Outside-In vs Inside Out – Comparing TDD Approaches

At last month’s ScotRUG Brian Swan and I attempted to solve the TDD Avatars problem as a live recital in our chosen style. We each had 35 minutes.

The videos are here:

Brian’s Inside-Out TDD approach

Matt’s Outside-In approach

When Brian had walked us through his approach and solution at the last month’s meeting, he’d built his solution as a Rails application, with web forms for filling out bookings and viewing receipts and so on.

When I came to start practicing and converted the use case from the TDD Avatars paper into a Cucumber feature, it quickly became clear that the value of the system I was building, at least as described by the use case, was to provide printed receipts to customers. I then started to think about the simplest way I could build a system to provide that value.

Here’s the feature I wrote:

Feature: Pay bill

  Background: Prices
    Given the following operations are available:
      | operation        | price |
      | routine check up | 10    |
      | shots            | 5     |

  Scenario: Dave Pays for Fluffy
    Given there is an owner Dave Atkins, let's call him "Dave"
    And Dave brings his pet named Fluffy into the clinic for the following operations:
      | routine check up |
      | shots            |
    When the veterinarian charges him for the visit
    And Dave pays cash
    Then Dave is given a receipt which looks like this:
        $10 (routine check up)
        $5 (shots)

      Total to pay: $15

      Paid cash, received with thanks


Notice that the scenario doesn’t talk about clicking particular buttons or filling in boxes on a form? I’ve used a higher-level declarative style to describe the behaviour I want. In my experience this helps in various ways:

  • more human-readable features
  • features that aren’t coupled to a particular user interface

If you watch the video, you’ll see that the first thing I did, working my way in from the step definitions, was to create a custom step definition DSL for my problem domain. Instead of using a generic DSL like Capybara’s fill_in, click_button etc, I created this one:

module VetsHelper
  def register_operation_price(operation, price)

  def remember_owner(name, nickname)

  def create_visit(owner_nickname, pet_name, operations)

  def charge_for_visit

  def pay_with(payment_type, nickname)

  def receipt

This is arguably unnecessary: my step definitions are already translating from English into Ruby, so why add this extra layer of indirection?

As I worked my way from the outside (the features) into the step definitions, I wasn’t ready to commit myself to how I was going to couple the tests to my new application. By defining this interface, I’ve deferred that commitment a little later. I’ve also given myself a clean view of all the behaviour the new application needs to support.

My first iteration implementation (the one in the video) of VetsHelper drives out a domain model directly from the methods in that module. If that was what we released to our user, they’d only be able to print receipts if they knew how to use an IRB prompt. That might seem ridiculous, but we’ve gone a long way to solving the problem, and we could probably spike a simple script that let them do it from the command-line without much risk.

For our second iteration, we can talk to the customer about that command-line interface, then write a new implementation of VetsHelper, perhaps using some of Aruba’s DSL, which goes through that command-line interface instead of directly to the model. This is the beauty of using a declarative style together with your own domain-specific step definition DSL: it gives you the flexibility to swap in connections to the system that hit it at different levels, using exactly the same acceptance tests.

Did BDD Save Me Time?

When Brian and I were planning this month’s session, I showed him the code I’d written and he decided to do a comparable solution this time, without any UI, so that they were easy to compare. In fact, Brian’s solution looked much simpler, and was certainly quicker to write, because he didn’t have to spend any time writing the acceptance testing layers and he didn’t write any kind of entry-point Practice class. He just went straight into building the Appointment class.

A big difference between the solution we produced this month and the one that Brian had originally built was that we didn’t use Rails, and instead went for a much simpler solution that still provided some immediate value. I like to think that the idea for doing this came from the BDD approach I took—I’m pretty sure I remember the lightbulb going on as I typed out the feature—but we’ll never know now where this idea originated.

I noticed that Brian spent time testing getters on his classes, which I probably wouldn’t have done. I tend to try to avoid using them, except on value object, and I rarely test the behaviour of value objects. I rely on my acceptance tests to tell me if they’re not working.

Focus and Design

Brian’s big take-away was that the difference in our approaches when we needed a collaborator object. When I needed a collaborator for a class, I would just mock out the collaborator and carry on finishing off the class I was building, whereas he would leave the current class broken and go and build the other class first.

I find my (mock-based) approach gives me focus, and also means I can sketch out the design of the collaborator without having to commit myself to that design until I understand how it’s going to be used.

I’m really happy with the design I ended up with. It’s hard to make much of a judgement in such a simple problem, but I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on how the two designs compare. Which one would you have preferred to add a new feature to?

Published by Matt

I write software, and love learning how to do it even better.

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