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This article was originally published in the Summer 2008 issue of Methods & Tools


Acceptance TDD Explained - Part 9

Lasse Koskela

Step 4: Implement the functionality

Next on our plate is to come up with the functionality that makes our newly minted acceptance test(s) pass. Acceptance test-driven development doesn’t say how we should implement the functionality; but, needless to say, it is generally considered best practice among practitioners of acceptance TDD to do the implementation using test-driven development—the same techniques we’ve been discussing in the previous parts of this book.

In general, a given story represents a piece of customer-valued functionality that is split—by the developers—into a set of tasks required for creating that functionality. It is these tasks that the developer then proceeds to tackle using whatever tools necessary, including TDD. When a given task is completed, the developer moves on to the next task, and so forth, until the story is completed—which is indicated by the acceptance tests executing successfully.

In practice, this process means plenty of small iterations within iterations. Figure 9 visualizes this transition to and from test-driven development inside the acceptance TDD process.

Figure 9. The relationship between test-driven
development and acceptance test-driven development

As we can see, the fourth step of the acceptance test-driven development cycle, implementing the necessary functionality to fix a failing acceptance test, can be expanded into a sequence of smaller TDD cycles of test-code-refactor, building up the missing functionality in a piecemeal fashion until the acceptance test passes. The proportions in the figure should not be considered to reflect reality, however. Whereas the TDD cycle might range from one minute to a dozen, we might be chopping out code for a couple of hours or even the whole day before the acceptance test is passing.

While the developer is working on a story, frequently consulting with the customer on how this and that ought to work, there will undoubtedly be occasions when the developer comes up with a scenario—a test—that the system should probably handle in addition to the customer/developer writing those things down. Being rational creatures, we add those acceptance tests to our list, perhaps after asking the customer what they think of the test. After all, they might not assign as much value to the given aspect or functionality of the story as we the developers might.

At some point, we’ve iterated through all the tasks and all the tests we’ve identified for the story, and the acceptance tests are happily passing. At this point, depending on whether we opted for automating all tests up front (which I personally don’t recommend) or automating them just in time, we either go back to Step 3 to automate another test or to Step 1 to pick a brand-new story to work on.

It would probably not hurt to walk around a bit and maybe have a cup of coffee, possibly check out your email. Getting acceptance tests passing is intensive work. As soon as you’re back from the coffee machine, we’ll continue with a broader view of how this simple four-step cycle with its small steps fits into the bigger picture of a complete iteration within a project.

3.2 Acceptance TDD inside an iteration

A healthy iteration consists mostly of hard work. Spend too much time in meetings or planning ahead, and you’re soon behind the iteration schedule and need to de-scope (which might translate to another planning meeting…ugh!). Given a clear goal for the iteration, good user stories, and access to someone to answer our questions, most of the iteration should be spent in small cycles of a few hours to a couple of days writing acceptance tests, collaborating with the customer where necessary, making the tests executable, and implementing the missing functionality with our trusted workhorse, test-driven development.

As such, the four-step acceptance test-driven development cycle of picking a story, writing tests for the story, implementing the tests, and implementing the story is only a fraction of the larger continuum of a whole iteration made of multiple—even up to dozens—of user stories, depending on the size of your team and the size of your stories. In order to gain understanding of how the small four-step cycle for a single user story fits into the iteration, we’re going to touch the zoom dial and see what an iteration might look like on a time line with the acceptance TDD–related activities scattered over the duration of a single iteration.

Figure 10 is an attempt to describe what such a time line might look like for a single iteration with nine user stories to implement. Each of the bars represents a single user story moving through the steps of writing acceptance tests, implementing acceptance tests, and implementing the story itself. In practice, there could (and probably would) be more iterations within each story, because we generally don’t write and implement all acceptance tests in one go but rather proceed through tests one by one.

Figure 10. Putting acceptance test-driven development on time line

Notice how the stories get completed almost from the beginning of the iteration? That’s the secret ingredient that acceptance TDD packs to provide indication of real progress. Our two imaginary developers (or pairs of developers and/or testers, if we’re pair programming) start working on the next-highest priority story as soon as they’re done with their current story. The developers don’t begin working on a new story before the current story is done. Thus, there are always two user stories getting worked on, and functionality gets completed throughout the iteration.

So, if the iteration doesn’t include writing the user stories, where are they coming from? As you may know if you’re familiar with agile methods, there is usually some kind of a planning meeting in the beginning of the iteration where the customer decides which stories get implemented in that iteration and which stories are left in the stack for the future. Because we’re scheduling the stories in that meeting, clearly we’ll have to have those stories written before the meeting, no?

That’s where continuous planning comes into the picture.

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