AMA: adopting a TDD/BDD approach

João Monteiro asks…

I recently joined a small company where I am the only QA and the test automation suite was already written in a given/when/then style but rarely (if not at all) gets read by the rest of the team (product or developers). Any tips on how to mentor the team to adopt a BDD approach? Do you recommend any tools / framework to share the features in a centralised place easily accessible by the rest of the team an not just on the tests repository?

Continue reading “AMA: adopting a TDD/BDD approach”

The color of acceptance is gray

James Shore recently wrote some brillant words about acceptance testing:

I think “acceptance” is actually a nuanced problem that is fuzzy, social, and negotiable. Using tests to mediate this problem is a bad idea, in my opinion. I’d rather see “acceptance” be done through face-to-face conversations before, after, and during development of code, centering around whiteboard sketches (earlier) and manual demonstrations (later) rather than automated tests.

To rephrase: “acceptance” should be a conversation, and it’s one that we should allow to grow and change as the customer sees the software and refines her understanding of what she wants. Testing is too limited, and too rigid. Asking customers to read and write acceptance tests is a poor use of their time, skill, and inclinations.

This is pretty much where my head is at right now around automating acceptance tests. Automated tests are black and white, acceptance is gray.

“The color of truth is gray.”
~ André Gide

I prefer to have a handful of end to end automated functional tests that cover the typical journey of a user than a large set of acceptance tests constantly in a state of flux as the system is being developed and acceptance is being defined and changed.

We need to take feedback from the customer that we are building the right thing and ensure our automated tests model this, not make them responsible for specifying the actual tests.

Shoshin: the Sudoku robot

I really enjoyed writing Einstein (my Minesweeper robot) recently. So much that I recently wrote another. Introducing Shoshin: a Sudoku robot.

Shoshin has come along fairly nicely. I pretty much followed the same implementation strategy as I did with Einstein: write failing specs and make them pass until I have a robot that can actually win, or solve in this case, Sudoku. I tend to use large pieces of blank white paper and draw lots of diagrams and logic when I am trying to figure something out (and take a Archimedes break and eat a pink lady apple if I get really stuck – see sticker top right).

Shoshin was written in ruby, so I used both RSpec and Cucumber to write the executable specifications. I tend to write lots of low level specifications in RSpec that run really quickly (40 specs in ~1 second), and then have a handful of high level end to end specifications in Cucumber that I run less frequently, but ultimately specify what I am trying to achieve at a high level. I find the combination works very nicely as I get fast feedback and ultimately know what I am trying to achieve.

To solve some of the more difficult sudoku problems, I printed some strategy diagrams from the web and wrote failing specs for them. It was then a matter of making them pass!

The outcome is Shoshin (see source on github) who can win easy, medium and hard games on She doesn’t presently win evil games, as they involve guessing/brute force attacks which I haven’t implemented yet. Maybe one day when I get time..

Oh, and Shoshin (初心) is a concept in Zen Buddhism meaning “beginner’s mind”.

A tale of three ruby automated testing APIs (redux)

Redux Note: I originally wrote a similar article to this before going on parental leave about six weeks ago. Whilst I didn’t intend to offend, it seemed that a few people took my article the wrong way. I understand that a lot of effort goes into creating a web testing API, but that doesn’t mean that everyone will agree with what you’ve made.

Sadly, an anonymous coward attacked myself and the company who I work (even though I don’t mention that company on this blog), so for the first time in this blog’s history, I have had to turn comment moderation on. I am sorry to the other genuine commenters whose comments have been lost in transition, and now have to wait for their new comments to be approved.

Since then I have received numerous emails asking where my article went, and commenting that people found it interesting and worthwhile. So I have decided to repost this article, hopefully with a little less contention this time around, making it clear, this is my opinion and experience: YMMV.


As a consultant I get to see and work on a lot of automated testing solutions using different automated web testing APIs. Lately I’ve been thinking about how these APIs are different and what makes them so.

My main interest is in ruby, and fortunately ruby has three solid examples of three different kinds of web testing APIs, two of which extend the lowest level API: selenium-webdriver.

I’ll (try to) explain here what I consider to be three kinds of automated web testing APIs and where I consider the sweet spot to be and and why.

A meaty example

As a carnivore, I thought I would explain my concept in terms I can relate to. If you’re a beef eater, there are many different kinds of beef that you can use to make some tasty food to eat. I’ll use three different kinds of beef for my example. The first (rawest) kind would involve getting a beef carcass and filleting it yourself to eventually make some edible food. The second kind of beef you could use is beef that is already in a slightly usable form, but you can then use yourself to make some edible food. For example, you can buy minced beef at a butcher, and then make your own hamburger patties, taco fillings etc from it. The final type of beef you could use is beef that has already been prepared so you can directly consume it, for example, sausages which can be cooked and consumed as is.

