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Generating Software Documentation from Unit Tests

In the beginning of my career as a software developer I participated in two software projects with the traditional approach of document-first and code later. It didn't take too much time for me to realize this was a not a good aproach. We passed months capturing requirements and writing use cases just to find later that many use cases was actually different from what the stakeholders needed and many requirements have changed.

Then I came across with agile software development. The idea behind made perfect sense for me and some work colleagues and we started to introduce slowly this new paradigm in our department. Projects that lasted 1 year ( yes ! 1 year ) or more now lasted only a couple of months. Besides that because we were demonstrating the software every week or two to the stakeholders and thus we had feedback often from them.
This made us more productive and the final product (the software!) gained more quality and more confidence. But what happened to our business documentation ? We didn't drop a line of it.

Many agilists advocate that agile software development is about absence of documentation. Recently many agilists say it is not removing documentation but that it is seen from a different perspective from document-oriented traditional approach. Only the real necessary documentation is produced. Although it sounds perfectly reasonable we still need a way to document business rules for the IT sector managers and also stakeholders. They couldn't read and understand these rules directly from the source-code since they were not programmers or technicians. So I started to think of a way to automatically generate this documentation.

I was talking to Anselmo from Siemens and he gave me an interesting idea: Automatic generation of business documentation from unit tests. I started thinking how could I implement this alternative in our software architecture model where we have a service class for each use case and I got to the idea below:

For a Client Registration use case we could have the following unit tests:
[TestFixture][BusinessRules] // Business rule attribute means this test must be documented
class Client_Registration_Use_Case
void Normal_Flow__Check_if_name_is_not_null() { ... }

void Normal_Flow__Check_if_address_is_valid() { ... }

void Normal_Flow__Check_if_there_is_another_client_with_same_name() { ... }

void Normal_Flow__Save_New_Client() { ... }

[Test ExpectedException(typeof(NullClientNameException)) ]
void Alternative_Flow__If_client_name_is_null_raise_message_to_the_user() { ... }

[Test ExpectedException(typeof(InvalidClientAddressException)) ]
void Alternative_Flow__If_client_address_is_invalid_raise_message_to_the_user() { ... }

[Test ExpectedException(typeof(ClientNameAlreadyExistsException)) ]
void Alternative_Flow__If_another_client_with_the_same_name_was_found_raise_message_to_the_user() { ... }

At the end, a script in the continuous integration process can read this file or assembly and transform very easily this information and save to a documentation file such as Docbook, ODT or Word Doc. It is important to note that test methods should be placed in the right order so that the right documentation can be generated. The only work is reading the class and methods names and generate the documentation as follows:

Client Registration Use Case:

Normal Flow:
  1. Check if name is not null
  2. Check if address is valid
  3. Check if there is another client with same name
  4. Save New Client
Alternate Flows:
  1. If client name is null raise message to the user
  2. If client address is invalid raise message to the user
  3. If another client with the same name was found raise message to the user

This idea has the following advantages:
  • Documentation reflects exactly what was implemented in the software code and never gets outdated
  • If a new check or action is needed in a use case documentation, the implementation and NOT documentation is changed
  • In order to update the documentation, new unit tests are required what can force discipline among the programmers
  • Every time a release is generated the entire application documentation is updated since the proper unit tests are written
There disadvantages as well:
  • Unit tests become more verbose what can slow down its implementation a little bit
  • Test methods descriptions may not reflect the test performed inside
However I still believe the benefits are higher and I wonder if someone is not applying this idea since it sounds so simple. If you have any ideas for agile business documentation please get in touch with me.