Working with UIAutomation comments

published 03 July 2010

In this post we're going to look at the UI Automation library/tool that Apple added to iOS SDK 4.0. This is a huge step forward for test automation on the iOS platform. While it's not without some compromises, it's worth looking at to see if you can reduce the time you spend on manual testing.

UI Automation is both a probe for Instruments as well as a JavaScript library provided by Apple to exercise and validate a running application. In this case, "running application" isn't restricted to the simulator—you can also automate the application on a real device. To my knowledge, this is the first time I've heard of anyone being able to do this.

This is huge. Having the ability to automate workflows in your application yields two benefits: you cut down on manual testing which saves you time, and you can rely less on your memory to execute all your tests. Instead, you just push a button (okay, two or three buttons) and run your full regression suite. Have I piqued your interest yet?

Preparing Your Application

First, you need to do a little groundwork to prepare your application to work with the automation tool. The UI Automation library relies on accessibility information in your UI, so adding a little accessibility info to your UI will make testing it easier1. More specifically, the UI Automation framework looks for the accessibilityLabel property of your UIViews. If you've built any web applications, this is somewhat akin to sprinkling id attributes in your HTML markup so that you can find particular DOM nodes easily with JavaScript.

For views constructed in Interface Builder, you can set this property in the Inspector in the "View Identity" tab (the fourth one). Note that not every kind of view provides accessibility configuration in Interface Builder 2. You need to enable Accessibility and you need to provide a Label value. You'll use these later in your tests to identify particular views.

If you aren't using IB or your view doesn't expose accessibility information graphically, you can still set it manually in your code. You can set the isAccessibilityElement and accessibilityLabel properties to get the same effect:

- (UITableViewCell *)tableView:(UITableView *)tableView cellForRowAtIndexPath:(NSIndexPath *)indexPath {
  static NSString *CellIdentifier = @"Cell";
  UITableViewCell *cell = [tableView dequeueReusableCellWithIdentifier:CellIdentifier];
  if (cell == nil) {
    cell = [[[UITableViewCell alloc] initWithStyle:UITableViewCellStyleDefault reuseIdentifier:CellIdentifier] autorelease];
  // cell configuration elided
  cell.isAccessibilityElement = YES;
  cell.accessibilityLabel = @"user name"
  return cell

Writing Your Tests

The next step is to write your first test in JavaScript3 in your editor of choice. This step is a bit like being dropped off in a field somewhere with no map, tools or supplies and being told you need to build a house. There's no built-in structure for your tests. When you execute a test script, Instruments will run it from beginning to end in linear fashion.

To get started you need to get a reference to the running application from which you can access all the other parts of the app. Put these two lines of boilerplate at the top of your test:

target = UIATarget.localTarget();
application = target.frontMostApp();

The UIATarget is your primary portal into the application running on the device or simulator. It acts as a sort of proxy for the user of the application and is the object you interact with when you want to perform operations on the device such as fiddling with volume controls, shaking, or performing user gestures. The application object (a UIAApplication instance), gives you access to the top-level structure of your application for things like the navigation bar, tab bars, and the main window.

The UIAApplication class has a mainWindow() method that returns a UIAWindow instance. This class is an extension of UIAElement which nearly all of the other UI-related classes derive from. This class provides access to things like the parent view, child views, links, pickers, sliders, table views and nearly anything else you can imagine.

While Apple didn't provide much high-level information about UI Automation in the form of a Programming Guide, the UI Automation Reference Guide is worth bookmarking or keeping handy in PDF format. This is an essential reference that describes the JavaScript API in great detail. Check the Xcode documentation.

So let's look at a real example 4. Let's say we have an application connects to a variety of popular web sites. When the user launches the app for the first time, we want to detect that they don't have any accounts configured and prompt them to create one. Our screen might look something like this:

Choose an account type

We want to verify that when we launch the application we see this screen. Once we've verified this, we want to create a twitter account, so we'll select the "twitter" table cell. Here's the test script so far:

test("Initial screen", function(target, app) {
  // check navigation bar
  navBar = mainWindow.navigationBar();
  assertEquals("Add Account",;
  button = navBar.leftButton();

  // check tables
  table = mainWindow.tableViews()[0];
  tableGroup = table.groups()[0];
  assertEquals("What type of account?",;

  assertEquals(4, table.cells().length);
  ["facebook", "flickr", "github", "twitter"].each(function(i,e) {
  // more to come...

