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Test Infected - Hard-to-Test Code


Posted on Wednesday, July 12, 2017 9:45 AM

Stijn Moreels by Stijn Moreels

In this part of the Test Infected series, I will talk about how code is hard to test – both in a Test-First mindset and without.

Hard-to-Test Code

By “hard”, I mean anything that is uneasy, sloppy, frustrating or annoying, … anything that makes you sigh. All that can be categorized as “hard”.

TDD or Test-Driven Development is a lot more than just writing tests first, it’s also about Designing Software. You think about a lot of things during the writing of tests, and all those things together guards you from writing Hard-to-Test Code.

When I write tests, I want an easy way to exercise and verify the SUT (System Under Test). The less code I need to write to do that, the better. The clearer the test intent, the better. The easier the test, the better.

Obscured Fixture Setup

What do I mean with a Fixture in this paragraph? Anything that you need to do so you can exercise the SUT. This could mean that you first have to initialize the SUT with some valid arguments, it could mean that you must insert some Dummy Data into a datastore, it could mean that you must call some methods of the SUT...

According to Kent Beck: anything that “Sets the Table” for the SUT.

This section is about the maintainability of the Test Fixture and how we can improve this.


With a Complex Fixture Setup, I mean that I must write a lot of code to “set this table”. I must admit that  I quickly assign a fixture as being “complex” – but that’s a good thing I guess.

Look at the following snippet. It’s a good thing that we “spy” Client instead of actually sending a mail, but also note that your eyes are attracted to the strings in the Attachments and Header of the valid message instead of the actual testing and verifying.

I don’t like complex, big, or hard-to-understand Fixtures. I want clear visual of what is tested and how. Nothing more, nothing less. Of course, I don’t know if you find this complex, maybe you don’t (because you wrote it), I just don’t like big methods I guess.

We have 16 lines, with 3 comments, 2 blank spaces, 2 braces, 7 lines of which are Fixture Setup.


You could think of many causes to having a Complex Fixture Setup.

  • You could have a Tightly-Coupled system which forces you to create all those extra objects and initialize them with the right values.
  • Your test includes information which doesn’t really matter in the context of the test; this way introducing a Polluted Test. This could happen in a Copy-Paste programming environment in which you just copy the Fixture of another test.
  • It could also happen if there wasn’t enough research done to maybe Fake the Fixture and thereby avoiding unnecessary setup code.


Now, we have a Complex Fixture – so what?

Let’s look at the impact a Complex Fixture could have on your development. What if I want to test some unhappy paths for the Client. What if we want to test the creation of the Message with Constructor Tests. What if we want to test with a single Attachment instead of two…

Al those tests would require a similar Fixture Setup.

If you have Cut-and-Paste developers in your team, you would have a lot of Test Duplication. Which again result in a High Test Maintenance Cost.
Besides the fact of duplication, it isn’t clear to me that we are testing a “valid message”. Does it have to do with the header value? Does it have to do with the attachments? Does it have to do with something else? …

What do I have to do to create valid mail message. Does this message require attachments? By not having a clear Fixture Setup, we don’t have a clear Test Overview.

Possible Solution

The first thing you should do is to eliminate all the unnecessary information from your test. If you don’t use it/need it – don’t show it.
I only want to see what’s really important to the test to pass.

If you, after that, still have a big Fixture to set up – place it in Parameterized Creation Methods so you can only send the values to the Creation Methods that are valuable for the test. This way you resolve the duplication of the tests.

Also make sure that you don’t have any duplication in your Implicit Fixture (typically in some kind of “setup” method or constructor) for setting up a Datastore for example.

Missing Object Seam Enabling Point

What is an Object Seam? Michael C. Feathers introduced this and called it: “A place where you can alter behavior without editing that place”.

Every Seam must have an Enabling Point where the decision for one behavior or the other can be made. In Object-Oriented languages, we can use this method by introducing Test Doubles by which we implement another version of the dependency or other kind of object we need to exercise the SUT.


