Using Cucumber for unit tests… why not?

It seems that the accepted way to test in Ruby is to use Rspec for unit tests and to use Cucumber for acceptance tests (higher level functional testing). After doing a little bit of Cucumber, I’ve started to fall in love with the format of Cucumber tests.

Most Rubyists would probably agree that behavior-driven development is good (in other words, writing tests in a Given/When/Then format). We obviously do this in Cucumber (there isn’t much choice), but I’ve also written tests in this format in Rspec and in .NET.

I like BDD for two main reasons. First, I believe that software development is a series of translations. I want to translate business requirements into readable, executable specifications, then translate that into tests, then translate that into implementation code. Second, before I implement a feature and even before I write my tests, I try to write out what I want the code to do in English. If I can’t write out what I want to do in English, how and I supposed to know what I’m supposed to write in code?

Here’s my theory: if we agree that BDD is good, why don’t we write our unit tests in a format that is more amenable to BDD, that being the Cucumber format of tests? I’m not saying that we write acceptance level tests instead of unit tests, I’m saying that maybe we should write unit tests in a different format. Not only that, Cucumber tables give us a nice way to write more readable, data-driven tests. Here are a couple examples from the supermarket pricing kata (in Rspec and Cucumber).


Feature: Checkout

  Scenario Outline: Checking out individual items
    Given that I have not checked anything out
    When I check out item 
    Then the total price should be the  of that item

    | item | unit price |
    | "A"  | 50         |
    | "B"  | 30         |
    | "C"  | 20         |
    | "D"  | 15         |

  Scenario Outline: Checking out multiple items
    Given that I have not checked anything out
    When I check out 
    Then the total price should be the  of those items

    | multiple items | expected total price | notes                |
    | "AAA"          | 130                  | 3 for 130            |
    | "BB"           | 45                   | 2 for 45             |
    | "CCC"          | 60                   |                      |
    | "DDD"          | 45                   |                      |
    | "BBB"          | 75                   | (2 for 45) + 30      |
    | "BABBAA"       | 205                  | order doesn't matter |
    | ""             | 0                    |                      |

  Scenario Outline: Rounding money
    When rounding "" to the nearest penny
    Then it should round it using midpoint rounding to ""

      | amount | rounded amount |
      | 1      | 1              |
      | 1.225  | 1.23           |
      | 1.2251 | 1.23           |
      | 1.2249 | 1.22           |
      | 1.22   | 1.22           |


require 'spec_helper'

describe "Given that I have not checked anything out" do
  before :each do
    @check_out =

  [["A", 50], ["B", 30], ["C", 20], ["D", 15]].each do |item, unit_price|
  describe "When I check out an invididual item" do
    it "The total price should be the unit price of that item" do
      @check_out.scan(item) == unit_price

  [["AAA", 130], # 3 for 130
    ["BB", 45],  # 2 for 45
    ["CCC", 60],
    ["DDD", 45],
    ["BBB", 75], # (2 for 45) + 30
    ["BABBAA", 205], # order doesn't matter
    ["", 0]].each do |items, expected_total_price|
    describe "When I check out multiple items" do
      it "The total price should be the expected total price of those items" do
        individual_items = items.split(//)
        individual_items.each { |item| @check_out.scan(item) } == expected_total_price

class RoundingTester
  include Rounding

[[1, 1],
  [1.225, 1.23],
  [1.2251, 1.23],
  [1.2249, 1.22],
  [1.22, 1.22]].each do |amount, rounded_amount|
  describe "When rounding an amount of money to the nearest penny" do
    it "Should round the amount using midpoint rounding" do == rounded_amount

A couple things stand out to me when you compare these two. First, if I want to run data-driven tests with different values, the Cucumber syntax is so much cleaner and more descriptive. Second, the “Given I have not checked anything out” section in the Rspec version is really long and contains two nested “describe” sections (many times you end up with many more than this). When you nest sections like this, it’s really hard to see the context of things or read the tests because the “Given” text is nowhere near the nested “When” sections in the code.

Rspec follows in the footsteps of previous unit testing frameworks that write test methods in test classes (or in the case of Rspec, something that resembles test classes and methods. But is this the best way, or just the way that we’re used to? We have been writing unit tests this way for years and years because we had no other choice. But that doesn’t mean that it’s the best way.

Here are the benefits I see of using the Cucumber syntax over Rspec:

  • The tests are much easier to read (especially when doing data-driven “scenario outline” tests).
  • The Given/When/Then text is all in one place (as opposed to spread out and mixed in with code).
  • It forces me to be able to write out in English what I want the code to do.
  • Any step definition that I write can easily be reused anywhere in any other Cucumber test.
  • The code just looks cleaner. I’ve seen a lot of messy Rspec tests.
  • Rspec doesn’t have a method that corresponds to the “When” step (unless I’m missing something), so you have to shoehorn it into before(:each) or the “it” method. (I’m not sure why this is, we figured this out in the .NET world long ago.)

To be fair, there are more BDD-friendly flavors of Rspec (like rspec-given). This helps you write tests in Given/When/Then format, but I still feel like all of the underscores and symbols and syntax is getting in the way of the actual test verbiage.

Favoring Cucumber is my personal preference and I know that there are some people that would probably disagree with my opinion on this, and that’s fine. But I’m really enjoying what Cucumber brings to the table, both in terms of functionality and the syntax.