Writing Well-Structured Tests with Tap

Tests should be a tool to help understand a program and diagnose problems when they occur. There are two tools that you can use to organize your tests so that they help in this process: test files (aka suites) and subtest blocks within a test file.

What follows is opinionated, and your use case may vary. There is no objectively right or wrong way to write tests; if it helps you create better software, then that's the point. This is one set of patterns, but tap is very flexible if you prefer other patterns instead.

Test Files

Each file that is run by tap defines a "suite". The ideal structure and organization of these suites will depend on what kind of program you are testing.

Test files are run in parallel by default, and in separate processes from one another, so they should not rely on being run in a specific order, or share state with one another. (If you need to manage shared fixtures before or after the entire test run, you can use --before and --after modules.)

Unit-Focused: For Programs With Several Modular Units

In programs with multiple files (for example, a library split out into multiple classes), a common pattern is to have one test file whose name matches a file in the library.

For example, if you have lib/base.js that defines a base class, and lib/thing.js and lib/widget.js that extend it, then you might create the following test files:

test/base.js
test/thing.js
test/widget.js

If you also have a lib/util/bits.js that exports some reusable bits, you can add test/util/bits.js to the list as well.

test/base.js
test/thing.js
test/widget.js
test/util/bits.js

To ensure that you are fully testing each unit with each test suite, you can add a simple coverage map module like so:

// map.js
module.exports = test => test.replace(/^test/, 'lib')

Top it off with the following configuration in your package.json file:

{
  "scripts": {
    "test": "tap"
  },
  "tap": {
    "coverage-map": "map.js",
    "check-coverage": true
  }
}

This is a unit-focused testing strategy, which can deliver a very powerful way to maintain good test coverage and clear connection from a test to the system under test. It's easy for new contributors to guess correctly about where to add a test for a new contribution, and it's easy to figure out where to go digging in the code when a test breaks.

However, it is less self-documenting than a behavior-focused testing strategy, since it relies on the unit organization of the system itself to be somewhat intuitive. If your library's class heirarchy and unit structure is difficult to understand, then your unit test will be as well!

A few examples of this pattern:

Alternative style: *.test.js

Rather than using a test folder, sometimes it's nice to keep the tests right inline with the code itself. A common pattern is to name the test suites after the unit that they cover, but with a .test.js filename extension rather than merely .js.

Using the previous example, you'd end up with a structure like this:

lib/base.js
lib/base.test.js
lib/thing.js
lib/thing.test.js
lib/widget.js
lib/widget.test.js
lib/util/bits.js
lib/util/bits.test.js

The map.js module for this program would look like this:

// map.js
module.exports = test => test.replace(/\.test\.js$/, '.js')

One advantage of this style is that the tests are closer to the code that they cover. If the codebase contains a lot of folder nesting, then this can avoid having to do stuff like: require('../../../../../../lib/hope/its/the/right/number/of/dots.js')

Behavior-Focused: For Programs With a Single Unit

If your module being tested is essentially one "thing", then it might not make sense to split the test suites up in this way. It's not going to add much structure to have a single test file that tests ./index.js.

In modules like this, it may make sense to make each test file reflect a use case or bug that was reproduced by the test in question.

So, to start, you might have a single test/basic.js that loads the file and tests the basic API. When the first bug is found, you can add a failing test at test/bug-description.js, and then update the code to make the test pass. When features are added, you can add example code at test/feature-description.js that demonstrates using the feature, and theen update the code to make it pass by implementing the feature.

Over time, you might end up with something like this:

index.js
test/array-buffers.js
test/auto-end-deferred-when-paused.js
test/basic.js
test/collect-with-error-end.js
test/collect.js
test/dest-write-returns-nonboolean.js
test/destroy.js
test/emit-during-end-event.js
test/empty-buffer-end-with-encoding.js
test/empty-stream-emits-end-without-read.js
test/end-missed.js
test/end-returns-this.js
test/end-twice.js
test/is-stream.js
test/iteration-unsupported.js
test/iteration.js
test/pipe-ended-stream.js
test/readable-only-when-buffering.js

(This is the actual set of test suites from the minipass module.)

This is a strategy that more easily fits into a TDD or BDD workflow. A failing test file is added with a name that describes the intended behavior or bug (red). Then the code is modified to implement that behavior or fix that bug, without breaking any other tests (green). Lastly, the code is edited for performance, elegance, and clarity, without breaking any tests (refactor).

Mixing the Strategies

You are 100% allowed to mix and match these strategies! Unit tests can have BDD or TDD focused subtests, or live right alongside regression tracking and bug-focused tests. You can also create a folder full of TDD style tests that are connected to a single unit (and mapped to it with a coverage-map file.)

