Unit Testing vs Property Testing

What is Unit Testing

Unit- / behavior- / example-testing verifies that a function (e.g. reverse) that receives a specific value (e.g. "apple") of some data type (e.g. String) will output a specific value (e.g. "elppa") of the same/different data type. In code:

unitTest :: Boolean
unitTest = (reverse "apple") == "elppa"

If we want to test reverse for a different value of String (e.g. "pineapple"), we would need to write a second test:

unitTest2 :: Boolean
unitTest2 = (reverse "pineapple") == "elppaenip"

If the function can take n different intputs, we need to write n different unit tests.

A Brief Note on Golden Testing

A variant of unit testing is "golden testing," which basically stores the expected output of a test in a separate file. It comes with the following benefits:

  • Some characters are easier to store in a separate file rather than in source code (e.g. the " character).
  • Storing the "expected output" in the test's source code can distract from what the test is even testing in cases where that output is very large. Storing it in a separate file makes it easier to focus on what the test is testing.

For more details, see these links:

Why Unit Testing Fails

  1. Bad "time : code-coverage" ratio
    • To verify that our code works in all possible situations, we must write n unit tests to verify that a function that takes n different inputs will output the correct n outputs, per function.
  2. Poor tester creativity
    • A test-writer may forget to write or not be "creative" enough to realize that he/she should write the one test that exposes a bug in the code.
  3. Poor data generation
    • Some values are hard to create, such as those that interact with a large and complicated database. If one tries to model that data and the model is off even slightly, the tests aren't verifying anything.
  4. 'Large' bug-exposing values don't "shrink" to 'small' values.
    • Some tests that expose a bug use a "large" and complicated value of some data type. Unfortunately, they don't help us figure out what is the 'smallest' version of some value that reproduces the bug.
    • For example, if one was testing a function that took numbers that are larger than 1 million, it can be hard to determine what is causing the bug with a number like 8,423,522 whereas a number like 1,000,001 might make it much clearer.

What is Property Testing and Why It Succeeds

See Testing the Hard Stuff and Staying Sane, a talk from one of the guys who wrote QuickCheck, a Haskell library used to do property testing.

Property-testing verifies that a function (e.g. reverse) that receives any value of some data type (e.g. String) will output an expected value of the same/different data type; the expected value is calculated using the given input.

One might immediately think of this code before realizing that it doesn't work:

propertyTestFail :: String -> Boolean
propertyTestFail input = (reverse input) == -- ???

What should the expected output be? One way to resolve this is to call reverse twice on the input and see if it matches the original input. In code:

propertyTest :: String -> Boolean
propertyTest input = (reverse (reverse input)) == input

In a few lines, we have made it possible to test every possible value of String on the function reverse. We spent only a few seconds and got 100% coverage (solving the above Problem 1). Moreover, the test doesn't require any creativity on our part. Whether the String value uses alphabetical characters, or numbers, or special symbols, or even characters from Asian languages, the test covers all of them (solving the above Problem 2)

The only problem left remaining is the data generation. While we may have a function that can test reverse, its useless unless we can generate random String values. Fortunately, a good property-testing library (like QuickCheck) provides the necessary API to generate such data according to one's needs (solving the above Problem 3).

Lastly, Problem 4 is solved with a feature called "shrinking." While a unit test cannot shrink 8,423,522 to 1,000,001, a property test can. This feature exists in the originaly Haskell library, but unfortunately, it does not yet seem to exist in Purescript's port of the library.

The Trustworthiness of Property Testing

In some cases, such as Boolean, one has a finite number of input values to verify:

testBooleanWithAnd :: Boolean -> Boolean
testBooleanWithAnd randomBoolean = (randomBoolean && true) == randomBoolean

After proving that the above property is true for both the true and false values of Boolean, one does not need to retest it again with either values. In such a case, the test can be proven exhaustively and one's certainty in the code is 100%.

On another hand, to successfully prove that reverse works as expected, one would need to test an infinite number of String values. Since we don't have enough time for that, we usually stop testing it after 100 tests pass successfully. 100 tests does not guarantee that our function is correct as there could still be a case where it fails. However, it makes us highly confident in it. The option to increase the number of tests is always present if that's not enough for you.

Shrinking: Integrated vs Type-Directed

To see the difference between QuickCheck (which uses type-directed shrinking) and Hedgehog (which uses integrated shrinking), watch Gens N' Roses: Appetite for Reduction. Then, read Integrated Shrinking

Property Testing: Case Studies

Successful cases where property-based testing found difficult-to-find bugs:

The Limits of Property Testing

Usually, people who have never heard of property testing will think it is a "silver bullet" when it comes to writing tests. However, property testing can only cover a select number of tests cases before one must resort to unit testing. Rather than explaining it here, here are 7 patterns where property-based testing works. If a test falls outside of that pattern, one will likely need to use unit testing instead.

Still, before deciding that one must use unit tests, consider using state machine testing:


As much as possible, use Property Testing. When that does not suffice, consider state-machine testing. Otherwise, use unit testing.