On Mocks and Mockist Testing

Mar 10, 2010

Every so often, somebody blogs about getting bit by what they usually call "over-mocking". That is, they mocked some object, its interface changed, but the tests that were using mocks didn't fail because they were using mocks. The conclusion is: "mocks are bad".

Martin Fowler outlines two kinds of unit testers: stateist and mockist. To simplify things for a minute, a stateist tester asserts that a method returns a particular value. A mockist tester asserts that a method triggers a specific set of interactions with the object's dependencies. The "mocks are bad" crowd is arguing for a wholly stateist approach to unit testing.

On the surface, stateist testing seems certainly more convenient. A mockist is burdened with maintaining both the implementation of an object and its various test doubles. So why mocks? It seems like a lot of extra work for nothing.

Why Mocks?

A better place to start might be: what are the goals of unit testing?

For a stateist tester, unit tests serve primarily as a safety net. They catch regressions, and thus facilitate confident refactoring. If the tests are written in advance of the implementation (whether Test Driven or simply test-first), a stateist tester will derive some design benefit from their tests by virtue of designing an object's interface from the perspective of its user.

A mockist draws a thick line between unit tests and functional or integration tests. For a mockist, a unit test must only test a single unit. Test doubles replace any and all dependencies, ensuring that only an error in the object under test will cause a failure. A few design patterns facilitate this style of testing.

Dependency Injection is at the top of the list. In order to properly isolate the object under test, its dependencies must be replaced with doubles. In order to replace an object's dependencies with doubles, they must be supplied to its constructor (injected) rather than referred to explicitly in the class definition.

class VideoUploader
  def initialize(persister = Persister.new)
    @persister = persister

  def create(parameters)

When we're unit testing the above VideoUploader (ruby code, by the way), it's easy to see how we'd replace the concrete Persister implementation with a fake persister for test purposes. Rather than test that the file was actually saved to the file system (the stateist test), the mockist tester would simply assert that the persister mock was invoked correctly.

This design has the benefit of easily supporting alternate persister implementations. Instead of persisting to the filesystem, we may wish to persist videos to Amazon's S3. With this design, it's as simple as implementing an S3Persister that conforms to the persister's interface, and injecting an instance of it.

This is possible because the VideoUploader is decoupled from the Persister. If the Persister class was referred to explicitly in the VideoUploader, it would be far more difficult to replace it with a different implementation. For more on decoupled code, you must read Nick Kallen's excellent article that goes in to far more detail on these patterns and their benefits.

To be sure, we're really talking more about Dependency Injection here than anything else, and stateist testers can and do make use of DI. But the mockist test paradigm prods us towards this sort of design.

We're forced to look at the system we're building in terms of objects' interactions and boundaries. This is because it tends to be quite painful (impossible in many languages) and verbose to unit test tightly coupled code in a mockist style.

So the primary goal of a mockist's unit tests is to guide design of their object model. Making it difficult to couple objects tightly is one such guiding force.

Mockist tests also tend to highlight objects that violate the Single Responsibility Principle since their tests become a jungle of test double setup code. We can think of mockist testing like a kind of shock therapy that pushes you towards a certain kind of design. You can ignore it, but it'll hurt.

Failure isolation is probably the other big advantage of mockist tests. If your unit tests are correctly isolated, you can be sure exactly which object is responsible for a test failure. With stateist tests, a given unit test could fail if the unit or any of its dependencies are broken.

But is it worth it?

Mockist or Stateist?

The burden of maintaining mocks is by far the most common argument against mockist tests. You have to write both the implementation and at least one test double. When one changes, the other has to change too.

Perhaps most troubling, if an object's interface changes, its dependencies' unit tests will continue to pass because the mock objects will function as always — arguably a hinderance to refactoring. Since you need to test for that scenario, mockists also write integration tests. Integration tests are probably a good idea anyway, but as a mockist, you don't really have a choice.

Also, the refactoring problem only applies to dynamic languages. In a statically typed language, the program will simply fail to compile.

I find this burden troubling. More code to write makes the “we don't have time” argument come out in pressure situations. For a design exercise, the cost of mockist tests seems quite high.

On my last open source project (friendly), I decided to give mockist testing a try. Most of the code turned out beautifully. And the mistakes I did make could have been avoided had I listened to the pain I felt while testing them.

Since that project worked out well, I've been applying mockist techniques to other work. I've written mockist tests in everything from my scala projects to my rails apps. So far, so good.

In theory, I hate the idea of mockist tests. They just seem like too much work. I don't want to like them and remain reluctant to admit that I do. But in practice, I'm writing better code, and it's hard to hate that.