Where there’s Smoke there’s Fire!

laptop_smokingThe first sign of smoke is always an early indicator that fire is not far away. It’s the first warning sign. So too in testing, having Smoke Tests that quickly step through the main pathways of a feature will let you know if there’s a significant problem in your codebase.

What makes a good Smoke Test?

There are 3 factors which make a good smoke test: Speed, Realism and Informative.

Speed

If there is a fire coming, you want to know about it as fast as possible so you have the most time possible to respond. Your tests must be fast enough that running them with every build/iteration will not cause frustration or significantly hold up progress.

If there is a problem, these tests will tell you, quickly, that you need to stop whatever else you might’ve been doing and respond to the issue.

Realism

If smoke is coming from a contained, outdoor BBQ in your Neighbours backyard, it doesn’t matter. You don’t need to do anything about this. But if a tree in your neighbours backyard was on fire, this is much more concerning. The Smoke tests must only look for realistic and common usages of your feature, where you care if something breaks. If the background colour selector on your form creation tool is broken, that’s probably not as crucial to worry about, compared to if the form itself didn’t work.

So, prioritise your tests to only cater for the key user workflows through your feature, and leave everything else for other tests to cover. This will also go hand in hand with designing tests for speed.

Informative

If you see smoke, the first thing you will want to know is how far away it is and how big it is. This will dictate how devastating it will be and what sort of action you need to take. So to the tests you write must be informative about where the problem is, how you can recreate it and how important it is to fix.

Smoke tests are much more useful if they can not only tell you that something is wrong, but also where the problem is, how important a problem it is and how to fix it.

An Example

Since the company I work for (Campaign Monitor) is an email marketing company. So a key scenario or User Story we would want to target in a Smoke Test is:
“As a user, I want to create a campaign, send it to my subscriber list, check the email got through and that any recipient interactions are reported”

So, the steps required for this smoke test are:

  1. Create a campaign, set the email content and the recipients
  2. Send the campaign to some email recipients
  3. Open one of the received emails and click on a link
  4. Check the report shows the email was opened and clicked

This test covers an end-to-end user story that is a vital part of our software, hence if any part of it fails, we need to know immediately and fix it. It is fast and runs in under a minute so doesn’t interrupt workflow. It does not add in any extra steps or checks that aren’t helpful to the target user story. And it is written with logging and helpful error messages so that any failures point as close as possible to the problem area.

Putting it together

Once you’ve created your smoke tests, put them into use! Run them every time you change something in your feature and they will quickly tell you if anything major is wrong. It’s so much better to find a major issue as early as possible and reduce time lost searching for the problem later on or building more and more problems on top.

Smoke tests shouldn’t be your only test approach as they only cover the ‘happy path‘ scenarios and there are plenty of other areas for your feature to have problems. But it is certainly a good starting point!

I’d love to hear how you use (or why you don’t use) Smoke Tests in your company!

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