Design for unit-testing

I’ve written before about the role of testing in programming and as I’ve written more code (and unit tests) over the past few weeks, my conviction that unit-testing is useful for more than just determining program correctness has become even stronger. In my previous post I spent about a paragraph exploring the other benefits of testing, I think it’s time that I offered a more detailed view of the alternate advantages of unit-testing.

As I started working on my last project for the semester yesterday, one of the things at the top of my mind was that the professor would be running his own unit-test on our programs. Our other projects had clear descriptions of what methods we were to create and how they should behave. But this project, a simple word counter written in Java, was different in that we were only told how the program as a whole should respond. We could shape the internals as we wished. Though it was very tempting to create a monolithic system (especially since the problem was rather simple), I decided that I should design with automated unit-testing in mind. Rather than making design complicated, this choice actually made things clearer.

It was obvious that the UI would have to be completely separate from the actual work portion of the code. Not only that, but that values returned from the methods doing the work would have to be in a form so that they could easily be compared to expected results. This meant that while the UI would deal with output formatting, there should not be very much formatting required in the first place. This guided me in the choice of the data structures that would eventually be returned.

Another area in which designing with testing in mind is useful is in determining if methods should be private. JUnit 3.8 does not support direct of testing of private methods. There is a certain amount of debate regarding whether or not this is a good thing, but this restriction does force a design methodology that can be beneficial. The only methods that should be private are the ones that need not be tested separately, that is, if the calling method passes testing, it automatically means that the private method is also working correctly. Though I didn’t need any private methods in this particular project, I did before and keeping the limitations of private testing in mind resulted in what I believe to be cleaner, more readable code.

Of course, it is easy to go overboard with unit testing. Your program shouldn’t be endlessly subdivided into lots of tiny functions just so that you tests every tiny chunk of code. Unit testing can help you design cleaner simpler program, but only if your design is pragmatic to start with. Like I’ve said before, no amount of coding tricks and development methodologies will fix a fundamentally broken design.

Jeff Atwood of Coding Horror said some time ago that unit-tests should be first class language constructs. At the time I thought that this was a bit overboard, but I’m coming to realize that this might be a good thing. Any language which has a decent error-handling mechanism would be able to bake in support for unit testing and having a unit-test mechanism directly in the language would probably encourage students to use it (and more importantly teachers to teach it). In my CS course we’ve using Unit-tests from early on, which I feel was very good decision on the part of the professor (even though many of my fellow students don’t quite seem to grasp it’s full importance right now).

Designing for unit testing encapsulates a lot of the ideas that are a part of good software design: UI separation, abstraction, code reuse and readability. Unit-testing is also a perfect example of abstraction: just worry about the big picture and the details will take care of themselves. So the next time you find yourself dealing with a big project, design for unit-testing and chances are you’ll be making better code than if you weren’t. Keep in mind though that no amount of unit-testing will replace actual user-testing…so make sure you get around to that at some point as well (hopefully as soon as you have something a user can actually use).


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Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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