Project Management

Testing Best Practices: Test Categories, Part 1

From the Sustainable Test-Driven Development Blog
Test-driven development is a very powerful technique for analyzing, designing, and testing quality software. However, if done incorrectly, TDD can incur massive maintenance costs as the test suite grows large. This is such a common problem that it has led some to conclude that TDD is not sustainable over the long haul. This does not have to be true. It's all about what you think TDD is, and how you do it. This blog is all about the issues that arise when TDD is done poorly—and how to avoid them.

About this Blog


Recent Posts


The Importance of Test Failure

Mock Objects, Part 1

Mock Objects, Part 2

Mock Objects, Part 3

Successfully adopting and practicing TDD in a sustainable way involves many distinctions, best-practices, caveats, and so forth.  One way to make such information accessible is to put in into a categorized context.  The Design Patterns, for instance, are often categorized into behavioral, structural, and creational.[1]  Here we will do a similar thing with the executable specifications (“tests”) we write when doing TDD.

We have identified four categories of unit tests, namely: functional, constant specification, creational, and work-flow.  We’ll take them one at a time.


The first unit test a developer ever writes is often an assertion against the return of a method call.  This is because systems often operate by taking in parameters and producing some kind of useful result.  For example, we might have a class called InterestCalculator with a method called CalcInterest() that takes some parameters (a value, a rate, a term, and perhaps the month to calculate for) and then returns the proper interest to charge or pay, depending on the application context.

The primary way of creating useful behavior in software is, in fact, in writing such methods.  However, how we test them will depend on the nature of the behavior.  We can, therefore, further sub-divide the ‘Functional’ category into the following types:

1. Static behavior

This is the simplest.  If a method produces a simple, non-variant behavior, then we simply need to pick some parameters at random, call the method, and assert that the result is correct.  For example:

// pseudocode
class Calculator {
    public int add(int x, int y) {
        return x + y;

// pseudotest
class CalculatorTest {
    public void testAddBehavior() {
        int anyX = 6;
        int anyY = 5;
        int expectedReturn = 11;

        Calculator testCalculator = new Calculator();
        int actualReturn = testCalculator.add(anyX, anyY);
        assertEqual(expectedReturn, actualReturn);

Adding two numbers always works the same way, so all we need is a single assertion to demonstrate the behavior in order to specify it.  Note that we have named our temporary variables in the test anyX and anyY to make it clear that these particular values (5 and 6, respectively) are not in any way important, that the test is not about these values in particular.  The test is about the addition behavior, as implemented by the add()method.  We simply needed some input parameters in order to get the method to work, and so we picked arbitrary (any) values for our test. [2]

This is important, because we want it to be very easy for someone reading the test to be able to focus on the important, relevant part of the test and not on the “just had to do this” parts.  Here again, thinking of this as a specification leads us to this conclusion.

Static behavior is the same for all values of all parameters passed.  For example, f() here takes a single parameter, while g() takes two. But for all values of these parameters, the behavior is the same and so we pick "any" values to demonstrate this.

2. Singularity

If a behavior is always the same (static) except for one particular condition where it changes, we call this condition a singularity.

The classic example is divide-by-zero.  In division, the behavior is always the same unless the divisor is zero, in which case we need to report an error condition.  Here we’d need two assertions: one, like the one for static behavior, would pick ‘any’ two numbers but where the second is non-zero, then show the division, then another that shows the error report when the second number is zero.

It does not, of course, have to be a mathematical issue: it could be a business rule.   Let’s say, for example, that we charge a fee of $10 for shipping unless it is the first day of the month when we ship for free.  We’re trying to encourage sales at the beginning of the month.  Thus, the first day would be the singularity, and we’d write this test [3]:

public void testShippingIsFreeOnTheFirstDayOfTheMonth() {
    ShippingCalc shippingCalc = new ShippingCalc();
    int anyDateOtherThanTheFirst = 5;
    const int FIRST_DAY_IN_MONTH = 1;
    amount expectedStandardFee = ShippingCalc.STANDARD_FEE;
    const amount FREE = 0.00;

Note the use of the term “any” for the date we “don’t care about, they’re all the same”, which we call anyDateOtherThanTheFirst , and then the fact the FIRST_DAY_IN_MONTH is clearly special.