Not having an Enabling Point for the SUT makes our code Hard-to-Test. This can happen in many situations – especially when you have chosen some kind of design decision and everything must make room. (This sounds a bit like a Golden Hamer Smell to me).

Please don’t look at the names, it’s only an example.

The following example shows how the Message Service doesn’t contains any enabling point. We are bound to use the file system if we want to test the Message Service. A possible solution could introduce a Fake Datastore (probably in-memory) and send it to the Message Service.

Also note that we can’t even write a valid assertion. Yes, we could check if the File Based Data Store has written something on the disk. But I hope that you can see that this isn’t the right way to assert the Message Service.

We would have to write code that assert the functionality of the File Based Data Store and not from the Message Service.

Ok, it was a very “simple” example of a SUT could miss an Enabling Point. Let’s make it a tiny bit harder.

The File Sender always uses XML serialization/deserialization if we want to write a file. We always must use the Message Helper (what kind of name is that?) if we want to write a file.

These Utility Classes are the result of thinking in a Procedural way, not in a OOP way. Because all these static classes are used in this class, we have no choice than to also test them if we want to test the File Sender. If we Unit Test this class, we aren’t testing a “unit”, we are testing 3 (!) classes.

Whenever I see the name “helper” appear, I immediately think that there is room for improvement in the design. For a start, please rename “helper” to a more appropriate name. Everything could be a helper for another class but that doesn’t mean we must name all our classes with the prefix “helper”.

Try to move those functionalities in the appropriate classes. Our Message could for example have a property called IsEmpty instead of outsourcing this functionality in a different class.

Functional Languages have the same need to inject Seams. Look at the following example of the same functionality:

If we want to change the Message Helper or the serialization, we must inject functions in our “Write to File” function. In this case, our Stub is just another function.

Again, don’t look at the names, or functionality – it’s just to make a point on the Enabling Point of our Object Seams.


You could think of many causes of a Missing Enabling Point:

  • If the Dependencies are implemented right inside the SUT – which would indicate a Tight-Coupling (again); and therefore, we cannot implement our own version of the dependency.
  • Utility Classes are a result of Procedural Thinking in a OOP environment. (Yes, maybe there are some exceptions – maybe) which result in Static Dependency with the SUT. We cannot alter these behaviors of these static classes in our test.
  • The SUT may do a lot of work inside the constructor which always need to run if we want to exercise the SUT – thereby limiting our capabilities of placing an Enabling Point.
  • Having a chain of method calls could also indicate this Tight-Coupling only in a more subtle way. If we have a single dependency but we have to call three methods deep before we have the right info, we have the same problem. It violates the "Don't Talk to Strangers" design principle.


By constantly missing an Enabling Point for your Seam; you are making a design that isn’t reusable for other purposes.
Sometimes the reason behind the absence of Enabling Points lies in the way the responsibilities are spread across the classes and not wrapped in the right classes.

Maybe I’m a bit allergic to Utility Classes.

Possible Solution

Placing an Enabling Point in our SUT. That should be our solution. We need some kind of Observation Point we can use to alter behavior, so we can verify the outcome.

Note that the observation can be direct or indirect, just like the control point (or Enabling Point) of our SUT. Use different kind of Test Doubles to achieve these goals.

We use a Test Stub to control the Indirect Inputs of the SUT; we use a Mock Object for verification of the Indirect Outputs.

Classes which have private information, behavior, … these classes can maybe expose their information or behavior in a subclass. We could create a Test Specific Subclass which we can use to exercise the SUT instead of the real one.

But be careful that you don’t override any behavior you are testing. That we lead to False Positive test cases and would introduce paths in your software that are never exercised in a test environment.

In Functional languages, everything is a function; so, we could introduce a Stub Function for our injection of data, and a Mock and/or Stub Function for our response and verification, … so we have an Enabling Point for our SUT.

Over-Specified Software by Mocking

I already said it in previous posts and sections: you must be careful about Mocking and what you try to Mock. In another post, I mentioned the Mock Object as Test Double to assert on indirect outputs of the SUT. This can be useful if you can’t verify any other outside observable behavior or state of the SUT.

