Posts tagged ‘TextTest’

I’ve been favouring an Approval Testing approach for many years now, since I find it pretty useful in many situations, particularly for acceptance tests. Not many people I meet know the term though, and even fewer know how to use the technique. Recently I’ve put together some small exercises – code katas – to help people to learn about it. I’ll be going through them at a couple of upcoming conference workshops, but for all you people who won’t be there in person, I’m publishing them on github as well.

I’ve got three katas set up now, Minesweeper, Yatzy and GildedRose. If you’ve done any of these katas before, you’ll probably have been using ordinary unit testing techniques. Hopefully by doing them again, with Approval Testing, you’ll learn a little about what’s different about this technique, and how it could be useful.

Before you can do the katas, you’ll need to install an approval testing tool. I’m one of the developers of TextTest, so that’s the tool I’ve set up right now. Below are some useful commands for a debian/ubuntu machine for installing it.

I’m still developing these exercises, and would like feedback about what you think of them. For example I have Python versions for all three, but only one has a Java version as yet. Do people want more translations? Do let me know how you get on, and what you think!

Installation instructions

You will need to have Python 2, and TextTest. (Unfortunately TextTest uses a GUI library that doesn’t support Python 3). For example:

$ sudo apt-get install python-pip
$ sudo pip install texttest

For more detailed instructions, and for other platforms see the texttest installation docs. For more general documentation, see the texttest website.

You need to have an editor and a diff tool configured for texttest to use. I recommend sublime text and meld. Install them like this:

$ sudo add-apt-repository ppa:webupd8team/sublime-text-3
$ sudo apt-get update
$ sudo apt-get install sublime-text-installer
$ sudo apt-get install meld

Then you need to configure texttest to use them:

$ cd
$ mkdir .texttest
$ touch .texttest/config
$ subl .texttest/config

Enter the following in that file, and save:


For convenience, I also like to create an alias ‘tt’ for starting TextTest for these exercises. Change directory to one of the exercise repositories, then a ‘tt’ command should start the TextTest GUI and show the tests for that exercise. Define such an alias like this:

alias tt='texttest -d python -c .'

Two of the exercises start with a small test suite for you to build on. There should be instructions in the README file of each respective exercise, to help you to get going. If you really can’t work out what to do, have a look at the sample solutions and see if that helps. These are also on github: Minesweeper-sample-solution, Yatzy-sample-solution, GildedRose-sample-solution

I blogged a while back about “Text-Based testing”, which is a variant of Test-Driven Development that I’ve used quite a bit. My husband, Geoff Bache, is developing several tools to support this style of development.

Recently, we met Llewellyn Falco and discovered the work he’s been doing with Approval Tests. We were all really excited to realize we’ve independently been working on something very similar. Llewellyn’s Approval Tests library is in some ways a unit-test version of Geoff’s tool TextTest which is probably more suited to integration or functional tests. What we’ve been calling “Text-Based Testing” I think is better described as “Text-Based Approval Testing”. I think it’s a particularly powerful technique for characterization tests of legacy code, and regression testing in general. Geoff’s latest tools also make it a viable approach for GUI testing, traditionally an area where people have difficulty doing pure TDD. (We’ll be talking about this at Eurostar in November.

I’ve written a fuller description of Approval Testing in a chapter of my work-in-progress book “Mocks, Fakes and Stubs”, but I’ll summarize here. In classic Test-Driven Development, you begin by defining a test case comprising three parts – “Arrange”, “Act”, “Assert”. The assertion generally takes the form assertEqual(expected, actual), and you calculate the expected value when you define the test case. Then you go away and implement the functionality, until the “actual” value matches “expected”, and the test passes.

With Approval Testing, you design the test case to the point of having “Arrange” and “Act”, but defer defining the “expected” value for the “Assert”. You take the approach of “I’ll know it when I see it”, and get on with implementing the code. When the actual value the code produces looks right, you “Approve” it – store the actual value in the test case.  So the assert statement becomes “assertEqual(approved, actual)”.

Text-Based Approval Testing
The value you approve on could be anything you can automatically diff the actual program output against – a file, a string, a screenshot, some json, contents of a database table… you name it. The thing is, plain text is wonderfully simple to diff, version control, merge, store, manipulate… and there’s a wealth of existing, well understood tools to do that. I guess that’s why Geoff’s tools only support plain text so far. His approach has always been that if your program produces output in a different format, you write a test fixture to convert it to plain text before you diff. Llewellyn’s tools have branched out more into diffing images and suchlike.

I think “Approval Testing” is a good name for the style of testing both Geoff and Llewellyn’s tools support. I like the implication that you explicitly approve the output from your program as correct, and use that as the basis for your test.

