The Story of One Unit Test

What makes a clean test? Three things. Readability, readability, and readability. Readability is perhaps even more important in unit tests than it is in production code. What makes tests readable? The same thing that makes all code readable: clarity, simplicity, and density of expression. In a test you want to say a lot with as few expressions as possible.

Robert Martin, Clean Code

It’s very easy to turn your unit tests into an unreadable and unmaintainable mess. The main reason of such attitude is a wrong understanding of test cases role. It’s not “write once, never read”. It’s not just in verifying your methods behaviour. Unit tests are all about documentation. It’s “write once, refactor often, consult daily”. The easier a test is, the more it tells to a developer.

I won’t repeat all of Uncle Bob’s thoughts here. This post is meant to show how this rule of thumb can affect a real-world problem.

One of the key objects in LiveJournal application is OperationScheduler. It distributes NSOperations between multiple operation queues, handle their priority and does other related things. One of possible application usage scenarios is authorization token expiration. If we catch this error, we initiate token refresh by executing a corresponding operation. All pending data operations should be paused until the session is restored.

The easiest approach is making use of the -addDependency method. Pending data operations are dependent on token refresh operation. Our OperationScheduler implements this logic in few lines of code:

for (NSOperation *generalOperation in self.generalQueue.operations) {
    [generalOperation addDependency:operation];

[self.authQueue addOperation:operation];

But testing this behaviour is not that easy. To be sure everything works as expected, I’ve implemented the following test scenario:

If everything is fine, the sequence of operations is: initial -> authorization -> general (x5)

The first revision was not so great. Let’s explore it block by block.

The test should be asynchronyous. XCTestExpectation is the best option around.

XCTestExpectation *expectation = [self expectationWithDescription:@"Last operation fired"];

The exact mechanism of creating an expectation is just an implementation detail, so we can safely hide it in a category and change this line to:

XCTestExpectation *expectation = [self expectationForCurrentTest];

Each operation type has its identifier:

NSString *const kAuthOperationName = @"AuthOperation";
NSString *const kInitialOperationName = @"InitialOperation";
NSString *const kGeneralOperationName = @"GeneralOperation";

It’s not crucial to declare this constants right in the unit test body, so they can be safely moved to a separate file.

The NSBlockOperation syntax is really wordy:

NSBlockOperation *authOperation = [NSBlockOperation blockOperationWithBlock:^{
    dispatch_async(dispatch_get_global_queue(DISPATCH_QUEUE_PRIORITY_DEFAULT, 0), ^{
        @synchronized(operationNames) {
            [operationNames addObject:kAuthOperationName];
        [NSThread sleepForTimeInterval:0.05];

The implementation of authorization and general operations is very straightforward - it just adds their identifiers to an array representing the call sequence. Once again, it’s just an implementation detail, so we can go forward and extract these operations somewhere else. However, the initialOperation is important for understanding what’s going on, so it shouldn’t be ignored. This results in an Environment class:

@interface TestBlockingByAuthOperationEnvironment : NSObject

- (void)setupEnvironmentWithTestCase:(XCTestCase *)testCase
               initialOperationBlock:(void (^)(void))initialOperationBlock;

@property (strong, nonatomic) NSBlockOperation *initialOperation;
@property (strong, nonatomic) NSBlockOperation *authOperation;
@property (strong, nonatomic) NSArray *generalOperations;
@property (strong, nonatomic) NSArray *firedOperationNames;


This class encapsulates 60 lines of unimportant details. The operation setup can be refactored using cleaner syntax:

TestBlockingByAuthOperationEnvironment *environment = [TestBlockingByAuthOperationEnvironment new];
[environment setupEnvironmentWithTestCase:self
    [self.scheduler addAuthOperation:environment.authOperation];

    for (NSOperation *operation in environment.generalOperations) {
        [self.scheduler addGeneralOperation:operation];

This is the last change - // then section is already simple and easy to understand.

The initial unit test had 56 lines of code. After refactoring it’s shortened to 26 lines. What’s more important, the readability of the second version is certainly much greater. No more magic numbers, constants, ugly nested blocks and @synchronized directives - the next one who reads this file will focus on the test itself.