I consider these three examples of different kinds of beef to roughly correlate to automated web testing APIs, of which I also consider to be three kinds of.

The first is a Web Driver API, which is the rawest form of an API, its job is to drive a browser by issuing it commands. It provides a high level of user control, but like filleting a beef carcass it’s more ‘work’. An example in ruby of this API is the selenium-webdriver API, which controls the browser using the webdriver drivers.

The second kind of automated web testing API is the Browser API, which is a higher level API but still provides user control. This is the minced beef of APIs, as whilst it’s in a more usable form than a carcass, you still have a lot of control (and potential to what you can do with it). An example in ruby of this API is the watir-webdriver API, which uses the underlying selenium-webdriver carcass to control the browser.

The final kind of automated web testing API is the Web Form DSL (Domain Specific Language) which is a very high level API that provides users with specific methods to automate web forms and their elements. This is the beef sausages of APIs as sometimes you feel like eating something else besides sausages, but it’s difficult to make anything else edible but sausages from sausages. An example in ruby of this Web Form DSL is the Capybara DSL.

Visually, this looks something like this:

Show me the code™

So exactly what do these APIs look like?

I knew you’d ask, that’s why I came prepared.

Say I want to accomplish a fairly basic scenario on my example Google Doc form:

  • Start a browser
  • Navigate to the watir-webdriver-demo form
  • Check whether text field with id ‘entry_0’ exists (this should exist)
  • Check whether text field with id ‘entry_99’ exists (this shouldn’t exist)
  • Set a text field with id ‘entry_0’ to ‘1’
  • Set a text field with id ‘entry_0’ to ‘2’
  • Select ‘Ruby’ from select list with id ‘entry_1’
  • Click the Submit button

This is how I would do it in the three different APIs:

# * Start browser
# * Navigate to watir-webdriver-demo form
# * Check whether text field with id 'entry_0' exists
# * Check whether text field with id 'entry_99' exists
# * Set text field with id 'entry_0' to '1'
# * Set text field with id 'entry_0' to '2'
# * Select 'Ruby' from select list with id 'entry_1'
# * Click the Submit button

require 'bench'

benchmark 'selenium-webdriver' do
  require 'selenium-webdriver'

  driver = Selenium::WebDriver.for :firefox ''
    driver.find_element(:id, 'entry_0')
  rescue Selenium::WebDriver::Error::NoSuchElementError
    # doesn't exist
    driver.find_element(:id, 'entry_99').displayed?
  rescue Selenium::WebDriver::Error::NoSuchElementError
    # doesn't exist
  driver.find_element(:id, 'entry_0').clear
  driver.find_element(:id, 'entry_0').send_keys '1'
  driver.find_element(:id, 'entry_0').clear
  driver.find_element(:id, 'entry_0').send_keys '2'
  driver.find_element(:id, 'entry_1').find_element(:tag_name => 'option', :value => 'Ruby').click
  driver.find_element(:name, 'submit').click

benchmark 'watir-webdriver' do
  require 'watir-webdriver'
  b = Watir::Browser.start '', :firefox
  b.text_field(:id => 'entry_0').exists?
  b.text_field(:id => 'entry_99').exists?
  b.text_field(:id => 'entry_0').set '1'
  b.text_field(:id => 'entry_0').set '2'
  b.select_list(:id => 'entry_1').select 'Ruby'
  b.button(:name => 'submit').click

benchmark 'capybara' do
  require 'capybara'
  session =
  session.has_field?('entry_0') # => true
  session.has_no_field?('entry_99') # => true
  session.fill_in('entry_0', :with => '1')
  session.fill_in('entry_0', :with => '2')'Ruby', :from => 'entry_1')
  session.click_button 'Submit'

run 10

This is how long they took for me to run:

                        user     system      total        real
selenium-webdriver  1.810000   0.840000  22.130000 ( 73.123340)
watir-webdriver     1.940000   0.870000  24.380000 ( 79.388494)
capybara            1.950000   0.890000  24.080000 ( 79.920051)

Note: Capybara doesn’t always require a ‘session’, it’s only for non ruby rack applications, but since my example (Google) is not a rack application, as are most of the applications I test, my example must use the session.

When using ruby, why Watir-WebDriver is my sweet spot

I personally find Watir-WebDriver to be the most elegant solution, as the API is high enough for me to be highly readable/usable, but low enough to be powerful and for me to feel like I’m in control.

For example, being able to select an element by a explicit identifier (name, class name, id, anything) is a huge deal to me. I personally don’t like relying on the API to determine which selector to use: for example Capybara only supports name, id and label, but you can’t tell fill_in which specific one to choose: it appears to try each selector one by one until it finds it.

I have found that Watir-WebDriver also also provides lots of flexibility/neatness. For example: it’s the only API shown here that allows URLs to not have a ‘http://’ prefix (how many people do you know who type in http:// into a browser?).

