Automated UI Testing to Build Confidence
September 19, 2019

The frontend ecosystem is rife with frameworks, tools, and libraries to help make automated testing of user interface a cornerstone of ongoing development. Like much of the JavaScript world, there are so many tools available, it can be daunting to make a decision and move forward with an approach. This can be particularly challenging when team members have different perspectives on what problem is being solved with in the first place.

The Problem

At the end of the day, tests are designed to address one thing - confidence that your code is doing what it was meant to do. This confidence is important to maintain from two distinct perspectives:

  1. The developer perspective
  2. the user perspective

The Developer Perspective

A developer needs to know that a given library or module functions as expected with confidence. When someone reaches for React or Lodash, they can safely assume that these libraries work as advertised, as they are backed up by unit tests to ensure that inputs always result in their intended outputs.

To give a common example, let’s say we have a function called add that returns the sum total of the two passed in values:

function add(valueOne, valueTwo) {
  return valueOne + valueTwo
}

As a developer, I need to be confident that add(3, 5) returns 8 with confidence! If I use this function within a user interface, however, the user does not need to know that add(3, 5) returns 8. This is the key difference between the developer perspective and the user perspective.

Tests that support the developer perspective generally take the form of unit tests. Within the JavaScript world, using Jest is the defacto standard. By using Jest (and authoring code functionally), one can ensure that an API (whether its a component API like a React component or otherwise) remains consistent and predictable over time.

The User Perspective

A user, on the other hand, has no idea how an interface works nor should they care. All the user is concerned with is accomplishing their goal through the UI. In fact, authoring tests that test UI implementation details are probably a time sink that not only wastes time upfront but also hampers future efforts by making refactoring more difficult.

To most closely emulate the user’s experience, tests that support the user perspective should check the DOM directly rather than implementation details like React components and their props. This can be accomplished in a few ways:

  1. Authoring integration tests using a library like Airbnb’s Enzyme or React Testing Library and avoiding shallow rendering
  2. and using a tool like Selenium or Cypress for additional integration testing as well as end-to-end testing

A Cohesive Strategy

In order to best address the concerns of both developers and users, using a combination of unit testing, integration testing, and end-to-end testing is the recommended approach.

1. Unit Tests for Developers

For re-usable UI components, write unit tests to ensure that components produce results based on passed in props using shallow rendering:

import React from 'react'
import { shallow } from 'enzyme'
import Collapsible from './Collapsible'

describe('Collapsible', () => {
  it('renders the open state when passing `true` to the `isOpen` prop', () => {
    const wrapper = shallow(<Collapsible isOpen={true}/>)

    expect(wrapper.find('button')).toHaveProp('aria-expanded', 'true')
    expect(wrapper.find('CollapsibleContent')).toExist()
  })
})

This test provides developers with a reasonable level of confidence that passing in true to the isOpen prop produces the desired result. In this case, the developer knows that the relevant WAI-ARIA attribute will be updated and the content of the collapsible component will be visible. Its important to note that this test will fail if the component implementation is refactored. For example, if the prop name changes from isOpen to open, the test will fail even if the user interaction continues to work as expected - such a change would represent a change in the exposed component API - and as a result, would be a breaking change for developers using the component rather than for users.

2. Unit Tests for Users

For UI components, write unit tests that simulate user interaction using mount to realistically emulate the actual environment in which the interaction will take place. In this scenario, a custom .toHaveTextContent matcher is being used with Enzyme in order to avoid testing implementation details like class names, IDs, or even HTML elements:

const toHaveTextContent = (received, expectedContent) => {
  const text = received.debug && received.debug()

  return {
    message: () => `expected component to have content "${expectedContent}"`,
    pass: RegExp(expectedContent).test(text)
  }
}

export default toHaveTextContent
import React from 'react';
import { mount } from 'enzyme';
import Collapsible from './Collapsible'

describe('Collapsible', () => {
  it('opens when clicked', () => {
    const wrapper = mount(<Collapsible>I am content that will show and hide</Collapsible>)

    wrapper.find('button').simulate('click')

    expect(wrapper.find('button')).toHaveProp('aria-expanded', 'true')
    expect(wrapper).toHaveTextContent('I am content that will show and hide')
  })
})

This test provides developers with confidence that the user can interact with the component in a consistent manner that will continue to remain relevant even if the underlying component implementation is refactored.

3. Integration Tests

For flows and features, write integration tests using Cypress to ensure that components work well together when handling real user interactions and mock API requests that match any contracts between the frontend and the backend with regards to data structure.

Testing the UI using fixtures is relatively straightforward. First, we author a fixture as a JSON file called accounts.json:

[
  {
    "type": "savings",
    "name": "My Savings Account"
  },
  {
    "type": "checking",
    "name": "My Checking Account"
  }
]

We then reference accounts.json as a fixture, using that data to render the view instead of a real network request:

/// <reference types="Cypress" />

describe('The accounts collapsible', () => {
  before(() => {
    cy.server()
    cy.visit('/accounts')
    cy.route('GET', 'accounts/*', 'fixture:accounts.json')
  })

  it('renders the accounts list when clicked on', () => {
    cy.contains('My Accounts').click()

    cy.contains('My Savings Account').should('be.visible')
    cy.contains('My Checking Account').should('be.visible')
  })
})

NOTE: This sort of testing is not possible with Selenium-based testing tools as Selenium does not have access to the browser directly! From my perspective, this is the primary reason to use Cypress over other available end-to-end testing tools.

4. End to End Tests

For very important flows and features, write end-to-end tests using either Cypress or Selenium. For simplicity’s sake, this example will use Cypress to clearly demonstrate the distinction between the integration and end-to-end test:

/// <reference types="Cypress" />

describe('The accounts collapsible', () => {
  before(() => {
    cy.visit('/accounts')
  })

  it('renders the accounts list when clicked on without errors', () => {
    cy.contains('My Accounts').click()

    cy.contains('Accounts failed to load').should('not.be.visible');
  })
})

In this situation, because the relevant account names and content are not known ahead of time, making assertions based on those results is not possible, however, we do want to check that the request succeeds and that no error occurs. Cypress also automatically fails tests that cause errors in the console, and as a result, just visiting and interacting with the page increases confidence in the implementation.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, automated tests should promote confidence in the product that is being developed such that developers can easily make changes to a codebase all while understanding the impacts those changes have. In order to develop this level of confidence within a project, the right testing approach has to be used, otherwise tests can become a source of frustration rather than a means by which to work more efficiently and improve the end user experience.

Nick Lemmon
About Me

I'm a frontend developer in Columbia, Maryland who also happens to have an MSW. I'm also a certified Web Accessibility Specialist!

I'm driven to design and build accessible design systems with a great underlying developer experience in mind.

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