Symphonious

Living in a state of accord.

Testing@LMAX – Introducing ElementSpecification

Today LMAX Exchange has released ElementSpecification, a very small library we built to make working with selectors in selenium/WebDriver tests easier. It has three main aims:

  • Make it easier to understand selectors by using a very English-like syntax
  • Avoid common pitfalls when writing selectors that lead to either brittle or intermittent tests
  • Strongly discourage writing overly complicated selectors.

Essentially, we use ElementSpecification anywhere that we would have written CSS or XPath selectors by hand. ElementSpecification will automatically select the most appropriate format to use – choosing between a simple ID selector, CSS or XPath.

Making selectors easier to understand doesn’t mean making locators shorter – CSS is already a very terse language. We actually want to use more characters to express our intent so that future developers can read the specification without having to decode CSS. For example, the CSS:

#data-table tr[data-id='78'] .name

becomes:

anElementWithId("data-table")
.thatContainsA("tr").withAttributeValue("data-id", "78")
.thatContainsAnElementWithClass("name")

Much longer, but if you were to read the CSS selector to yourself, it would come out a lot like the ElementSpecification syntax. That allows you to stay focussed on what the test is doing instead of pausing to decode the CSS. It’s also reduces the likelihood of misreading a vital character and misunderstanding the selector.

With ElementSpecification essentially acting as an adapter layer between the test author and the actual CSS, it’s also able to avoid some common intermittency pitfalls. In fact, the reason ElementSpecification was first built was because really smart people kept attempting to locate an element with a classname using:

//*[contains(@class, 'valid')]

which looks ok, but incorrectly also matches an element with the class ‘invalid’. Requiring the class attribute to exactly match ‘valid’ is too brittle because it will fail if an additional class is added to the element. Instead, ElementSpecification would generate:

contains(concat(' ', @class, ' '), ' valid ')

which is decidedly unpleasant to have to write by hand.

The biggest benefit we’ve seen from ElementSpecification though is that fact that it has a deliberately limited set of abilities. You can only descend down the DOM tree, never back up and never across to siblings. That makes selectors far easier to understand and avoids a lot of unintended coupling between the tests and incidental properties of the DOM. Sometimes it means augmenting the DOM to make it more semantic – things like adding a “data-id” attribute to rows as in the example above. It’s surprisingly rare how often we need to do that and surprising how useful those extra semantics wind up being for a whole variety of reasons anyway.