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Dimitri Merejkowsky
Dimitri Merejkowsky

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Tips for better Python tests

Originally published on my blog.

Today, I'd like to share with you a list of small tips to help you write better tests when using Python. Note that the tips often improve both the readability of the test implementation, and of the failure messages (which is pretty important too).

Use pytest

Pytest does a great job in generating very good error messages from your assertions, without the need for anything other than the assert statement.

Take this assertion for instance:

assert foo(x) == bar(y)
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Here's what the failure will look like when using pytest if the assertion fails:

    def test_foobar():
        x = 2
> assert foo(x) == bar(x)
E assert 4 == 5
E + where 4 = foo(2)
E + and 5 = bar(2) AssertionError
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Note how much information you get about what went wrong, like the entire body of the function up to the assertion that failed, or when the values that were compared came from.

It gets even better - take this other assertion:

assert get_message() == "this is what I expected"
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And note the nice, detailed diff between the two strings that gets printed:

    def test_get_message():
>         assert get_message() == "this is what I expected"

E AssertionError: assert 'this is what I expected' == 'this is what I got'
E - this is what I expected
E ? ^^^^^ --
E + this is what I got
E ? ^^^
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A more complex example

For the rest of this post, let's assume you are testing a sync_folders() function that can synchronize a remote folder with a local one.

Here's one of the tests you wrote:

def test_can_update_local_file(remote, local):
    local_file = local / "a.txt"
    local_file.write_text("old contents")
    new_contents = "new contents"
    remote.add_file("a.txt", contents=new_contents)

    sync_folders(remote, local)

    actual_contents = local_file.read_text()
    assert actual_contents == new_contents
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Quick tip: I usually split my tests into three arrange /act / assert parts and I visualize them using vertical space.

Add context to assertions

Did you know you can add a string at the end of the assert statement?

def test_sync(remote, local):

    actual_contents = local_file.read_text()
-   assert actual_contents == new_contents"
+   assert actual_contents == new_contents, "a.txt should have been updated"
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This way, instead of having to read this:

E AssertionError: assert 'old contents\n' == 'new contents'
E - old contents
E + new contents

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you get this message, which contains a clue about where the diff actually comes from:

E AssertionError: a.txt should have been updated
E assert 'old contents\n' == 'new contents'
E - old contents
E + new contents
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Reduce noise

You can also improve the signal over noise ratio by using instead of the assert statement:

- assert actual_contents == new_contents", "a.txt should have been updated"
+ if actual_contents != new_contents:
+"a.txt should have been updated")
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    if actual_contents != new_contents:
>"a.txt should have been updated")
E        Failed: a.txt should have been updated
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Be careful when using this technique, because it may hinder the debugging of failing tests.

Use custom assertion helpers

Finally, don't hesitate to factorize code about assertions, for instance in a test/ file:

def assert_was_updated(path, contents):

def assert_was_created(path):

# and so on
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Use docstrings to describe tests scenarios

This is my favorite tip ever: if you are testing something complex, add a human-readable description of the test inside the docstring.

Still using our test_can_update_local_file example:

def test_can_update_local_file():
    """ Scenario:
    * Create a file named a.txt in the local folder with
      "old" contents
    * Add a new version of the `a.txt` file in the remote folder
    * Synchronize the remote and local folders
    * Check that `a.txt` has been updated
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There are two advantages to this approach:

  • It can be helpful to have a human-readable description of what the test is supposed to be doing when reading the implementation of the code - like any docstring
  • Since pytest displays the entire block of the function block that caused the assertion to fail, you get a reminder of what the test was about when reading the failure message.

Reflections on the last tip

You can stop reading there if you want, but I thought it would be interesting to know how I end up using docstrings in my test code - especially since for a long time, I was convinced that docstrings were useless if the test implementation was clear enough1!

What changed my mind? In two words: code review. let me elaborate.

Getting feedback

I've had the chance to get my Python test code reviewed by some teammates who did not know pytest very well but were used to frameworks like Mocha or Cucumber. They help me realize this simple truth: using only function names and implementation (in other words, code) to express all the subtlety of what the tests are about cannot be enough - kind of obvious when you say it like that, right?

But in this case code review can only see you what needs to be improved, but not always how.

So I did what I had to: I took a closer look at those other frameworks.

Getting to know other frameworks

Here's an implementation of our test using Mocha:

describe('sync', function() {
  it('syncs a remote file', function() {
    remote.addFile('a.txt', { contents: newContents });

    syncFolders(remote, local);

    const actualContents = local.join('a.txt').readText();
    assert.equal(actualContents, newContents);

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And here's an implementation using Cucumber:

# in synchronization.feature
Feature: Synchronization

Scenario: file updated remotely
  Given there is a local file 'a.txt' containing "old_contents"
  Given there is a remote file 'a.txt' containing "new_contents"
  When I synchronize the folders
  Then the local file a.txt contains "new_contents"
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# in synchronization.rb
Given(/there is a local file '{word}' containing "{string}"/ do |path, contents|
  open(path, 'w') do |f|
      f.puts contents

When(/I synchronize the folder/) do
  sync_folders(@local, @remote)

# ...
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Quite different styles, right?

Finding a middle ground

And there you have it: I came up with using docstrings with pytest because it was a nice middle ground between those two approaches.

  • With Mocha, you write short descriptions in it() and describe() and there's no such thing as a "test name".
  • With Cucumber, you write long and detailed text using the English natural languages.

I prefer the docstring solution to the ones above because:

  • docstrings can be as long as you want (you rarely see descriptions larger than one line in Mocha tests)
  • contrary to Cucumber, you are not forced to use any formatting or syntax in your description, and they live right next to the accompanying code


So what did we learn?

  • Being reviewed helps to keep your code readable - but you already knew that, right?
  • Exploring new languages and frameworks gives you insights on how to improve your code
  • If you are in a team that contains people who use different languages and frameworks than yours and you get them to review your code, it will lead to even better code because you'll be combining the two effects from above!

In other terms, consider increasing the diversity of your teams, and don't hesitate to explore new things 😎.

I'd love to hear what you have to say, so please feel free to leave a comment below, or check out my contact page for more ways to get in touch with me.

  1. I also believed good code did not need comments - fortunately, I read this article

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