To my mind, Ruby on Rails controllers are a simple beast in the Model-View-Controller (MVC) pattern. They simply:

  • take an HTTP action (GET, POST, PUT or DELETE) for a particular resource. The mapping between the HTTP verb, the resource, and the corresponding action is handled above the controller, at the routing layer. By the time it gets down to the controller, we already know what the desired action is, and we have an identifier for the resource, where applicable.

  • communicate the intent of the action to the underlying model.

  • return an appropriate response, whether that’s rendering a template with particular information, or sending back an HTTP redirect.

There are two possibilities when it comes to communicating the intent of the action to the underlying model:

  • It can query the model for some information, usually to render it as an HTML page, or emit some JSON representation of the model; or

  • it can send a command to the model, and return an indication of the success or failure of the command.

That’s it. The controller is merely an orchestration layer for translating between the language and idioms of HTTP, and the underlying model. I should probably note at this point that the underlying model isn’t necessarily just a bunch of ActiveRecord::Base-inherited models, it can be composed of service layers, aggregate roots, etc. The point is that the controllers are “just” about communicating between two other parts of the system (at least that’s how I always interpreted Jamis Buck’s famous Skinny Controller, Fat Model post).

That’s handy, because it makes them nice and easy to test. I’ve been brushing up on RSpec over the past couple of weeks, learning all about the new syntax and features, and applying them to a couple of demo projects. I thought I’d share what I’d learned about rspec in the form of a worked example.

We’ve got a requirement to keep track of Widgets. Widgets are pretty simple things: they have a name, and they have a size in millimetres (you wouldn’t want to get different sized widgets mixed up!). Our client, who manufactures these widgets, is looking for a simple web app where she can:

  • list all widgets;

  • create a new widget; and

  • delete an existing widget.

We’ve been developing their in-house stock management system for a while, so we’ve got an established Ruby on Rails project in which to hang the new functionality. It’s just going to be a case of extending it with a new model, controller, and a couple of actions. And we’re all set up with rspec, of course. Better still, we’re set up with Guard, too, so our tests run automatically whenever we make a change. You can find the starting point of the project on the initial setup branch.

Listing all the widgets

Let’s start with an integration test. I like the outside-in flow of testing that BDD encourages (in particular, the flow discussed in The RSpec Book), where we start with an integration test that roughly outlines the next feature we want to build, then start fleshing out the functionality with unit tests. So, our first scenario, in spec/features/widgets_spec.rb:

RSpec.feature 'Managing widgets' do
  # All our subsequent scenarios will be inside this feature block.

  scenario 'Finding the list of widgets' do
    visit '/'

    click_on 'List Widgets'

    expect(current_path).to be('/widgets')

I always like to start simple, and from the user’s perspective. If I’m going to manage a set of widgets, I need to be able to find the page from another location. In this scenario, we’re checking that there’s a ‘List Widgets’ link somewhere on the home page. It saves that embarrassing conversation with the client where you’ve implemented a new feature, but she can’t find it.

The first thing to note is that, by default, rspec now no longer creates global methods, so Capybara’s feature DSL method (and RSpec’s describe, which we’ll see in a minute) are both defined on the RSpec namespace. Perhaps the other thing to note is that I’m just using RSpec feature specs – with Capybara for a nice DSL – instead of Cucumber, which I’ve advocated in the past? Why? It turned out that people rarely read my Cucumber stories, and those that did could cope with reading code, too. RSpec features are more succinct, consistent with the unit tests, and have fewer unwieldy overheads. You and your team’s mileage may, of course, vary!

Finally, there’s rspec’s new expect syntax. Instead of adding methods to a global namespace (essentially, defining the should and should_not methods on Object), you have to explicitly wrap your objects. So, where in rspec 2.x and older, we’d have written:

current_path.should eq('/widgets')

(which relies on a method called should being defined on your object) instead we now wrap the object under test with expect:

expect(current_path).to eq('/widgets')

It still reads well (“expect current path to equal /widgets” as opposed to the older version, “current path should equal /widgets”). Combined with the allow decorator method, it also gives us a consistent language for mocking, which we’ll see shortly. To my mind, it also makes it slightly clearer exactly what the object under test really is, since it’s (necessarily) wrapped in parentheses. I like the new syntax.

Let’s just assume we’ve implemented this particular scenario, by inserting the following into app/views/layouts/application.html.erb:

<li><%= link_to 'List widgets', widgets_path %></li>

It does bring up the issue of routes, though: how to we specify that the list of widgets is located at /widgets? Let’s write a couple of quick specs to verify the routes. I swither between testing routes being overkill or not. If there is client side JavaScript relying on the contract that the routes provide, I err on the side of specifying them. It’s not too hard, anyway. So, in spec/routing/widgets_controller_routing_spec.rb (what a mouthful, but it’s what rubocop recommends):

RSpec.describe 'WidgetsController' do
  it 'routes GET /widgets to widgets#index' do
    expect(get: '/widgets').to route_to('widgets#index')

  it 'generates /widgets from widgets_path' do
    expect(widgets_path).to eq('/widgets')

In order to make these specs pass, add the following inside the routes block in config/routes.rb:

resources :widgets, only: [:index]

But one of our specs is still failing, complaining about the missing controller. Let’s create an empty controller to keep it happy. Add the following to app/controllers/widgets_controller.rb:

class WidgetsController < ApplicationController

We’ve still got a failing scenario, though – because it’s missing the index action that results from clicking on the link to list widgets. Let’s start to test-drive the development of that controller action. This is what I describe as a “query”-style action, in that the user is querying something about the model and having the results displayed to them. In these query-style actions, there are four things that typically happen:

  • the controller asks the model for some data;

  • it responds with an HTTP status of ‘200 OK’;

  • it specifies a particular template to be rendered; and

  • it passes one or more objects to that template.

