Here's the scenario.

  • There's a large, organically grown application written in some language and manner that makes it difficult to test. It works but is hard to maintain.
  • Specifications are woolly, so even if the code was amenable, it's hard to know what things should be doing without doing them.
  • You want to get it into a test harness so you can start to refactor and create proper unit tests.

In these cases it makes sense to build an external or superficial 'test everything' harness so you can start more aggressive refactoring to enable you to write proper unit tests. This seems a pretty established practice of incrementally introducing tests.

"The main thing that distinguishes legacy code from non-legacy code is a lack of comprehensive tests." - Michael C. Feathers (Working Effectively with Legacy Code)

My question is this:

Does it make sense to build a suite of Behaviour Driven tests at this point and execute them via some kind of automated button clicker? I'm thinking something like (but not limited to) cucumber or similar where the human readable tests match executable code/scripts that prove the defined behaviour is being met.

A clear advantage of this is that a human readable specification of sorts could be developed alongside the tests and that these specifications are much easier to confirm as sane and correct with users/developers of the system. They are essentially integration tests but perform the function that Feathers recommends.

eta: I'm not asking for a specific tool recommendation, the actual tool is irrelevant (although it would be helpful to know if they actually exist) I'm after a sanity check and recommendations around external BDD integration testing.

  • Just curious - on which kind of UI technology is the application you want to test based?
    – Doc Brown
    Commented Jan 5, 2015 at 17:06
  • I'm not entirely sure at the moment, I'm going to get an actual look soon. I think it's primarily a windowed desktop app (on windows, using windows APIs). There is some functionality exposed via a web interface, but nowhere near all of it. This question was about exploring options to consider when investigating. Once I know more I'll be able to see where we can cut in a test harness.
    – tom
    Commented Jan 5, 2015 at 19:21
  • I did a presentation about BDD in Legacy software at last year's CukeUp. Video and slides are here: - skillsmatter.com/skillscasts/… - slideshare.net/everzet/moving-away-from-legacy-code-with-bdd
    – everzet
    Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 11:59

3 Answers 3


It's perfectly possible to do this. I've written a blog with a few guidelines, but these additional ones might help you too:

  • Think about the capabilities of the system. For instance, an accounting system might have the ability to read bank feeds, raise invoices, email those invoices, etc.

  • Group the scenarios in terms of the capabilities. Look at what kind of contexts (the givens) produce what kinds of outcomes (the thens). Have some conversations with the business people about these, and pick up their language as far as possible. The capabilities themselves will drive what you write for the events (the whens).

    For instance, you might find a couple of scenarios for raising invoices where it says something like:

    Given an organisation to bill is outside the US
    When we send the invoice
    Then international bank details should be included.

    Given an organisation to bill is within the US
    When we send the invoice
    Then it should include only US bank details.

    These will then tie into the automation that does the more detailed steps that actually create organisations with different addresses in different countries, send the invoices, and verify that those invoices have been sent with the correct bank details. There will be far more automation steps than there will of these higher-level ones. This is commonly referred to as declarative vs. imperative language, and will help you to work out which scenarios are the most important to cover, and which are functionally equivalent.

    Notice that the difference between the scenarios is called out fairly cleanly here, which it wouldn't be if there were multiple UI steps hiding that difference. The difference between the scenarios is what illustrates the behaviour.

  • You are likely to find bugs. It's up to you if you want to write scenarios around what the system should do. It's highly likely though that by now there are some human workarounds, so I wouldn't worry too much about this behaviour. If the application is in the wild and producing value, it's good. Make sure you get scenarios around the core capabilities written first.

  • Whenever you have to fix a bug, write some unit tests. This will force you to redesign your code. Regression bugs are usually caused by poor design, and adding yet more scenarios will just make the code harder to change rather than give you any more confidence in it. This is what Michael Feathers is primarily referring to here. See also the test pyramid. As your system is refactored, the number of unit tests and integration tests should be rapidly outstripping those at the UI level.

