How To Play with LEGO® When You Should be Testing

How to play with LEGO when you should be testing

There is a gap between automating your testing and implementing automated testing. The first is taking what you do and automating it; the second is writing your tests in an executable manner. You might wonder about the distinction that makes these activities different. And indeed, some testers will view these two events as parts of a single process.

However, for someone who reads test cases, for instance, your customer support, it is a big difference; what is a transparent process to one party, is often an opaque process to another. In fact, if you are a nontechnical person reading this explanation, you may very well be scratching your head trying to see the difference and understand why it is crucial.

Writing Tests versus Reading Tests

Automating involves looking at your interactions and your processes, both upstream and downstream, and then automating the part in between while maintaining those interactions. This automation process should mean that nontechnical people remain able to understand what your tests do, while also providing your developers the necessary detail of how to reproduce bugs.

The second piece, communicating the detailed information to your developers is relatively easy as you can log any operation with the service or browser; however, explaining these results to nontechnical people is often significantly more difficult.

When it comes to communicating the information, you have a few options; the first is to write detailed descriptions for all tests. Writing descriptions works, at least initially.

Regrettably, what tends to happen is that these descriptions can end up inaccurate without any complaints from the people who read your tests. If testing goes smoothly, then nothing will happen, and no one will notice the discrepancy. The problems only arise when something goes wrong.

Meaningful Tests Deliver Confidence

The worst problem an automated test implementation can have is one that erodes confidence in the results. And when a test fails, and the description does not match the implementation then you have suddenly undermined confidence in the entire black box that certifies how the software works.

And now, the business analyst cannot sleep at night after release testing, because there is a nagging suspicion something might not be right.

You might respond that keeping the descriptions updated accurately should be easy, and technically that should be true. However, the reality is that description writing (and updating) is often only one aspect of someone’s job.

Breaking Down the Problem

As a project progresses and accumulates tasks, particularly as a project falls behind schedule and or over budget, the individuals writing the descriptions are often too worried about many other details to focus proper attention on their descriptions.

And whether we like it or not when we move to automated testing we become prone to hacks and shortcuts just like everyone else. There is the simple reality that testing a new feature appears to be a more pressing priority than updating the comments on some old test cases.

Moreover, above and beyond your ability to remember or accurately update the comments, there is another point to consider. There is an underlying problem with these detailed descriptions as they violate one of the more useful rules of programming: DRY (Don’t Repeat Yourself).

One of the most important reasons to practice DRY is that duplicates all too easily get out of sync and cause systems to behave inconsistently. In other words, two bits that should do the same bit, now do slightly different things. Oops. Or in the case of documentation and automated tests; two bits that should mean the same bit are now out of sync. Double oops.

How do we avoid duplication and implement DRY?

We can use technologies that solve this process, such as using a natural language API, so that your tests read like English.

For Example:

This example is readable and executable in just about every language, but regrettably, to get to this form you will have to write a lot of wrappers and helpers so that the syntax is easy to follow.

And this means that you will likely then need to rely on writers with significant experience in your specific software language and we may not have someone with the right expertise on hand.

An alternative is to create a domain specific language in which you write your tests. A domain specific language means that you create tests in something like Gherkin/Cucumber or you write a proprietary parser and lexer. Of course, this path again relies on someone who has a lot of experience with API / Language design.

The Simplest Solution

To me the preferred method is to use Gherkin; mostly because it is easier to maintain after your architect wins the lottery and moves to Bermuda. With Gherkin when you run into a problem you can Google the answer, or hire specialist. There is a sense of mystery and adventure about working on issues where you can’t Google the answer, at the same time, it’s not necessarily a reliable business practice.

The most significant benefit that I’ve discovered is that for many people, this method no longer feels like programming. This statement undoubtedly seems odd coming from a programmer, but hear me out as there is a method to my madness.

Solutions for the People You Have

To begin, let’s acknowledge that there is a shortage of programmers, especially programmers that are experts in your particular business. Imagine if you had a tool that you could hand to anyone who knows your field and that would allow this individual to understand and define tests? Wouldn’t that be grand?

How would this tool look? What would it require? To accomplish readability (understanding) and functionality (definition) you’d need to be able to hand off something that is concrete (versus abstract) and applicable to the business that you are in, but most importantly it needs to have a physical appearance.


Imagine if you could design tests with LEGO®? There is nothing you can build out of Lego bricks that you couldn’t create in a wood shop. Unfortunately, most people are too intimidated to make anything in a woodshop. Woodworking is the domain of woodworkers. On the flipside, give anyone a box of Lego bricks, and they will get to work building out your request.

Software development runs into the woodworker conundrum: programming is the domain of developers. Give a layperson C#, Java or JavaScript and assign them to a project to build and they’ll get so flustered they won’t even try. Give them Lego bricks, and they will at the least try to build out their assignment.

Reducing the barrier to accomplishing something new is extremely important for adoption; we know this is a barrier to getting customers to try our software, but we often forget the same rule applies to adopting new things for our teams.

This desire for something concrete to visualize is why we come across people who would “like to learn to program” while building complicated Excel sheets filled with basic visual formulas. These folks can see Excel so they naturally can use this formula thing, and don’t even realize that they are programming. My method is similar in concept.

To successfully automate our testing we need to reduce the barriers to trying to use the technology we plan to produce tomorrow.  As an organization adopts change, we need to find ways to make changes transparent and doable; we need to convince our people that they will succeed or they might not even try.

Gherkin Lego bricks

As I wrote in my post Variables in Gherkin:

“The purpose of Cucumber is to provide a clear and readable language for people (the humans) who need to understand a test’s function. Cucumber is designed to simplify and clarify testing.

For me, Cucumber is an efficient and pragmatic language to use in testing, because my entire development team, including managers and business analysts, can read and understand the tests.

Gherkin is the domain-specific language of Cucumber. Gherkin is significant because as a language, it is comprehensible to the nontechnical humans that need to make meaning out of tests.

In simpler terms: Gherkin is business readable.”

This explanation shows how Gherkin is the perfect language for our Lego bricks, to build testing “building blocks.” To create an infrastructure that is readable by and function for the people you have on hand, I like to develop components that I then provide to the testers.

Instead of needing to have a specific technical understanding, such as a particular programming language the testers now just need to know which processes they need to test.

For example, I would like to:

  • Open an order = a blue 2×4 brick
  • Open a loan = a blue 2×6 brick
  • Close a loan = a red 2×4 brick
  • Assign a ticket = a green 2×4 brick

This method addresses the issue of DRY because each “brick” has its process, so if you need to change the process, you change out the brick. If a process is broken, you pass it back to the development team, but it is very precise. It makes it concrete and removes a lot of the abstract parts inherent in software development.

⇨ This method addresses the issue of readability because each brick is a concrete process. Your testers can be less technical while producing meaningful automated tests.

⇨ This method solves the problem of confidence because problems are isolated to bricks. If one brick is broken, it doesn’t hint at the possibility that all bricks are broken.

⇨ This method also solves the problem of people, because it’s much easier to find testers who understand your business process and goals, such as selling and closing mortgages, without also having to understand the abstract nature of the underlying software that makes it all work.

The reality is that in this age every company has software while few are software companies.  Companies rely on software to deliver something concrete to their customers. My job as an automation and process improvement specialist is to make the testing of the software piece as transparent and as painless as possible so that your people can focus on your overarching mission.

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