Highgroove Face-off: Acceptance testing with RSpec versus Cucumber

Gregg Rothmeier

3 min read

Aug 30, 2012

Highgroove Face-off: Acceptance testing with RSpec versus Cucumber

Pistols at dawn

Highgroovers take test-driven design (TDD) seriously, but it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the number of tools available for testing applications. However, if you know us even a little, you know that we have a lot of experience using different tools–and that we’ve developed some opinions about them.

To help others narrow down the options, I asked a couple of developers here how they felt about the two most popular tools for acceptance-level testing: RSpec and Cucumber.

Approaches to TDD

If you’re unfamiliar with either of these tools, here’s a quick overview of their approaches to TDD:

Using RSpec for acceptance testing isn’t very different from using it for unit testing, except that the functionality is greatly extended by using capybara to interact with the browser. For example, to log in a user, the capybara bit might look like this:

Cucumber also uses capybara to drive the browser, but affords the use of steps like “login a user with name ‘bob’ and password ‘sekret’” that are far easier to read than the more procedural steps used by RSpec.

The differences come down to readability

Because both RSpec and Cucumber require capybara to interact with the browser, you might wonder how different they could really be. The difference comes down to readability. Cucumber is often sold as a way of letting a (technically-inclined) client write the cuke to describe some very high-level functionality:

Behind this are step definitions that tell Cucumber what each step means:

I should note that while it’s possible for a client to write the features into cukes, doing so usually doesn’t work out well. Cucumber uses high-level language to describe interactions, but is more coupled to the implementation than a service like Pivotal Tracker. Asking a client write all of the cukes will likely result in the developer having to rewrite or tweak the cukes so that they make sense from a design perspective.

That said, the pros and cons of Cucumber already become apparent. On the one hand, Cucumber tests can be incredibly readable. By focusing on high-level functionality and using domain-specific terms, it is a quick way to answer the “What does this app do again?” question with minimal effort. On the other hand, you have to write the step definitions so Cucumber knows what to do with the English-worded steps, and there’s a second layer to your test that has to be maintained.

In contrast, RSpec favors more low-level details. For example, the same cuke above may look like this if writen for RSpec:

While the spec isn’t as inherently readable as the cuke, my example doesn’t fully show how RSpec can (and should) be used. It’s easy to add a helpers module to your spec_helper to transform the previous spec into something more easily read:

Using a technique like this makes RSpec seem a bit more like Cucumber, so you might wonder why you would bother to take the additional steps. The Highgroovers I spoke with are willing to put in a little more effort with RSpec so that they’re able to stick with one tool throughout.

Tools don’t make bad tests, developers do

No matter which tool we prefer individually, everyone here agreed that tools aren’t what create bad tests–the person writing the test (and the application) lead to bad tests. Regardless of whether you prefer Cucumber or RSpec, it’s important to follow good design principles.

What are your favorite testing tools and what led you to pick them over the other options?

Image Credit: The image appears in Susan Herbert’s The Catropolitan Opera. Via syrupofwahoo.

Zack Simon

Reviewer Big Nerd Ranch

Zack is an Experience Director on the Big Nerd Ranch design team and has worked on products for companies ranging from startups to Fortune 100s. Zack is passionate about customer experience strategy, helping designers grow in their career, and sharpening consulting and delivery practices.

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