Introduction to unit test: spies

March 1, 2014    unit test


Before we deep more into Angular lands, I want to talk about spies. No, no that kind of spies.

When you are doing unit testing, you don’t want to leave your SUT (subject under test) domain. If you’re testing a controller in Angular and it injects 3 services, you don’t care about those services, you only want to test that controller but also make sure it uses the services as intended.

That means that if your controller calls a service when doing something, you only want to know that the service was called but without actually using the service. Uhm, I am confused, how can I test that I called a service without using it? And what if I need what it was supposed to return to the controller? And and and…

Jasmine has a concept called spies. You can spy functions and then you will be able to assert a couple of things about it. You can check if it was called, what parameters it had, if it returned something or even how many times it was called!

Spies are highly useful when writing tests, so I am going to explain how to use the most common of them here.

For the tutorial sake, we are going to use a little snippet I created earlier: (Remember you can follow along using this plunk)

//This is the one we don't care about
function RestService() {

RestService.prototype.init = function() {
  // Some init stuff

RestService.prototype.getAll = function() {
  return []; // Return elements

RestService.prototype.update = function(item) {
  console.log("Updating the item");

// This is our SUT (Subject under test)
function Post(rest) { = rest;

Post.prototype.retrieve = function() {
  this.posts =;

Post.prototype.accept = function(item, callback) {;
  if (callback) {

We have here our SUT which is a Post constructor. It uses a RestService to fetch its stuff. Our Post will delegate all the Rest work to the RestService which will be initialized when we create a new Post object. Let’s start testing it step by step:

describe('Posts', function() {
  var rest, post;

  beforeEach(function() {
    rest = new RestService();
    post = new Post(rest);

Nothing new here. Since we are going to need both instances in every test, we put the initialization on a beforeEach so we will have a new instance every time.

Upon Post creation, we initialize the RestService. We want to test that, how can we do that?:

it('will initialize the rest service upon creation', function() {
  spyOn(rest, 'init');
  post = new Post(rest);

We want to make sure that init on rest is being called when we create a new Post object. For that we use the jasmine spyOn function. The first parameter is the object we want to put the spy and the second parameter is a string which represent the function to spy. In this case we want to spy the function 'init' on the spy object. Then we just need to create a new Post object that will call that init function. The final part is to assert that rest.init have been called. Easy right? Something important here is that the when you spy a function, the real function is never called. So here rest.init doesn’t actually run.

Wait second, we already created the new Post object in the beforeEach! That is true, but here is an important concept: You can’t call a function, then spy it and assert it. Since on the beforeEach we already called the init function, the spy won’t work, that is why we recreate a new object for the test sake. You can also create the spy on the beforeEach but since we just need it once, we do it on the it.

Our next test is about retrieving the data from the RestService. Since it doesn’t return anything, what we could do is to make sure that the getAll function have been called and also that our this.posts contains what getAll returned. Wait a second. Does the spy return stuff? Sure!

it('will receive the list of posts from the rest service', function() {
  var posts = [
      title: 'Foo',
      body: 'Foo post'
      title: 'Bar',
      body: 'Bar post'
  spyOn(rest, 'getAll').and.returnValue(posts);

We create an array of fake posts and then we call spyOn on the getAll function. We can make an spy returns something when called using and.returnValue, which is called with our fake posts.

Having our spy in place, all what we need to do is to call post.retrieve and then assert that getAll was called and that also post.posts contain our fake posts that were returned by getAll.

We now want to test our accept function. We know that it will send a post to be updated on the RestService so we need to be sure that the post was sent as a parameter.

it('can accept a post to update it', function() {
  var postToAccept = {
    title: 'Title',
    body: 'Post'
  spyOn(rest, 'update').and.callThrough();

We start with the fake post we want to update and then we create the spy. What is that and.callThrough? Well, as you know, the real function is never called, but if you really need to spy it and also call it, you can do it with and.callThrough. To see this working, you can check how rest.update logs a message on the dev console.

Note: There is no real reason to use and.callThrough here, I did it to show how it works.

After that, we just call post.accept passing our fake post and then assert that rest.update was indeed called with fake post as a parameter.

If you remember, we had the option to pass a callback to the accept function. Let’s test that:

it('can receive a callback upon accept', function() {
  var fn = jasmine.createSpy();
  var postToAccept = {
    title: 'Title',
    body: 'Post'
  post.accept(postToAccept, fn);

See how we created a spy this time. We needed a function to pass to the accept function as a callback method so we could perfectly create an object with a function and spy it as we used to, but we can create a spied function from scratch using createSpy. After that, we pass it to accept and as always, we assert that it was called.

In Angular spies are heavily used on any kind of unit test. When we are testing something, we don’t care about the injected dependencies, we just need to make sure that they were used properly.

Spies are not the only solution and in fact, angular offer advanced ways to do this, ways I am going to explain later on this blog.

If you were lazy enough to not replicate this on a plunk, here it is completed.

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