Unit Testing Randomness

Let’s imagine hypothetically you were working on software that placed landmines in a minefield grid and you had a function that given the dimensions of a minefield, and a safe cell, you had to randomly place a certain number of landmines in the other cells of the grid. It looks something like this:

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Running Automated Tests with A/B Testing

Like a lot of modern, data driven sites, WordPress.com uses A/B testing extensively to introduce new features. These tests may be as simple as a label change or as complex as changing the entire sign up flow, for example by offering a free trial.

Since I have been working on a set of automated end-to-end tests for WordPress.com, I have found A/B testing to be problematic for automated testing on this very fast moving codebase, namely:

  1. Automated tests need to be deterministic: having a randomised experiment as an A/B test means the first test run may get an entirely different sign up flow than a second test run which is very hard to automate; and
  2. Automated tests need to know which experiments are running otherwise they may encounter unexpected behaviour randomly.

What we need is two methods to deal with A/B tests when running automated tests:

  1. We need to be able to see which A/B tests are active and compare this to a known list of expected A/B tests – so that we don’t suddenly encounter some unexpected/random behaviour for some of our test runs
  2. We need to be able to set the desired behaviour to the control group so that are our tests are deterministic.

Different sites conduct A/B testing using different tools and approaches, WordPress.com uses HTML5 local storage to set which A/B tests are active and which group the user belongs to.

Luckily it’s easy to read and update local storage using WebDriver and JavaScript. This means our approach is to:

  1. Each time a page object is initialised, there is a call on the base page model that checks the A/B tests that are active using something like return window.localStorage.ABTests; and then compares this to the known list of A/B tests which are checked in as a config item. This fails the test if there’s a new A/B test introduced that isn’t in the list of known tests. This is better than not knowing about the A/B test and failing based upon some non-deterministic behaviour.
  2. When a new A/B test is introduced and we wish to ensure our automated tests always use the control group, we can set this using a similar method window.localStorage.setItem('ABTests','{"flow":"default"}'); and refresh the page.

Ideally it would be good to know and plan every A/B test for our automated e2e tests, but since this isn’t possible, checking against known A/B tests and ensuring control groups are set means our automated tests are at least more consistent and deterministic, and fail a lot faster and more consistently when a new A/B test has been introduced.

How do you deal with non-determinism with A/B tests?