Other Approval Testers

Geoff and Llewellyn aren’t the only people using an Approval testing approach, either. Recently I led a workshop where we compared writing tests for the Gilded Rose Kata using both Cucumber and Approval Tests. Nat Pryce was there, and he later blogged about it. He speculates that Approval testing might solve some problems he’s seen with other kinds of testing. Nat has subsequently started developing a new approval testing tool, Pearlfish, so he can test his ideas.

There is also this recent screencast by Brett Slatkin from Google  who explains how he’s using an approval testing technique with image diffs to regression test his webapp. He says he finds this technique essential in a continuous delivery environment – these tests find bugs his other tests (both manual and automatic) miss entirely.

I have also found Approval testing to be a really useful technique, and I hope that simply having a good name for it will help people understand what it is. Perhaps you’ll realize it’s an approach you’ve already used, just without having a name for it. Or maybe you’ll be inspired to try out one of the tools I’ve mentioned.

Programmers have a vested interest in making sure the software they create does what they think it does. When I’m coding I prefer to work in the context of feedback from automated tests, that help me to keep track of what works and how far I’ve got. I’ve written before about Test Driven Development, (TDD). In this article I’d like to explain some of the main features of Text-Based Testing. It’s a variant on TDD, perhaps more suited to the functional level than unit tests, and which I’ve found powerful and productive to use.

The basic idea
You get your program to produce a plain text file that documents all the important things that it does. A log, if you will. You run the program and store this text as a “golden copy” of the output. You create from this a Text-Based Test with a descriptive name, any inputs you gave to the program, and the golden copy of the textual output.

You make some changes to your program, and you run it again, gathering the new text produced. You compare the text with the golden copy, and if they are identical, the test passes. If the there is a difference, the test fails. If you look at the diff, and you like the new text better than the old text, you update your golden copy, and the test is passing once again.

Tool Support
Text-Based Testing is a simple idea, and in fact many people do it already in their unit tests. AssertEquals(String expected, String actual) is actually a form of it. You often create the “expected” string based on the actual output of the program, (although purists will write the whole assert before they execute the test).

Most unit test tools these days give you a nice diff even on multi-line strings. For example:

download (1)

Which is a failing text-based test using JUnit.

Once your strings get very long, to the scale of whole log files, even multi-line diffs aren’t really enough. You get datestamps, process ids and other stuff that changes every run, hashmaps with indeterminate order, etc. It gets tedious to deal with all this on a test-by-test basis.

My husband, Geoff Bache, has created a tool called “TextTest” to support Text-Based testing. Amongst other things, it helps you organize and run your text-based tests, and filter the text before you compare it. It’s free, open source, and of course used to test itself. (Eats own dog food!) TextTest is used extensively within Jeppesen Systems, (Geoff works for them, and they support development), and I’ve used it too on various projects in other organizations.

In the rest of this article I’ll look at some of the main implications of using a Text-Based Testing approach, and some of my experiences.

Little code per test
The biggest advantage of the approach, is that you tend to write very little unique code for each test. You generally access the application through a public interface as a user would, often a command line interface or (web)service call. You then create many tests by for example varying the command line options or request contents. This reduces test maintenance work, since you have less test code to worry about, and the public API of your program should change relatively infrequently.

Legacy code
Text-Based Testing is obviously a regression testing technique. You’re checking the code still does what it did before, by checking the log is the same. So these tests are perfect for refactoring. As you move around the code, the log statements move too, and your tests stay green, (so long as you don’t make any mistakes!) In most systems, it’s cheap and risk-free to add log statements, no matter how horribly gnarly the design is. So text-based testing is an easy way to get some initial tests in place to lean on while refactoring. I’ve used it this way fairly successfully to get legacy code under control, particularly if the code already produces a meaningful log or textual output.

No help with your design
I just told you how good Text-Based Testing is with Legacy code. But actually these tests give you very little help with the internal design of your program. With normal TDD, the activity of creating unit tests at least forces you to decompose your design into units, and if you do it well, you’ll find these tests giving you all sorts of feedback about your design. Text-Based tests don’t. Log statements don’t care if they’re in the middle of a long horrible method or if they’re spread around several smaller ones. So you have to get feedback on your design some other way.

I usually work with TDD at the unit level in combination with Text-Based tests at the functional level. I think it gives me the best of both worlds.

