Selector-Free Cucumber Scenarios

(a Serbo-Croation translation by Anja Skrbaa is available here)

I’ve been using Cucumber since pretty much the first day I heard about it. I’ve worked on a lot of projects that have relied on it’s presence for reliable development. Therefore, I’ve put a lot of effort into perfecting my Cucumber infrastructure to make this fantastic tool even better. I’m going to share one such morsel of code that makes developing with Cucumber even greater.

The Problem

I’ve worked on a lot of web applications and, as I’m sure many of you know, quite often the development of a web application is focussed on the functionality foremost, and the interface and style is incorporated later. It may be that the client doesn’t yet know the feel they want for their project or that they want to focus their budget towards prototyping the application first.

This is fine, except for the fact that changing the HTML and CSS of a web application after a lot of functionality has been developed is a fantastic way to break all your integration tests.

This is particularly true if you have scenarios like the following contrived one:

When I fill in "Username" with "bjeanes" within ".main-panel form#signup-form"
And I press "Sign up!" within ".main-panel form#signup-form"
Then I should see "You have successfully signed up" within ".flash.notice"

The problem is, of course, that designers might change the HTML that used to be .main-panel form#signup-form into something sexier and more semantic.

The Solution

This problem is not unlike an already-solved one; we’ve all moved away from hardcoding URLs like "/users/new" into our views and Cucumber scenarios and replacing them with new_user_path and the signup page, respectively.

So why not apply the same formula that paths.rb uses for removing URLs from scenarios to our situation with selectors?

Here’s what I add to all new projects:

# I'm in features/step_definitions/web_ext_steps.rb

When /^(.*) within ([^:"]+)$/ do |step, scope|
  with_scope(selector_for(scope)) do
    When step

# Multi-line version of above
When /^(.*) within ([^:"]+):$/ do |step, scope, table_or_string|
  with_scope(selector_for(scope)) do
    When "#{step}:", table_or_string


# I'm in features/support/selectors.rb

module HtmlSelectorsHelper
  def selector_for(scope)
    case scope
    when /the body/
      "html > body"
      raise "Can't find mapping from \"#{scope}\" to a selector.\n" +
        "Now, go and add a mapping in #{__FILE__}"


Applying the Solution

My previous example of the flawed Cucumber scenario now becomes:

When I fill in "Username" with "bjeanes" within the sign up form
And I press "Sign up!" within the sign up form
Then I should see "You have successfully signed up" within the notice flash

And the selectors.rb case statement gets the following additions:

  # ...

  when /the sign up form/
    ".main-panel form#signup-form"
  when /the (notice|error|info) flash/

  # ...

Notice how the scenario now identifies things on our page by their semantic identifiers, not by brittle CSS or XPath locations which are prone to change. As a bonus, now if when they do change, the paths only need to be updated in a single location in our Cucumber test suite!

Patching Cucumber

I feel pretty strongly that CSS and XPath don’t belong in our feature files because not only does it encourage brittle tests (as shown above), but also because those selectors are entirely irrelevant to end users, and that’s kind of the main point of using a natural language DSL to describe our integration tests, i.e. putting on the user shoes.

I’d really like to patch this back into Cucumber, and I entirely plan to do so, providing I get the time. I got the time, and here is my pull request to have it merged.

Expanding the Solution

You’ll note my HtmlSelectorsHelper module only accommodates CSS selectors. That’s only because I have never needed XPath in this context. It’d be very simple to modify my examples to do so, though, with a combination of multiple return values and a splat. That’s an exercise for the reader (or me if I end up patching Cucumber).

Final Word

I apologise for the length of this article, but I congratulate you for making it all the way through it!

I now have so many blog post ideas lined up that I’ve had to create a new category in just to hold them all. This means that I’ll be striving to get a few more posts done and out the door in the next few weeks, including a performance comparison of different data encapsulations for web application APIs on the iPhone (i.e. is it better to use Plists, JSON, or XML?) and a post on why I think there should be 8 RESTful actions, not the 7 that Rails prescribes by default.