Finding the right Test-Mix

First published at Monday, 19 August 2013

This blog post has first been published in the Qafoo blog and is duplicated here since I wrote it or participated in writing it.

Warning: This blog post is more then 11 years old – read and use with care.

Finding the right Test-Mix

The topic of Test Driven Development (TDD) and unit-testing usually creates heated discussions among developers. We at Qafoo are not an exception and the topic how to apply TDD in our daily work regularly leads to heated discussions. One reason for this is that both TDD and unit-testing combined are by some people seen dogmatically as the only way to do software development.

This blog post tries to summarize our current state of discussion on TDD, software testing and finding the right test-mix. It is written from my own perspective and all errors in description are mine, not my colleagues'. I also try to review the topic in context of the recent discussions of others.

Let's start with Uncle Bob, who is the primary voice of TDD as the only approach to software development. He recently wrote about this in his article "The startup trap" spurring several discussions (HackerNews , Storify, Greg Youngs Blog ). However, he also acknowledges in a blog post the day later, that he does not apply TDD dogmatically to every aspect of software development. Notably, he doesn't write tests for:

  • state of objects, for example getters/setters and attributes themselves.

  • GUIs, because they require lots of tinkering and small adjustments to configuration variables.

  • Third-party libraries

  • while experimenting with code (what I would call periods of "Spikes").

Most importantly, check how Uncle Bob never mentions the word unit-test in both blog posts. This is because TDD is about software design, not about testing your individual units (objects, functions, ...) or 100% code coverage. We think, TDD can be applied on any level of the testing pyramid: the acceptance-, integration- and unit-test level. Kent Beck describes this in his book "Extreme Programming explained".

Why do I mention this? We have made the experience first hand that starting a new project with TDD and mostly unit-tests can actually slow down development considerably. This happens because during the development of new projects and features the requirements change frequently. This conflicts with tests locking the code to the current functionality through high test-coverage. Johann Peter Hartmann discussed this topic with Toby in an interview on our blog some weeks ago.

Unit-tests are necessary to stabilize your code, but when you know the requirements are not stable yet, then having too many unit-tests can be a burden as well. It is very difficult to write unit-tests that are immune to change, especially if you don't know what changes will happen. Combined with a dynamic language like PHP that has poor automatic refactoring support and you will suddenly see yourself wasting lots of time adjusting unit-tests to changing requirements.

There are several learnings from this that we try to teach our customers in our trainings:

  1. Don't focus on unit-tests exclusively. A good test-mix is required and uses acceptance-, integration- and unit-tests. A "good" ratio for software is something like 70% unit, 20% integration and 10% acceptance tests.

  2. During development-spikes, with frequent requirement changes and uncertainty, it can be better to drive the design using acceptance- and integration-tests instead of unit-tests. Unit-test only those parts of the application that are mission critical, highly reused parts of the infrastructure (high cohesion) or stable already.

  3. Once the software stabilizes, you should refactor tests from the acceptance- and integration-levels towards the unit-test-level. This makes the tests run much faster, less prone to failure due to side-effects, and allows you to write much more tests for different input combinations and edge-cases. Failures in unit-tests are also much easier to analyze than failures in acceptance tests.

  4. Apply risk management to different components of your software: Having a lot of unit-tests is only important for those parts of your software that have a high business value. Features that are less important don't need the same test-coverage as those features that generate the majority of the business value. A few acceptance-tests might already be enough for those less important components.

  5. Learning how to write tests that don't break on every occasion. This is beyond the scope of this blog-post.

The Test-Mix Tradeoff

It is important to state that we don't advocate to stop testing. Instead, we are putting forth the notion of TDD decoupled from unit-testing and depending on business value (and risk) instead. This is a tradeoff by reducing the time for refactoring tests and increasing the time to run tests as well as the risk of failure due to uncovered code.

This approach to TDD is not a silver bullet, though: If your business doesn't allow for periods of stabilization or you wait too long before stabilizing, then you will end up with an inverted test-pyramid of many slow acceptance tests and just a few unit-tests or even worse, with no tests at all.

We found that our approach is closely related to the discussion on "Spike and Stabilize" in Liz Keogh's blog (including the comments), with the difference that we suggest using at least acceptance-tests during spikes. Her list of bullet points on applying TDD is a systematic checklist for the pragmatic choices Uncle Bob had in his blog-post.


TDD is about design and not about unit-testing and 100% coverage. Using acceptance- and integration-tests is a valid approach for TDD and serves well during periods of spikes and frequent requirement changes. This decision trades a slower test suite and less stability for more flexibility to adjust the code. Neglecting to introduce unit-tests during code stabilization however might lead your code base to rot in the long run. Only a decent unit-test-coverage provides a developer with security to change code on all levels of the application.

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