For testing a web project, there are four key things:

  1. does it work OK?
  2. does it look OK?
  3. is everything else still working?
  4. are there any security holes?

Back in the day – small scale testing

When we started out, we would make something and then someone would test that it actually works. So a Designer would create a layout of say a Contact Us form, and then a Developer would write the code, push this to a server and then a Project Manager would test that it works and looks OK. Theyd try to break things by putting letters where numbers were meant to go, and check which fields could be left blank. They’d check that an email gets sent and the data is recorded OK.

This approach works well in a few conditions:

  • Limited features – there aren’t that many of these “features” to test. The variations can be feasibly tested by someone within say an hour or so
  • Single developer – only one person has been working on this, so no chance that another developer will unknowingly add something which will break something else
  • Waterfall – the project is following a “waterfall” release process. The way that the feature should work has been extensively documented, and any changes will be in a completely separate future release
  • Infrequent deploys – this gets deployed to the live site once, and then won’t need to get updated for a while (so we can comfortably assume nothing will change)

As web projects grow in complexity, the testing process gets more and more difficult. Imagine the frog in the hot water – at a certain point he has a desire to jump out.

An increase in project size and complexity means the testing process gets more onerous. More parts means more things to test. Dependencies between moving parts means that if one part breaks, you’ll also need to retest the other parts. Complexity means it becomes difficult for someone to know how everything is meant to work – with the result that they only pick up the really broken bits.

Imagine a scale, with a really simple project on one end, and a really hairy complex one on the other. As you move the dial along that scale, there are a few options

  1. get a lot more people to do all these tests
  2. and then find more people after all those people quit
  3. take much longer
  4. don’t do as many tests

…none of which are particularly appealing.

Meet my little friend, Automated Testing

my little friend

As you can imagine, lots of people have had this problem, and they’ve come solved it in various imaginative ways to avoid being that boiled frog.

In a nutshell, modern web development like Ruby on Rails uses automated software to do the tests. In fact, the usefulness of doing this has changed the actual process of building web sites and apps. Rather than building something and then testing it, Test Driven Development (or “TDD” if you’re in the Kool Klub) means starting with the Test first.

Waterfall:

Think of the feature > extensively document > build > test by checking the doc

TDD:

Think of the feature > write the test(s) > test fails > build > test passes

The basic idea is this:

First up: testing things is really important. If things don’t get tested, quality will suffer and everyone gets grumpy.

Second: instead of a human checking everything, lets do it with code more comprehensively. And let’s do it ALL THE TIME.

Automated testing has two main flavours:

  • unit tests – check very specific things within the code. So taking our Contact Us example, it could check that fields are validating correctly and that the email address is set up OK
  • end to end tests – using a “headless” browser, this mimics the way a real user goes through the site – filling out fields and clicking on buttons, and then checking that the right layout and text is appearing on the thank you page.

We can use a combination of these to test a project. End to end is useful as they test what a real user sees, but they tend to take a relatively long time to run. As a project grows, they have a tendency to overlap (so you can be testing a log in step in several different tests).

Ideally the test suite runs as quickly as possible. This means that the Developer gets immediate feedback, so they can work faster. If they need to wait an hour for the tests to run, they are often off onto something else. Getting feedback quickly means they know that what they’ve just done has broken something else.

Apart from testing to see if something is looking and working OK, we can also test for vulnerabilities. Has this new field on the Contact Us form introduced a loophole that can be exploited? As part of our tests, we use Brakeman to test for Rails security vulnerabilities.