Another example would be choosing a specific behavior for one element in a set. For example if some function is legal only for one type of user, and all other types should get an exception:


public void testOnlyAdminCanGetCoolStuff() {
    StuffGetter getter = new StuffGetter();
    Stuff stuff;

    int anyNonAdmin = Users.REGULAR;
    try {
        stuff = getter.getCoolStuff(anyNonAdmin);
        Assert.Fail("Cool stuff should go to ADMIN only"); 
    } catch (PresumptionException) {}
    stuff = getter.getCoolStuff(User.ADMIN);

Two examples.... f() with it's single parameter provides the same behavior for all values but one... the point indicated.  With the two parameters g() takes, the singularity may involve them both, creating a point, or it may only pertain to one, creating a line.  For instance, if x is "altitude" and y is "temperature" then a point might indicate "same behavior for all values except 3000 feet and 121 degrees.  The line might indicate "the same behavior for all values except 2000 feet at any temperature".

3. Behavior with a boundary

Sometimes the behavior of a method is not always uniform, but changes based on the specific parameters it is passed.  For example, let’s say that we have a method that applies a bonus for a salesperson, but the bonus is only granted if the sale is above a certain minimum value, otherwise it is zero.  Further, the customer tells us that pennies don’t count, the sale must be an entire dollar over the minimum sales value.:

In this case there exists a special sales amount, which affects the behavior of the getBonus() function.  We need to specify this boundary -- the place where the behavior changes -- and since every boundary has two sides, we need to explicitely specify these values and relate them:

class SalesApplicationTest {
  public void testBonusOnlyAppliesAboveMinumumSalesForBonus() {
    double maxNotEligibleAmount =
      SalesApplication.BONUS_THRESHOLD + .99;
    double minEligibleAmount =
      SalesApplication.BONUS_THRESHOLD + 1.00;
    double expectedBonus = minEligibleAmount *
    SalesApplication testSalesApp = new SalesApplication();


This specifies, to the reader, that the point of change between no bonus and the bonus being applied is at the BONUS_THRESHOLD value, and also (per the customer) that the sale must be a full dollar above the minimum before the bonus will be granted.  This is called the epsilon, the atom of the change, and you’ll note that we are clearly demonstrating it as one penny, the penny that takes us from 99 cents over the minimum to 1 full dollar over it.

One might be tempted to assert against other values, like 200 dollars over the minimum, or .32 cents above it, or loop through all possible values above and below the transition point.  Or to pick “any” value above and “any” value below.  The point is that .99 cents and 1 dollar are significant amounts over the minimum, they matter to the customer, and so we need to specify them as unique.

We also want our tests to run fast, and so looping though all possible values is not only unnecessary, it is counter-productive.

Two points define the boundary where behavior changes, and we also demonstrate the epsilon (or atom) of change.

4. Behavior within a range

There can be, of course multiple boundaries that change behavior.  If these boundaries are independent of each other, then we call this a range.

For example, let us say that the acceptable temperature of an engine manifold must be between 32.0 and 212.00 degrees Fahrenheit (too cold, and the engine freezes, too hot and it overheats).  These are not related to each other (we could install anti-freeze to make lower temperatures acceptable while the upper limit might not change, or vice-versa using coolant), and so each would be specified with two asserts, one at and one above the boundary in each case.

But let’s not forget the epsilon!  How much is “over” or “under”?  One degree?  One tenth of a degree?  Ten degrees?  How sensitive should this system be?  Here again, this is a problem domain specification, and thus we have to know what the customer wants before we can create the test.

Also, note that whereas for integers the natural epsilon is 1, for floating point numbers that epsilon value depends on the base number. The larger it is, the larger the epsilon needs to be. Constants such as Double.Epsilon only indicate the smallest possible number, not the smallest discernible difference between values.

 Two boundaries, with epsilons for each.  Note the boundaries of a simple range are not related to each other.

[1] In point of fact, we don’t actually completely agree with this method of categorizing the Design Patterns, but it does serve as a reasonable example of categorization in general.

[2] There are other ways to do this.  In another blog we will discuss the use of an “Any” class to make these “I don’t care” values even more obvious.

Continued in Test Categories, Part 2

Posted on: February 11, 2021 06:31 AM | Permalink

Comments (0)

Please login or join to subscribe to this item

Please Login/Register to leave a comment.


"It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity. "

- Albert Einstein