Let’s specify the middle two for now. I’ve a feeling that will be enough to make our first scenario pass. In spec/controllers/widgets_controller_spec.rb, describe the desired behaviour:

RSpec.describe WidgetsController do
  describe 'GET index' do
    def do_get
      get :index

    it 'responds with http success' do
      expect(response).to have_http_status(:success)

    it 'renders the index template' do
      expect(response).to render_template('widgets/index')

Defining a method to perform the action is just one of my habits. It doesn’t really add much here – it’s just replacing get :index with do_get – but it helps to remove repetition from testing other actions, and doing it here too gives me consistency amongst tests. Now define an empty index action in WidgetsController:

def index

and create an empty template in app/views/widgets/index.html.erb. That’s enough to make the tests pass. Time to commit the code, and go grab a fresh coffee.

Next up, let’s specify a real scenario for listing some widgets:

scenario 'Listing widgets' do
  Widget.create! name: 'Frooble', size: 20
  Widget.create! name: 'Barble',  size: 42

  visit '/widgets'

  expect(page).to have_content('Frooble (20mm)')
  expect(page).to have_content('Barble (42mm)')

Another failing scenario. Time to write some code. This time it’s complaining that the widgets we’re trying to create don’t have a model. Let’s sort that out:

rails g model Widget name:string size:integer

We’ll tweak the migration so neither of those columns are nullable (in our domain model it isn’t valid to have a widget without a name and a size)

class CreateWidgets < ActiveRecord::Migration
  def change
    create_table :widgets do |t|
      t.string :name,  null: false
      t.integer :size, null: false

      t.timestamps null: false

Run rake db:migrate and we’re good to go again. Our scenario is now failing where we’d expect it to – the list of widgets are not appearing on the page. Let’s think a bit about what we actually want here. Having discussed it with the client, we’re just looking for a list of all the Widgets in the system – no need to think about complex things like ordering, or pagination. So we’re going to ask the model for a list of all the widgets, and we’re going to pass that to the template to be rendered. Let’s write a controller spec for that behaviour, inside our existing describe block:

let(:widget_class) { class_spy('Widget').as_stubbed_const }
let(:widgets)      { [instance_spy('Widget')] }

before(:each) do
  allow(widget_class).to receive(:all) { widgets }

it 'fetches a list of widgets from the model' do
  expect(widget_class).to have_received(:all)

it 'passes the list of widgets to the template' do
  expect(assigns(:widgets)).to eq(widgets)

There are a few interesting new aspects to rspec going on here, mostly around the test doubles (the general name for mocks, stubs, and spies). Firstly, you’ll see that stubbed methods, and expectations of methods being called, use the new expect/allow syntax for consistency with the rest of your expectations.

Next up is the ability to replace constants during the test run. You’ll see that we’re defining a test double for the Widget class. Calling as_stubbed_const on that class defines, for the duration of each test, the constant Widget as the test double. In the olden days of rspec 2, we’d have to either use dependency injection to supply an alternative widget implementation (something that’s tricky with implicitly instantiated controllers in Rails), or we’d have to define a partial test double, where we supply stubbed implementations for particular methods. This would be something along the lines of:

before(:each) do
  allow(Widget).to receive(:all) { widgets }

While this works, it is only stubbing out the single method we’ve specified; the rest of the class methods on Widget are the real, live, implementations, so it’s more difficult to tell if the code under test is really calling what we expect it to.

But the most interesting thing (to my mind) is that, in addition to the normal mocks and stubs, we also have test spies. Spies are like normal test doubles, except that they record how their users interact with them. This allows us, the test authors, to have a consistent pattern for our tests:

  • Given some prerequisite;

  • When I perform this action;

  • Then I have these expectations.

Prior to test spies, you had to set up the expectations prior to performing the action. So, when checking that the controller asks the model for the right thing, we’d have had to write:

it 'fetches a list of widgets from the model' do
  expect(widget_class).to receive(:all)

It seems like such a little thing, but it was always jarring to have some specs where the expectations had to precede the action. Spies make it all more consistent, which is a win.

We’re back to having a failing test, so let’s write the controller implementation. In the index action of WidgetsController, it’s as simple as:

@widget = Widget.all

and finish off the implementation with the view template, in app/views/widgets/index.html.erb:

<h1>All Widgets</h1>

  <%= render @widgets %>

and, finally, app/views/widgets/widget.html.erb:

<%= content_tag_for :li, widget do %>
  <%= %> (<%= widget.size %>mm)
<% end %>

Our controller tests and our scenarios pass, time to commit our code, push to production, pack up for the day and head to the pub for a celebratory beer! In part 2, we’ll drive out the behaviour of sending a command to the model, and figuring out what to do based upon its response.

You can find a copy of the code so far on the part 1 branch in GitHub. Once you’ve had that celebratory beer, head across to part 2 to continue our exploration of RSpec while implementing a command-style action.

A Sneak Peek at
The Internet

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