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Writing Features (Defining Value)

Gherkin is the language used to describe a feature and the scenarios that define its behavior. It originally came from Cucumber, the Ruby-equivalent of Behat and is just meant to be a natural, but structured feature story.

The feature template should look familiar: it consists of four lines that define the business value and “user role”:

Feature: {custom title}
  In order to {benefit/value of the feature}
  As a {user/role who will benefit from this feature}
  I need to {short feature description}

The first line starts with Feature, followed by a short title. This line should quickly highlight the purpose of this feature, but otherwise isn’t too important.

The next two lines, however, are very important. First, the In order to line defines the value. Why should we build this feature? Why is it important? Will it bring us more visitors or keep those visitors safe from dinosaur attack? The next line - starting with As a defines who will benefit from this value. Is it the admin user? Our normal web user? A defenseless park guest? If you have a hard time writing these first two lines, it’s possible that this feature just isn’t a good idea. After all, if we’re going to spend time and money building something, shouldn’t it have some value for a specific person?

Finally, the last line - starting with I need to - is a short description of the types of actions the user will be able to take once this feature is complete.

Since an example is worth a thousand words, let’s look at a few. Pretend that a big client idea has just been given to you, and it’s your job to break it into smaller pieces. From the 4-step process in the last chapter, our first step is to Define the business value. In other words, create the four-line feature for each big part of the idea.

Suppose you hear “The site needs to be readable in French”. The feature might look like this:

Feature: i18n
  In order to read the news in French
  As a French user
  I need to be able to switch locale

The value of the feature is clear: to be able to read news in French. The user that benefits from the feature is any French user. The last line details the types of things the user needs to do to get this business value. The whole feature description is simple - we’ll add more detail in the next step.

Imagine also that the same site needs a news admin panel:

Feature: News admin panel
  In order to maintain a list of news
  As a site administrator
  I need to be able to add/edit/delete news

For the “value”, we could say “In order to edit news”. But is editing news actually the true value? Instead, let’s write “In order to maintain a list of news”. The user who’s benefiting is our “site administrator”. This makes more sense - ultimately our site administrators want to be able to maintain the list of news that shows up on the site. This is the true business value of the feature - the web interface we’ll build is just the tool to do that.

Let’s do one more example. This time, imagine that park security wants to control park fences from a mobile app, while vacationing thousands of miles away.

Feature: Remote fence control API
  In order to control fence security from anywhere
  As an API user
  I need to be able to POST JSON instructions that turn fences on/off

The person benefiting in this case is our API user. This highlights another reason why the “user” or “role” is so important: every line in a feature is written from this person’s point of view and using the technical level of that person. This is really important, so I’ll say it again. The entire feature file is written from the first person point of view of the user or role and should use language that’s only as technical as that user understands. In this example, an API user understands the meaning of “JSON instructions”. But if our role were “a park guest”, we would avoid technical language like this. When we start writing scenarios, this means that you should never include CSS selectors: you understand what a CSS selector means, but your generic “web user” definitely does not.

The reason behind this is simple. The only reason we’re spending money to build the feature is to benefit this one user type. If we can’t even explain the feature using their language, then our feature is either too technical for that user, has no business value, or actually benefits some other user. It’s also helpful to imagine that this user is actually requesting the feature from you, using their own language. In the real world, keeping the language simple also means that you can write features and then send them back to the client for approval.

For fun, let’s look at a bad example of a feature. Suppose we’ve decided to put delicious humans in front of dinosaurs to entertain them while in captivity:

Feature: Delicious humans
  In order to be entertained
  As a dinosaur
  I need to be able to watch delicious humans pass by me all day

I love this example, because it sounds like something a big group of managers might come up with. The problem is that “seeing delicious humans all day” probably does not actually entertain dinosaurs. If you think that you’re building this feature for their benefit, you’re fooling yourself. This might very well be a good feature, but the business value is that the company will make money from park tickets, and the person benefiting from that is definitely not your dinosaur.


Now that we’ve broken the big idea down into 3 features, we can prioritize which we should work on first. And since we’ve focused on business value, this is easy: just choose the feature that has the most. Alternatively, if you need to make your admin users happy immediately, you might choose features that benefit those users. We’ll start with the news admin panel.

Prioritizing might not be something you normally do, but now it’s easy. You can make sure you repair the T-Rex fence before you send your first group of visitors into the park.

Writing Scenarios

Once you’ve chosen a feature, it’s time to write scenarios that describe each part of it. As we saw earlier, each scenario follows a very specific pattern. Start by giving it a name.

Feature: News admin panel
# ...

  Scenario: List available news

The body of a scenario is made up of three different parts: Given, When and Then. The first is Given, which describes the initial state of the system for the scenario. This is the only place where you can describe things that the user can’t do. In this case, the “site administrator” can’t magically put 5 news entries in the database, but that’s ok. To have more than one Given statement, start the next line with And.

The second part of each scenario is When, which describes the actual action that this user is taking.

Finally, Then is used to describe what our user can see at the end of the scenario.

Feature: News admin panel
# ...

  Scenario: List available news
    Given there are 5 news articles
    And I am on "/admin"
    When I click "News"
    Then I should see 5 news items

The exact language you use in your scenarios is up to you - just make sure to follow the Given, When, Then format. Each line in the scenario is called a “step”, and should plainly describe what the user is doing and seeing.

Feature: News admin panel
# ...

  Scenario: List available news
    # ...

  Scenario: Add a new news entry
    Given I am on "/admin/news"
    When I click "New entry"
    And I fill in "Title" with "Alan Grant does not endorse the park!"
    And I press "Save"
    Then I should see "Your article has been saved"


Technically speaking, there is no difference between Given, When, Then or And - Behat will process these steps completely the same.

If we didn’t go any further, we would at least have a standard way of describing our features. Writing scenarios also makes you think through each feature in more detail. When you’re finished, you’ve got a blueprint for exactly what you need to develop, written in language that your client can understand.

Next, we’ll use Behat to execute each Scenario as a test.