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Android Unit Testing Part I: What Makes Strong Test Automation

Victor Ronin

When we started to work on Okta Mobility Management (OMM) for Android about six months ago, our mobile team needed to extend the current Okta Mobile for Android to provide new OMM functionality. In doing so, we needed a process that ensured and improved the quality of Okta Mobile.

At the center of this process was test automation, which let us move forward quickly without breaking existing functionality. It worked quite well for Okta Mobile Android and saved us a lot of timeframe to deliver OMM on date (before Oktane14).

The setup we used required a lot of research, and could be applied to most of Android applications to let engineers be more productive and deliver excellent products. (Most Android engineers don’t use the standard Android out-of-box tests as the tests are simply not very good.)

Over the course of four blog posts, my aim is to show you not only why these tests have been problematic for Android engineers in the past, but also how to turn these Android tests into viable and useful tools. For this first part, we’re going to dig into what makes a strong test automation -- and where current Android tests are failing as a result.

Criteria for a Strong Test Automation

To start, let’s look at the importance of test automations in the app engineering cycle. I believe the only way to build a solid application is to employ robust test automation. Test automation of web and desktop apps is a common practice for a reason: it’s been around for decades, and most software engineers are familiar and comfortable with the practice. However, in the mobile world, most engineers use testing automation sporadically at best. Why?

It takes more work.

Good tests, whether they’re on web, desktop or mobile apps, should include the following criteria:

1. Repeatable - If tests aren’t repeatable (i.e., they fail intermittently), then developers won’t know whether that failure indicates broken code or a problem with the test environment. If the reason for failure is not clear, they are easily dismissed.
2. Isolated - If tests aren’t performed in isolation from each other, developers run the risk of changes in one test cascading and breaking others. This, in turn, leads to problems with repeatability.
3. Simple - It’s really hard to read and maintain tests if they aren’t simple and consistent. Further, complicated tests require developers to spend additional time carefully reading through each test they need to modify.
4. Fast - If tests are slow moving, engineers are less willing to run them. As a result, problems are found much later than when they were introduced.

Only unit tests match all these parameters. And for this reason, I’d argue they should be the predominant method. This opinion, however, is a touchy subject, with differing opinions amongst qualified professionals. The main point of disagreement is that unit tests are designed to test very small units of code, not end-to-end testing (as UI or integration tests do).

Let’s now dig into Android tests specifically and see some of the challenges with the current out-of-the-box tests.

Android Out-of-the-Box Tests

If you were to Google “Android tests”, you would find an ample number of articles on writing tests for Android. However, if you dig a bit deeper - say under Android “test automations” - you’ll discover several problems related to Android out-of-box tests, and there are several reasons these out-of-the box tests are not ideal:

These tests must run on an Android device or Android emulator.

If you run a couple of tests using an example app, you may be happy with the result. But they don’t always work as well: the emulator hangs, ADB throws an error or a device inadvertently disconnects. This can happen often enough to make your life miserable — especially if you have hundreds of tests running under Continuous Integration (CI). Issues like these render the test non-repeatable.

These so-called “activity tests” are actually “integration”— not unit tests.

Unit tests assess just one unit (e.g., a class or method). However, when you run an activity test, you test the whole stack (UI, business logic, persistence, and network). Integration tests are great for seeing that end-to-end scenario work, but they tend to be flakey (depending on UI performance, network condition, and the preexisting persistence state).

These tests run slowly.

It takes seconds for each test to complete. If hundreds of them are running, you could end up waiting 5-10 minutes for completion. As a result, engineers will resist running them after each small change.

These tests tend to be complicated.

Most of the time these tests are neither simple, nor consistent. There is no single blueprint on how to write these tests (e.g., how to setup an environment, act, or assert results). Given that each developer comes up with their own way of writing such tests, they are often hard to decipher and read.

It’s pretty clear that the Google Android out-of-the-box tests do not comply with our definition of what a good test should be. They are not repeatable, simple or fast. Over the course of my next three posts, we’ll walk through the steps needed to resolve these problems and offer simple, viable tools to help build Android applications. If you’d like to get a preview of the code I’ll be sharing, you can also visit GitHub and get the full process now.