  • You can use the different capabilities of the system to guide you in finding the seams which Michael talks about in his book, which will help you to refactor.

  • Note that I don't use the word test very often. Business people will tend to talk more comfortably about the behaviour of the system when you talk about examples or scenarios in which things happen than when you talk about tests. This harks back to the origins of BDD.

Good luck!

  • Thanks lunivore, that's a great blog. The comment on your article contains some really useful practical advice too.
    – tom
    Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 8:58
  • @tom Thanks, I'll let Llewellyn know! You might well end up with a mix of both our approaches, depending on how buggy and crusty your code is. There should still be a few core scenarios which are useful though, even in the most buggy code.
    – Lunivore
    Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 11:04
  • CodedUI Tests coupled with SpecFlow is a great way to go in the Windows world. Especially in the OP's case where the application is comprised of both web based and installed application features. CodedUI Tests can handle both situations. With a little deconstructing of the CodedUI API you can integrate it with SpecFlow quite easily. I did this with a web project that was similarly hard to test and it's saved my butt several times. Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 18:31
  • @GregBurghardt I wrote WiPFLash for this ( code.google.com/p/wipflash ); you can use it under SpecFlow too - written to be a lightweight easy-to-use API over MS UI Automation. Easy to get the real elements out too to do anything else you need to.
    – Lunivore
    Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 18:43

BDD is definitely possible in Legacy system. I personally participated in uplifting multiple Legacy projects with years of history. One of the key aspects of BDD is to enrich team understanding of what is actually needed and then provide a sustainable path to do incremental change towards it and from it. In my experience, the common aspect of Legacy system is that a big chunk of it is already done with a huge fraction of it never changing again. So keeping this in mind, attempts to retrofit BDD into the use-cases that already were delivered will unavoidably result in waste - you will end up discussing a huge list of things most of which will never change and test huge list of things most of which will never break.

As Liz (lunivore) said, the key aspect of approaching such projects is to identify project capabilities. In order to move the Legacy project forward you need to close your eyes for a time being on things that were done and look at things that will change. Identify key business priorities for the next couple of months. This will help you to understand which new features will need to be added and which existing features will need to be changed. I find practices like Impact Mapping working extremely well here. Have conversations about these features, and use outcomes of these conversations to do BDD. In this regard, BDD on Brownfield projects is not that different from BDD on Greenfield ones.

The biggest difference is how you technically approach it - Legacy projects will naturally have much more end-to-end simply because of their nature, it is fine. The key practice here is to not keep these end-to-end tests for too long. As soon as you did write an end-to-end test the clock should start ticking for you to refactor the underlying code in attempt to make it unit-testable. I call this process test level migration and I wrote about it in more detail yesterday :)

In addition to covering changes and new features, you will surely encounter bugs. It's important here to understand that in most cases on the non-tested codebase you will not be able to predict them. So instead of trying to predicting bugs, try to prepare for them - be careful with critical areas. Discuss and automate broken journey as soon as defect is found, but not sooner. Otherwise it is very possible to spend too much money and time on testing things that will never break, effectively wasting resources instead of delivering value.

Hope this helps.


Does it make sense to build a suite of Behaviour Driven tests at this point and execute them via some kind of automated button clicker?

At least it sounds reasonable. What you are suggesting can be implemented by any "GUI robot" with a support for data driven tests (I am not going to suggest you a tool, look here for a start). If the frontend for creating the tests is not enough "BDD style", I think creating an interface between cucumber and the GUI robot should not be too hard.

But beware: creating such tests will definitely need some effort, especially when you are trying to create a "test everything" harness. You have to estimate by yourself if the benefit you get from this outweighs the effort. Furthermore, my own experience with GUI automation tools is that tests created with them tend to become brittle (but YMMV).

  • Regarding the "brittleness" I think that this type of testing is a first step towards 'proper' testing. The advantage of doing it BDD style is that you retain the scenarios even if the tests will eventually be discarded.
    – tom
    Commented Jan 5, 2015 at 14:49

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