In my opinion, the high level APIs like Capybara don’t provide enough control (for example – being able to specify the explicit selector), but the low level APIs like webdriver don’t provide enough functionality. This is evident when I am using a language other than ruby (like C#) when I find myself writing a large number of web element extension methods because webdriver doesn’t provide any of them. A .set method is a classic example, even Simon Stewart writes a clearAndType method in his examples even though he wrote webdriver which sadly misses it (you must call .clear, and .send_keys).

My biggest concern about high level field APIs

But my biggest issue with the high level APIs is that I’ve frequently seen them used to write test scripts that are step by step interactions with a web form. Instead of thinking of a business application as that, people see it as a series of forms that you ‘fill in’. This means people create scenarios like Aslak Hellesøy included in his recent post about cucumber web steps (which uses Capybara) and the problems it has created.

Scenario: Successful login
  Given a user "Aslak" with password "xyz"
  And I am on the login page
  And I fill in "User name" with "Aslak"
  And I fill in "Password" with "xyz"
  When I press "Log in"
  Then I should see "Welcome, Aslak"

I’m not saying it’s not possible to end up with something as ugly as above using other APIs, but I am saying the web form DSL style naturally relates to this: as the APIs look so similar to this style because that’s what the DSL was designed for: filling in forms. I’ve seen people frequently write generic, reusable cucumber steps to match the web form DSL like:

When /^I fill in "(.+)" with "(.+)"$/ do |value, field|
  fill_in field, :with => value

But this means you end up with less readable, less maintainable test scripts rather than business readable executable specifications.


Ultimately what I am looking for in an automated web testing API is simplicity and full control. I personally find browser APIs like Watir-WebDriver and Watir give me this, and this is why I love them so. Your mileage may vary, you may like different styles of APIs better, but I’ve seen other APIs so badly abused by people not even thinking about it, so it makes sense to think about what you’re trying to achieve and whether what you’re doing is the right way.

Cukepatch: rich editing of feature files on Github

I’ve been a strong advocate of using the built in Github web text editor for editing feature files for some time, as it means that non-technical business users don’t need to worry about having git clients installed and pulling/pushing changes.

The benefit of this method over a publishing system such as Relish is that you can send a subject matter expert a URL to a Github feature file, and if they recognize that the specification is incorrect, they can immediately update it, unlike Relish where they need to go to the source code and push a change.

The downside is that the editor is a pretty basic, meaning no syntax highligting, step completion etc. Until now that is…

Aslak Hellesøy and Julien Biezemans recently announced Cukepatch: rich editing of feature files on Github. There’s some detail on the Cukes Google Group about it, but essentially it provides rich editing (syntax highlighting/validation and step completion) using a Google Chrome user script that reads a cucumber file you create in your public cucumber repository.

I did this for both WatirMelonCucumber and EtsyWatirWebDriver, and the results look like this:

This looks very promising indeed. There’s a few caveats at the moment including the requirement for a backend server, only working with public repositories, having to manually install the user script and being Google Chrome only. As these are overcome, I can see this becoming the de facto way for business users to write and edit specifications. Well done guys.

WatirMelon Spinach

Hello Spinach!

“Spinach is a new awesome BDD framework that features encapsulation and modularity of your step definitions.”

Seems like a good idea, so I thought I’d give it a try, and convert my existing simple Watirmelon Cucumber tests to use Spinach instead (link to my source code). It was very easy to do, here’s some observations:

  • It’s easy to get existing Cukes running using Spinach, but I imagine if you were starting out using Spinach you’d design things a lot differently
  • Steps belong in their own class, but you can include mixins to reuse steps – the ruby way
  • Steps are in a steps directory under features – shorter than step_definitions
  • Goodbye regular expressions in step definitions, which is a bit of a shame, as you can no longer capture values from the step name
  • As you can’t have regular expressions in step names, I find myself repeating steps that are similar but slightly different, this means my example steps have gone from 41 to 57 lines of code
  • Scenario Outlines aren’t supported at the moment, but I have raised this as a feature request
  • Hooks are dramatically improved, so I found them very easy to use and understand
  • There is no cucumber world, so you do a normal include instead, and env.rb is still supported
  • It displays really cool ticks on the command line when you’re running your spins

Well done to Codegram for releasing Spinach. If anything, it creates some great innovations that I imagine may find their way into Cucumber in the future.

Specification by Example: a love story

I attended a three day Advanced Agile Acceptance Testing/Specification by Example workshop in Melbourne last week run by Gojko Adzic, which I enjoyed immensely.

I took copious amounts of notes so I could regurgitate them here, but instead I decided to do something a bit different and write a story. It’s a story about how a team can apply what he taught us to improve their software development practices. It’s entirely fictitious (although I’d love to live in the Byron Bay hinterland!) and any resemblance to any real person or project is purely coincidental.

So here it is: Specification by Example: a Love Story (PDF). Enjoy.