Skip to content

Tests' Influence on Design

Wolfgang Vogl edited this page Aug 30, 2015 · 23 revisions
Clone this wiki locally

Some people will insist that "TDD" stands for "Test-Driven-Design" as opposed to merely "Development", because the perceived positive influence on the design of production code is, for many, a primary reason to bother with TDD at all.

There are several ways that TDD impacts design, but most of it can be broken up into two categories: increased usage and increased coupling.

Increased Usage

This one's easy, and its benefits are evident in almost every type of test (TDD or not).

What increased usage means

In the absence of any automated testing that invokes a particular bit of code, most code will only ever have a single invocation point in a production system. This is a two-edged sword, because if the code being called isn't particularly robust—but works for that single caller using it—then no time was wasted ensuring the code would be unnecessarily robust under a variety of inputs and situations. However, in large and complex systems, having a function that's only ever been called under one context is often a liability: maybe it's not working as well as it seems to be, perhaps another developer will naively reuse it later in a context the code doesn't work as advertised, or maybe the code is successfully later reused in dozens of places but its initial API was awkward to use and that awkwardness spreads throughout the system as a sort of technical debt.

When code has a test, then that means it has at least twice as many usages as the average piece of code has, so that's a 2x improvement! Moreover, when the code was written with some school of TDD, then the code may not only have many callers, those callers may successfully exercise every conceivable context and set of inputs the code would ever be under. This is certainly more work up front, and it may improve the long-term durability of the system to do what people expect it to do, but it can have an additional benefit of leading the developers' to arrive at more usable designs for the code in the first place.


For instance, suppose I start with a Ruby method that takes an options hash:

def words_of_the_day(options)
  options[:words].select {|word| word.start_with?(options[:letter_of_the_day]) }

Perhaps the original author expected the number of options to be needed by the method to increase in the future, or perhaps they'd just been in the habit of defaulting to option-hash-style arguments lately because they're convenient when you have all the important keys in your head. Maybe the developer and others on their team would argue about whether this method was more usable than a two-argument version, words_of_the_day(words, letter_of_the_day), but without the experience of using the method in a bunch of different contexts, it's unlikely either side would convert the other.

However, if that method had four or five test cases written against it like this:

def test_words_of_the_day
  words = ["banana", "apple"]
  letter_of_the_day = "b"

  results = @subject.words_of_the_day(:words => words, :letter_of_the_day => letter_of_the_day)

  assert_equal ["banana"], results

After a while, the test author would probably be annoyed with the long lines needed to invoke the method without breaking a new line. They'd also probably be tired of mistyping "letter_of_the_day", too. In response to the actual pain of using this method five times, the developer might decide to change its API to a two-argument method (and maybe rename letter_of_the_day while they were at it).

This is an (albeit, contrived) example of the benefit of having code that has been used a lot before its API has seeped throughout a system: it's still quite cheap to improve the API before it escapes into use by other parts of an application.

Increased Coupling

Woah, increased coupling is always a bad thing, right!?


Coupling is not a four-letter-word. Any time you invoke a piece of code, you're coupling it to the caller—from that point forward, the called method can't change without considering the impact on the caller. All use is coupling. All reuse is additional coupling. A system with minimal coupling is a system without any abstraction or invocation. Deciding whether and how to couple two pieces of code is a fine art in software development, and as such, it's a point of never-ending tension as systems are designed and redesigned.

Simply by using the subject code under test, a test becomes coupled to that subject's public API and its behavior, if not the implementation itself. If a test uses a subject in a variety of contexts (e.g. testing error states or unconventional inputs), then there may be logical coupling between the test and the source that serve absolutely no benefit to the production system at all. (In fact, most tests I see against unexpected inputs produce added complexity in production code but are actually unreachable in the production system, because any number of methods higher in the call stack will have already normalized the same inputs.)

So, if all test code creates (at least some sorts of) coupling to its subject, then how should we manage it? And what, after all, does this have to do with improving the code's design? To understand this, we'll work outside in with some examples.

Minimally-coupled tests

A test that's minimally coupled to its subject will exercise it from a separate process, without knowledge of any of its names (e.g. class names, function names, even CSS selectors). A minimally-coupled test also can't know any details about how the production system manages its data, so it typically can't control its test data in a clean way.

[Aside: because of how inconvenient it is to the developer, these sorts tests, whether you call them Full-Stack, End-to-End, Smoke, Feature, Acceptance (I just call them SAFE tests lately) almost always make concessions that introduce coupling to the system. Most Rails tests, for instance, will make data setup easier by maintaining access to the application's models, which requires the tests to run in-process and couples the tests to individual model names and methods.]

The benefit of minimizing coupling is clear: the implementation can be changed dramatically (Rails could be replaced by Phoenix; Angular could be replaced by Ember) and the tests could still provide regression safety without needing to be changed substantially. If all you value is catching bugs with an automated test suite before they reach production, you might opt for a broad suite of tests like this, because their only focus is on the extrinsic behavior of the system and they won't (if designed well) encounter churn due to course-of-business implementation changes.

There are, of course, numerous downsides to leaning heavily on these sorts of tests, but when speaking specifically to the impact that tests can have on design, consider this: by having no coupling whatsoever to the implementation, writing a bunch of these tests provides no insight into how well the code is factored. The most these tests can tell you is how accessible the application is, since UI automation tools tend to share a lot of DNA with accessibility tools.