By using this Mock Object we can in fact verify the change of the SUT.


Yes, we can verify the change of the SUT; but have we also a maintainable change of the Mock Object?
If we need to change some signature of the Mock Object, we need to alter the change throughout all the Mock Objects and there direct assertions to complete the change in signature.
If we mock out everything of the SUT and thereby Tight-Couple our Test Double with the SUT, we have Over-Specified Software by Mocking too much.


Multiple situations can cause a SUT being Tight-Coupled to the DOC (Depend-On Component, in this case the Mock Object).

  • Writing Tests After implementation can cause this situation. If you have developed a Hard-to-Test SUT, you may have encounter a SUT that only can be exercised/tested (and so, verified) by injecting a Mock Object and assert on the indirect outputs of the SUT.
    Sometimes, the assert-phase of these tests aren’t the whole picture we want to test but only a fragment; a side-effect. By using this extra side-effect, we have made our test code Tight-Coupled on our SUT.
  • Testing Unnecessary Side-Effects can also cause Over-Specified Software. If we assert on things we don't necessary need in our test or things that do not add any extra certainty to our test case; we should remove those assertions. Testing on “extra” items doesn’t result in more robust software but rather in Over-Specified Software.


So, let’s say you’re in such a situation; what’s the impact in your development work?
Just like any software that is Tight-Coupled, you have the cost of maintenance. If you’re software is tested in a way that the slightest change in your SUT that doesn’t alter any behavior of the SUT result in a failed test; you could state that you have Over-Specified Software.
Any change you make is a hard one, which result that developers will make lesser changes. Lesser changes/refactorings/cleanup… will result in lesser quality of your software.

Possible Solution

People tend to forget the Dummy Object when they are writing tests. The purpose of the Dummy Object is to fulfil the SUT needs without actually doing anything for it. Passing “null” or empty strings are good examples, or objects that are empty (and maybe throw exceptions when they are called to ensure that they aren’t called during the exercise of the SUT).
Not everything needs to be a Mock Object. And just to be clear A Mock isn’t a Stub!

You’ll be amazed how many unnecessary data you write in your tests when you start removing all those Mock Objects and replace them with lighter objects like Dummy Objects.

Yes, Mock Objects are absolutely necessary for a complete developer toolset for testing; yes, sometimes Mock Objects are the only possible solution to verify indirect outcomes of the SUT; yes, sometimes we need to assert on indirect output calls directly…
But certainly, not always. Try using another Test Double first instead of directly using a Mock Object. Just like you’ll use an Inline Fixture first before moving to a Shared Fixture.

Besides the fact that you can change your Test Double, you could also look at WHAT you want to test and may come up with some refactorings in your SUT to verify the right state or behavior. The best solution to have code that is easy to test; is writing your tests first, which result immediately in testable code.

Asynchronous Code

Some small part about Asynchronous Code, because it's too much to talk about in such a small section.

The problem with async code, is that we don't always have the same context in which we can assert for the right outcome. Sometimes we use a Polling functionality to get the work done for example. This will (of course) result in Slow Tests, but sometimes we don't have control of the running process.

In the book xUnit Test Patterns we've seen that we can use a Humble Object which extracts the async code, so we can make sync calls in our test. In my previous post, I talked about a Spy and used a Wait Handle, to block the thread before we succeed the test; this can also be a solution (if it's implemented right; timeout, ...).

The xUnit framework (not the xUnit family!; .NET xUnit != xUnit Family) written for .NET, has support for async methods which makes sure that we can assert in the right task-context.


So many classes are already in play that are more difficult to test; that’s why my motto is to not make this pile of classes any bigger and to write in a Test-Driven way easy-to-read/easy-to-maintain code every day. Because every day can be that day where you must change a feature, add/modify/remove functionality, or anything else that include change.

Tests are there to help, not to slow you down. In fact, by writing tests you work more productively, efficiently, safer, rousted, …

So, don’t write any Hard-to-Test code but write code that grows incrementally from your tests.

Categories: Technology
Tags: Code Quality
written by: Stijn Moreels