Log statements and readability
Some people complain that log statements reduce the readability of their code and don’t like to add any at all. They seem to be out of fashion, just like comments. The idea is that all the important ideas should be expressed in the class and method names, and logs and comments just clutter up the important stuff. I agree to an extent, you can definitely over-use logs and comments. I think a few well placed ones can make all the difference though. For Text-Based Testing purposes, you don’t want a log that is megabytes and megabytes of junk, listing every time you enter and leave every method, and the values of every variable. That’s going to seriously hinder your refactoring, apart from being a nightmare to store and update.

What we’re talking about here is targeted log statements at the points when something important happens, that we want to make sure should continue happening. You can think about it like the asserts you make in unit tests. You don’t assert everything, just what’s important. In my experience less than two percent of the lines of code end up being log statements, and if anything, they increase readability.

Text-Based tests are completed after the code
In normal TDD you write the test first, and thereby set up a mini pull system for the functionality you need. It’s lean, it forces you to focus on the problem you’re trying to solve before you solve it, and starts giving you feedback before you commit to an implementation. With Text-Based Testing, you often find it’s too much work the specify the log up front. It’s much easier to wait until you’ve implemented the feature, run the test, and save the log afterwards.

So your tests usually aren’t completed until after the code they test, unlike in normal TDD. Having said that, I would argue that you can still do a form of TDD with Text-Based Tests. I’d normally create the half the test before the code. I name the test, and find suitable inputs that should provoke the behaviour I need to implement in the system. The test will fail the first time I run it. In this way I think I get many of the benefits of TDD, but only actually pin down the exact assertion once the functionality is working.

“Expert Reads Output” Antipattern
If you’re relying on a diff in the logs to tell you when your program is broken, you had better have good logs! But who decides what to log? Who checks the “golden copy”? Usually it is the person creating the test, who should look through the log and check everything is in order the first time. Of course, after a test is created, every time it fails you have to make a decision whether to update the golden copy of the log. You might make a mistake. There’s a well known antipattern called “Expert Reads Output” which basically says that you shouldn’t rely on having someone check the results of your tests by eye.

This is actually a problem with any automated testing approach – someone has to make a judgement about what to do when a test fails – whether the test is wrong or there’s a bug in the application. With Text-Based Testing you might have a larger quantity of text to read through compared with other approaches, or maybe not. If you have human-readable, concise, targeted log statements and good tools for working with them, it goes a long way. You need a good diff tool, version control, and some way of grouping similar changes. It’s also useful to have some sanity checks. For example TextTest can easily search for regular expressions in the log and warn you if you try to save a golden copy containing a stack trace for example.

In my experience, you do need to update the golden copy quite often. I think this is one of the key skills with a Text-Based Testing approach. You have to learn to write good logs, and to be disciplined about either doing refactoring or adding functionality, not both at the same time. If you’re refactoring and the logs change, you need to be able to quickly recognize if it’s ok, or if you made a mistake. Similarly, if you add new functionality and no logs change, that could be a problem.

Agile Tests Manage Behaviour
When you create a unit test, you end with an Assert statement. This is supposed to be some kind of universal truth that should always be valid, or else there is a big problem. Particularly for functional level tests, it can be hard to find these kinds of invariants. What is correct today might be updated next week when the market moves or the product owner changes their mind. With Text-Based Testing you have an opportunity to quickly and easily update the golden copy every time the test “fails”. This makes your tests much more about keeping control of what your app does over time, and less about rewriting assert statements.

Text-Based Testing grew up in the domain of optimizing logistics planning. In this domain there is no “correct” answer you can predict in advance and assert. Planning problems that are interesting to solve are far too complex for a complete mathematical analysis, and the code relies on heuristics and fancy algorithms to come up with better and better solutions. So Text-Based Testing makes it easy to spot when the test produces a different plan from before, and use it as the new baseline if it’s an improvement.

I think generally it leads to more “agile” tests. They can easily respond to changes in the business requirements.

There is undoubtedly a lot more to be said about Text-Based Testing. I havn’t mentioned text-based mocking, data-driven vs workflow testing, or how to handle databases and GUIs – all relevant topics. I hope this article has given you a flavour of how it’s different from ordinary TDD, though. I’ve found that good tool support is pretty essential to making Text-Based Testing work well, and that it’s a particularly good technique for handling legacy code, although not exclusively. I like the approach because it minimizes the amount of code per test, and makes it easy to keep the tests in sync with the current behaviour of the system.


Last week at Scottish Ruby Conference I chatted with Brian Marick about software design. The week before that, he had been in Göteborg for Scandinavian Developer Conference, and had spent a morning pair programming with Geoff on TextTest. I took the chance to ask Brian what he thought about text-based testing now that he had seen it in action.

