Keyword Driven Testing with Gherkin in SpecFlow

Well this may be a little confusing because Gherkin is essentially a keyword driven test that uses the Given, When, Then keywords. What I am talking about is using Gherkin, specifically the SpecFlow implementation of Gherkin to create another layer of keywords on top of Gherkin to allow users to not only define the tests in plain English with Gherkin, but to also write new test scenarios without having to ask developers to implement the tests.

Even though we can look at the Gherkin scenario steps as keywords many times developers are needed for new tests because the steps can’t be reused to compose tests for new pages without developers implementing new steps. Now this may be an issue with my approach to Gherkin, but many of the examples I have seen suffer from the same problem so I’m in good company.

Keyword Driven Tests

What I was looking for is a way for developers to just create page objects and users can reuse steps to build up new scenarios they want to run without having developers implement new step definitions. This brought me full circle to one of the first test frameworks I wrote several years ago. I built a keyword driven test framework that allowed testers to open an Excel spread sheet, select action keywords, enter data, and select controls to target, to compose new test scenarios without having to involve developers in writing new tests. The spreadsheet looked something like:

Step Keyword Data Control
1 Login charlesb,topsecret
2 Open Contact
3 EnterText Charles Bryant FullName
4 Click Submit

This would be read by the test framework that would use it to drive Selenium to execute the tests. With my limited experience in test automation at the time, this became a maintenance nightmare.

Business users were able to create and run the tests, but there was a lot of duplication because the business had to write the same scenarios over and over again to test different data and expectations for related scenario. If you maintain large automated test suites, you know duplication is your enemy. For the scenario above, if they wanted to test what would happen when FullName was empty, they would have to write these four steps again in a new scenario. If there are more fields, the number of scenarios to properly cover the form could become huge. Then when the business wants to add or remove a field, change the workflow, or any other change that affects all of the duplicated tests, the change has to be done on all of them.

It would have been more maintainable if I would have created more high level keywords like Login and separated data from the scenario step definition, but I wasn’t thinking and just gave up after we had issue after issue that required fixing many scenarios because of problems with duplication. Soon I learned how to overcome this particular issue with Data Driven tests and the trick with encapsulating steps in course grained keywords (methods), but I was way past keyword driven tests and had an extreme hate for them.


You may be asking why am I trying to create a keyword driven framework on top of SpecFlow if I hate keyword driven tests. Well, I have been totally against any keyword driven approach because of my experience and I realized that it may not have been the keyword driven approach in general, but my understanding and implementation of it. I just wanted to see what it would look like and what I could do to make it maintainable. I can appreciate allowing business users to create tests on demand without having to involve developers every step of the way. I am not sold on them wanting to do it and I draw the line on giving them test recorders to write the keyword tests for them (test recorders are another fight I will have with myself later).

So, now I know what it could look like, but I haven’t figured out how I would make it maintainable yet. The source code is on GitHub and it isn’t something anyone should use as it is very naive. If you are looking for a keyword driven approach for SpecFlow, it may provide a base for one way of doing it, but there is a lot to do to make it production ready. There are probably much better ways to implement it, but for a couple hours of development it works and I can see multiple ways of making it better. I probably won’t complete it, but it was fun doing it and taking a stroll down memory lane. I still advocate creating steps that aren’t so fine grained and defined at a higher level of abstraction.

The Implementation

So the approach started with the SpecFlow Feature file. I took a scenario and tried to word it in fine grained steps like the table above.

Scenario: Enter Welcome Text
 Given I am on the "Welcome" page
 And I enter "Hello" in "Welcome"
 When I click "Submit"
 Then I should be on the "Success" page
 And "Header" text should be "Success"

Then I implemented page objects for the Welcome and Success page. Next, I implemented the first Given which allows a user to use this step in any feature scenario and open any page that we have defined as a page object that can be loaded by a page factory. When the business adds a new page a developer just has to add the new page object and the business can compose their tests against the page with the predefined generic steps.

Next, I coded the steps that allow a user to enter text in a control, click a control, verify that a specific page is open, and verify that a control has the specified text. Comparing this to my previous approach, the Keywords are the predefined scenario steps. The Data and Controls are expressed as regex properties in the steps (the quoted items). I would have to define many more keywords for this to be as robust as my previous approach with Excel, but I didn’t have to write an Excel data layer and a complex parsing engine. Yet, this still smells like a maintenance nightmare.

One problem outside of test maintenance is code maintenance. I used hard coded strings in my factories to create or select page and control objects. I could have done some reflection and used well known conventions to create generic object factories. I could have used a Data Driven approach to supply the data for scenarios and users would have to just define the actions in the tests. For example, Given I enter text in “Welcome”. Then they would define the test data in a spreadsheet or JSON file and the data can easily be changed for different environments or situations (like scalability tests). With this more generic example step the implementation would be smart enough to get the text data that needs to be entered for the current scenario from the JSON file. This was another problem with my previous keyword driven approach because I didn’t separate data from the tests so to move to another environment or provide data for different situations meant copying the Excel files and updating the data for each scenario that needed to change.


Well, that’s if for now. Maybe I can grow to love or at least like this type of keyword driven testing.

Sample Project:

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