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Test-driven development (TDD) is a software development process that relies on the repetition of a very short development cycle: requirements are turned into very specific test cases, then the code is improved so that the tests pass. This is opposed to software development that allows code to be added that is not proven to meet requirements.

Abstractions in testing

Writing tests that couple our high-level code with low-level details will make your life hard, because as the scenarios we consider get more complex, our tests will get more unwieldy.

To avoid it, abstract the low-level code from the high-level one, unit test it and edge-to-edge test the high-level code.

Edge-to-edge testing involves writing end-to-end tests, substituting the low level code for fakes that behave in the same way. The advantage of this approach is that our tests act on the exact same function that's used by our production code. The disadvantage is that we have to make our stateful components explicit and pass them around.

Fakes vs Mocks

Mocks are used to verify how something gets used. Fakes are working implementations of the things they're replacing, but they're designed for use only in tests. They wouldn't work in the real life but they can be used to make assertions about the end state of a system rather than the behaviours along the way.

Using fakes instead of mocks have these advantages:

  • Overuse of mocks leads to complicated test suites that fail to explain the code
  • Patching out the dependency you're using makes it possible to unit test the code, but it does nothing to improve the design. Faking makes you identify the responsibilities of your codebase, and to separate those responsibilities into small, focused objects that are easy to replace.
  • Tests that use mocks tend to be more coupled to the implementation details of the codebase. That's because mock tests verify the interactions between things. This coupling between code and test tends to make tests more brittle.

Using the right abstractions is tricky, but here are a few questions that may help you:

  • Can I choose a familiar Python data structure to represent the state of the messy system and then try to imagine a single function that can return that state?
  • Where can I draw a line between my systems, where can I carve out a seam to stick that abstraction in?
  • What is a sensible way of dividing things into components with different responsibilities? What implicit concepts can I make explicit?
  • What are the dependencies, and what is the core business logic?

TDD in High Gear and Low Gear

Tests are supposed to help us change our system fearlessly, but often we write too many tests against the domain model. This causes problems when we want to change our codebase and find that we need to update tens or even hundreds of unit tests.

Every line of code that we put in a test is like a blob of glue, holding the system in a particular shape. The more low-level tests we have, the harder it will be to change things.

Tests can be written at the different levels of abstraction, high level tests gives us low feedback, low barrier to change and a high system coverage, while low level tests gives us high feedback, high barrier to change and focused coverage.

A test for an HTTP API tells us nothing about the fine grained design of our objects, because it sits at a much higher level of abstraction. On the other hand, we can rewrite our entire application and, so long as we don't change the URLs or request formats, our HTTP tests will continue to pass. This gives us confidence that large-scale changes, like changing the database schema, haven't broken our code.

At the other end of the spectrum, tests in the domain model help us to understand the objects we need. These tests guide us to a design that makes sense and reads in the domain language. When our tests read in the domain language, we feel comfortable that our code matches our intuition about the problem we're trying to solve.

We often sketch new behaviours by writing tests at this level to see how the code might look. When we want to improve the design of the code, though, we will need to replace or delete these tests, because they are tightly coupled to a particular implementation.

Most of the time, when we are adding a new feature or fixing a bug, we don't need to make extensive changes to the domain model. In these cases, we prefer to write tests against services because of the lower coupling and higher coverage.

When starting a new project or when hitting a particularly difficult problem, we will drop back down to writing tests against the domain model so we get better feedback and executable documentation of our intent.


When starting a journey, the bicycle needs to be in a low gear so that it can overcome inertia. Once we're off and running, we can go faster and more efficiently by changing into a high gear; but if we suddenly encounter a steep hill or are forced to slow down by a hazard, we again drop down to a low gear until we can pick up speed again.


Further reading

Last update: 2020-07-02