Brian’s view seems to be that text-based testing may be effective as a testing technique, but it just doesn’t offer the design benefits you get with standard TDD. It doesn’t give you guidance about small-scale design decisions, or intice you to structure your code into really small methods and classes. He thought the TextTest codebase wasn’t bad, but that the methods were larger than he would prefer, some classes were doing too much, and some ideas were not expressed clearly.

I’ve previously read about this design ethic of having really really small classes and methods in Bob Martin’s book “Clean Code”. Bob recommends one or two line methods. In contrast, I believe Steve McConnell’s “Code Complete” advocates methods small enough to fit comfortably on one screen. Geoff’s design for TextTest seems to land at about 5 or 6 lines for a typical method, which is somewhere in between.

Brian said the main drawback of code structured largely into small classes and one and two line methods is that it is harder for people who are unfamiliar with the codebase to get to grips with it. You get lost in the trees, and can’t easily get an overview of the forest. The big benefit is that people who are familiar with the code can potentially make sweeping improvements through very small, localized changes.

I’ve had the opportunity to work on this kind of codebase recently, and my experience hasn’t been entirely positive. Just as Brian predicted, I’ve found it hard to get into the code and grasp what it is doing. All the methods are one or two lines, and call each other. My pair and I ended up creating a temporary file where we pasted a whole call chain of about 6 methods so we could see them all at once, and read them in the order they called each other. There were 3 defects hidden in that 15 or so lines of code, and it took us a day or so to identify and fix them all. Yet, the code had been TDD’d, and the methods were well named. On the surface it looked very good. It actually took me some time to convince myself that we genuinely had found a defect, and that we hadn’t just misunderstood what the code was supposed to do.

The trouble seemed to stem from the fact that almost all the tests were for the “happy path” and there were several edge cases they never considered. Also, in one case the test had stubbed out the answer that one of the lower-level methods would return, and provided an answer the real code never gave. It took a long time for us to add missing tests for edge cases, and localize the defects to particular methods in the long call chain.

I’m very interested in whether we would have found it easier to find the defects if the code had been structured as two or three 5 line methods instead of 6 one and two line methods. I’m also interested if we would have found the issues more easily if the code had been built with text-based testing, with fewer, more coarse grained tests, and a few log statements printing key intermediate values. I’m considering getting the original versions of the files out of git and refactoring them to see how else they could have looked.

I don’t want you to conclude that I am against building designs with really small methods, or TDD, or using stubs or anything like that. I think there is value in all these techniques, each can be done well or badly, and you make tradeoffs when you choose your approach. You still need design skills and testing skills, whether you’re doing TDD or text-based testing. If Brian Marick had built TextTest the design might well have turned out differently. I don’t know how much of that would have been because of his use of TDD, and how much because of his skill, and views on design.

I’m actually relishing the prospect of working on more code with very small methods, and using TDD to build on it. I’ve got loads to learn about software design and testing 🙂

One of the things I like about GothPy is that lots of the people in the group enjoy writing code in their spare time, and like to share with us what they’re up to.

A little while back, Olof came up with this little tool, PyTDDmon, which is to help you when you’re doing TDD. Instead of your running your tests by hand, PyTDDmon sits in the background and runs them for you. When they are green, it has a little green blob, when they are red, it tells you how many are failing, and clicking on it gives you the stacktrace. Olof put together a screencast to show how it works.

Following Geoff’s presentation of PyUseCase at GothPy in December, he and Olof started to discuss whether it could be used to test PyTDDmon. Since it’s using the GUI library Tkinter instead of pyGTK, it didn’t look all that straightforward.

Of course, Olof developed the app using TDD in the first place, (definite own dog food eating going on!), and his unit tests have about 48% statement coverage. The parts with least coverage are GUI-related, so there seemed to be scope to improve matters by adding tests via the GUI.

Geoff sat down a few days ago with a branch of the PyTDDmon code, started trying to generalize PyUseCase to work with Tkinter, and to write some tests for PyTDDmon. (Geoff also likes writing code in his spare time 🙂

As I write, he’s just checking in his changes and a new suite of tests for PyTDDmon that use the new, improved PyUseCase, with (basic) Tkinter support! He says the hardest part was understanding Tkinter, and after a spot of refactoring, only an extra couple of hundred lines of code were needed to support it.

Subsequently adding tests for PyTDDmon was very easy (Geoff wrote most of them while I made biscuits with the children this afternoon 🙂 All he had to do to Olof’s code was assign names to some of the widgets, and sort out a problem with closing a window. (There was a listener for a mouse click that would destroy the window, before other listeners got a chance to do anything, such as record the click in a use case log…)

So now the statement coverage of the PyTDDmon tests is at 98%. I look forward to future, equally productive GothPy meetings and discussions!