasis on separation of test specification from implementation makes it an ideal fit for natural language specification techniques such as Behavioural Driven Design (BDD). Because of its flexible nature it also offers several benefits over older frameworks such as FIT and FITnesse.

Yatspec is “yet another specification testing framework” that focuses on user readable documentation. Rather than create specification artifacts upfront (for example in HTML), it parses the source code to create the documentation directly based on source code conventions.

Fit (Framework for Integrated Test) was probably the original framework built around 2002. It’s essentially unmaintained now but has been influential in the area of user viewable testing. It has a heavy focus on instrumenting HTML table and cell structures and so if often criticised for influencing how tests are written to the detriment of readability.

This section is not yet written

This section is not yet written. It may never be written or it may end up coming from a completely different angle. It’s a place holder for future work.

If you have an opinion, get involved and make suggestions via the Leanpub page.

Reading list