Coupling to the Public API

Say your application provides a public API, or that there is a clear seam just "below" the UI by which you can invoke the top level of actual classes and methods easily. If you test at this layer, you'll only be marginally more coupled to the implementation (if those top-level units change their interface, the tests will break).

However, no matter how many tests you write against this layer to drive out the extrinsic behavior, the feedback you receive about the design of the code will stop at the public API. Are the subject's methods delegating to well-named abstractions that break up the problem in a logical way? Hopefully! But if they are, it's not because the test was influencing it.

I wrote the first iteration of gimme driven nothing but top-level API examples specified by Cucumber. I was able to get through two-thirds of my desired features this way without issue. However, the robust test coverage gave me false confidence in my design, and when it came time to implement some next feature, I realized I couldn't without rewriting the whole thing. I'd created a beautiful public API as a thin veil over a rat's nest of half-baked abstractions and long methods. The benefit, though, was that even though I had to rewrite it, I at least could rely on those tests to tell me I hadn't inadvertently missed a requirement.

Coupling to the public API of each "Unit"

[Note that the definitions to "unit" and "public API" are rarely rigorously defined consistently on a project.]

Many people who practice Detroit-school TDD will expect to write for every unit Foo in their system a unit test named FooTest that's symmetrically positioned under some test/ directory for easy organization. These tests typically invoke the public API of the subject and call through to its actual dependencies (doing everything they can to minimize use of test doubles, preferring to test each unit under realistic conditions for maximum regression safety).

In this way, these tests aren't coupled to the "implementation" of any given unit, but they are almost certainly coupled to many aspects of the broader application, as most classes represent "internal implementation" from the perspective of the broader application and would never otherwise be known to the outside world but for the unit test that exercises them.

To illustrate the point, suppose a URL router invokes FooController when a user requests /foos, and FooController invokes a FooRepository to get some data. If we wrote a test of FooRepository, that test might only be coupled to the "public" behavior of FooRepository, but then again, FooRepository isn't very public if it's only invoked by another object internal to the implementation of the application, FooController. In this way, discussing whether a test is "coupled to the implementation" is a sort of shell game, enabled by the very natural practice of introducing first-class abstractions in a system. Is FooRepositoryTest coupled to FooRepository's implementation? Perhaps not. Is FooRepositoryTest coupled to the implementation of the broader app? You bet it is.

This layer of testing provides more feedback than the layer above it, however. Now, the public API of each unit will have been corroborated by a unit test hammering it from every angle. If any individual object is particularly hard to use, then presumably a unit test will have helped the developer identify it early.

[Aside: test suites that aim for this level of coupling—exercising the public API of each unit but calling through to real instances of each of those units' dependencies—may provide increased regression safety, but often at the cost of incredibly high redundant coverage]

Coupling to the dependencies of a "Unit"

When practicing an isolation-testing brand of TDD like London-school or Discovery Testing, the frequent practice of replacing a subject's dependencies with test doubles will both increase the level of coupling to those units as well as the potential for influencing the design of that unit.

[Aside: this only applies to the tests of Collaborator objects which depend on other units defined in the application; tests of pure function leaf nodes and value objects shouldn't use test doubles at all, because they typically have no dependencies.]

These tests are normally written outside-in (meaning the top-level caller is tested and implemented before the units it calls), which means that the test case is the first place where anyone asks "what dependencies could help the subject do its job?". Next, entirely from within this first test, the developer will name a depended-on type, create a test double for it, see that it's provided to the subject, name the method the subject would need along with the necessary parameters, and then either configure a stubbing or verification for each such dependency.

Recently in a training course, we implemented the Unusual Spending Kata, and we spent perhaps 20% of our time on the kata writing the test of the unit that served as its entry-point, iterating on the dependencies that would best describe its intended behavior. This greatly influenced the names of those dependencies, their methods, and the types of values best passed between them. When an API was awkward or the types didn't line up, we got feedback from the act of writing that test and changed the dependencies' APIs—often drastically. However, because those dependencies literally didn't exist yet, there was never a cheaper time to change them!

In cases like the above, the test is intimately coupled to the subject. The benefit of tests like these are mostly front-loaded; the challenge of writing them well and being forced to look at the design from multiple angles in order to break the problem down is their chief benefit. The cost of that coupling, however, is also high—refactoring that subject means reworking the test to the same extent, which means:

  • The test provides confidence that interactions happen how they should occur through stubbings and/or verification, but since there is little to these units apart from that interaction, almost any change to them will imply a change to something the test is coupled to.
  • As a result, regression safety of collaborator types needs to come from somewhere else (e.g. a SAFE test)
  • Each collaborator type should be small and focused only on the imperative interaction of its dependencies, keeping any logic (e.g. looping, branching, computation) to a minimum
  • It's often smarter to default-to-deleting collaborator types (and their tests, and often all their dependencies and their tests) when requirements change, because the cost to refactor is typically too high for what ought to be a very small unit of code

This practice sits at the extreme end of the trade-off between coupling and design feedback: incredibly rich feedback about the design of the system, typically resulting in small, hyper-focused units with carefully-chosen naming and easy-to-use APIs. They come at the cost, however, of significantly decreased freedom to refactor the implementation aggressively, which is why Discovery Testing recommends developers default to deleting-and-redeveloping local sub-trees of dependencies when requirements change significantly. This can result in reliably comprehensible designs, but with an increased base cost to requirement changes.


Almost any test has the capability of providing helpful design cues about the subject it directly interacts with. To make the most of that capability requires a keen awareness by the developer of the level of coupling they're aiming for in their test and the implications of that coupling on the design and malleability of their code.