The tests for node-tap itself primarily follow a unit-focused approach with a coverage-map file, but the "run" and "tap" units both have several separate suites to test and track different behavior elements.

Subtests within a Test Suite

While it's perfectly fine to just write some assertions at the top level for simple tests (whatever gets your code tested!), that's not always the best way to ensure that your tests are approachable and easy to reason about. That's where subtests come in.

Within a test file, the subtests are run sequentially by default, but may be run in parallel if you opt into that behavior by setting the t.jobs property on one of the test objects.

Subtests group a set of assertions. Some test frameworks call these "behaviors" or "suites", but essentially they're just a function that does some things and runs some assertions. There is no hard and fast rule about what must be grouped or not, but a good rule of thumb is that if an assertion is a sentence, then a subtest is a paragraph.

So, instead of something like this:

// sloppy mess, don't do this!
const t = require('tap')
const myThing = require('./my-thing.js')

t.equal(myThing.add(1, 2), 3, '1 added to 2 is 3')
t.throws(() => myThing.add('dog', 'cat'), 'cannot add dogs and cats')
t.equal(myThing.times(2, 2), 4, '2 times 2 is 4')
t.equal(myThing.add(2, -1), 1, '2 added to -1 is 1')
t.equal(myThing.times(-1, 3), 3, '-1 times 3 is -3')
t.throws(() => myThing.times('best', 'worst'), 'can only times numbers')

You could do this instead, which is much neater and easier to read:

// much better, so clean and nice
const t = require('tap')
const myThing = require('./my-thing.js')

t.test('add() can add two numbers', t => {
  t.equal(myThing.add(1, 2), 3, '1 added to 2 is 3')
  t.equal(myThing.add(2, -1), 1, '2 added to -1 is 1')
  t.throws(() => myThing.add('dog', 'cat'), 'cannot add dogs and cats')
  t.end()
})

t.test('times() can multiply two numbers', t => {
  t.equal(myThing.times(2, 2), 4, '2 times 2 is 4')
  t.equal(myThing.times(-1, 3), 3, '-1 times 3 is -3')
  t.throws(() => myThing.times('best', 'worst'), 'can only times numbers')
  t.end()
})

To end a subtest, you can either call t.end() at some point, or you can call t.plan(number) with the number of assertions you plan to do, or you can return a Promise (for example, from an async function). This would be another way to define the subtests above, without having to call t.end():

// using async functions, no t.end() necessary
const t = require('tap')
const myThing = require('./my-thing.js')

t.test('add() can add two numbers', async t => {
  t.equal(myThing.add(1, 2), 3, '1 added to 2 is 3')
  t.equal(myThing.add(2, -1), 1, '2 added to -1 is 1')
  t.throws(() => myThing.add('dog', 'cat'), 'cannot add dogs and cats')
})

t.test('times() can multiply two numbers', async t => {
  t.equal(myThing.times(2, 2), 4, '2 times 2 is 4')
  t.equal(myThing.times(-1, 3), 3, '-1 times 3 is -3')
  t.throws(() => myThing.times('best', 'worst'), 'can only times numbers')
})

Subtests can also be nested indefinitely. For example, you might have a way to perform the same action in two different ways, but yielding the same result. In a case like this, you can define both of them as children of a shared parent subtest for the feature. In this example, we're using a fixture which will get automatically removed after the subtest block is completed.

t.test('reads symbolic links properly', t => {
  // setup the environment
  // this will automatically get torn down at the end
  const dir = t.testdir({
    file: 'some file contents',
    link: t.fixture('symlink', 'file'),
  })

  // test both synchronously and asynchronously.
  // in this case we know there are 2 subtests coming,
  // but we could also have called t.end() at the bottom
  t.plan(2)

  t.test('sync', async t => {
    t.equal(myModule.readSync(dir + '/link'), 'file')
    t.equal(myModule.typeSync(dir + '/link'), 'SYMBOLIC LINK')
  })

  t.test('async', async t => {
    t.equal(await myModule.read(dir + '/link'), 'file')
    t.equal(await myModule.type(dir + '/link'), 'SYMBOLIC LINK')
  })
})

Don't Forget: Just Write Some Tests

When in doubt, just write some tests. It's almost always better to just write some tests than to worry about the ideal test structure for your program. TDD, BDD, and unit testing are all perfectly fine, but if you don't write some tests, they don't matter.

A good way to avoid analysis paralysis is to just do the simplest thing you can, and then build up from there, and refactor when it seems like there might be a better way. Create a test/basic.js for your module, with some assertions. When it feels like there's more than one "thing" being tested, split it up into subtests. When the subtests don't seem related to each other, or if you have multiple different setup and teardown blocks, then split them into separate test suite files. Always add a new test (either as a new test file, or within an existing one) for each bug-fix and feature change.

Over time, you'll figure out the structure that works best for any given program.