The test, assertNotNull and assertEquals functions are ones I wrote to add some structure and high-level validation to the testing process. I found the way the UI Automation suite does test case declaration to be really verbose and crude so I boiled test declaration into something simpler. First, the test() method takes a string title and a function to execute as the body:

function test(title, f, options) {
  if (options == null) {
    options = {
      logTree: true
  target = UIATarget.localTarget();
  application = target.frontMostApp();
  try {
    f(target, application);
  catch (e) {
    if (options.logTree) target.logElementTree();

This handles the boilerplate of getting the target and application references. It also provides some structure around UIALogger.logStart(), UIALogger.logPass() and UIALogger.logFail(). These three methods are how the UI Automation framework demarcates tests. However I found that using if checks and calling logFail() really muddied the tests, so I wrote some assertion methods that throw exceptions and the test structure automatically catches them and logs the test as a failure.

Here are the assertion methods:

function assertEquals(expected, received, message) {
  if (received != expected) {
    if (! message) message = "Expected " + expected + " but received " + received;
    throw message;

function assertTrue(expression, message) {
  if (! expression) {
    if (! message) message = "Assertion failed";
    throw message;

function assertFalse(expression, message) {
  assertTrue(! expression, message);

function assertNotNull(thingie, message) {
  if (thingie == null || thingie.toString() == "[object UIAElementNil]") {
    if (message == null) message = "Expected not null object";
    throw message;

Whew. Still with me? OK, back to our test. Next we want to fill out the text fields in the next view with our twitter credentials:

Enter twitter credentials

We extend the test code above with the next set of stimuli and assertions:

  // create a new account
  mainWindow = app.mainWindow();
  table = mainWindow.tableViews()[0];

  userName = table.cells().firstWithName("user name");
  assertNotNull(userName, "No username field found");

  password = table.cells().firstWithName("password");
  assertNotNull(password, "No password field found");
  assertNotNull(password.secureTextFields()[0], "No text field found for password");
  finish = table.cells().firstWithName("finish");
  assertNotNull(finish, "No finish button found");
  // more to come...

The first line above finds the "twitter" cell by calling the firstWithName() method on the collection of cells in the table view. This table view was generated programmatically, so that "twitter" label came from setting the cell's isAccessibilityElement property to YES and its accessibilityLabel property to @"twitter". Next we touch that table cell via the tap() method to navigate forward in our application.

The next two stanzas validate that we have user name and password fields, and also fills them out using the setValue() method. Finally we look for the cell that contains the "Finish" button and tap it to finish creating our account.

Our landing point, the settings screen

The last bit of testing to do here is to validate that we did indeed land on our settings screen. So we add a few more assertions to our test:

  // validate settings screen
  mainWindow = app.mainWindow();
  assertEquals("Settings", mainWindow.navigationBar().name());

Here I call the waitForInvalid() method on the finish button object. Without this, I found that the other code executed too quickly before the window transition completed. The waitForInvalid() will wait (up to a configurable timeout value) for that object to be invalidated. Our last assertion is that the title in the navigation bar is "Settings".

Running Your Tests

Now that we have a test, we need to run it in Instruments. When you launch Instruments, choose "Automation" from the iPhone templates.

Automation template in Instruments

In the details for the Automation instrument, choose your script via the "Choose Script…" drop-down. Next, you need to choose your target from the toolbar. Once you have these setup, you run the flow by (somewhat counter-intuitively) hitting the record button (or using ⌘+R). This will launch your application, wait a few seconds and then run your test. Note that even if your test completes, Instruments will keep running your application. To formally end the test toggle the red record button, or hit ⌘+R again.

Tests are listed in the detail view, with the test name in the "Log Messages" column. If your test passes, the "Log Type" value will be "Pass" in comforting green. If your test fails, the value is "Fail" in scary red. You can expand the test to see the details of what happened. Because of the way I wrote the test structure above, any test failures automatically log the view hierarchy for inspection.

A test failure

Debugging Your Tests

When things go wrong with your tests you don't have a lot to look at. However there are a few things you can inspect to try to figure out what's broken. First, log the element tree (via UIATarget.logElementTree()) liberally and often. Although view hierarchy is a tree and it's presented in a tree control, it's "flattened-out" out for display purposes. However, the numeric prefix listed in each row indicates the level that node is at, so you can infer parent-child relationships:

The tree hierarchy

In this case, the tree looks something like this:

  • UIATarget
    • UIAApplication
      • UIAWindow
        • UIATableView
          • UIATableGroup
            • UIAStaticText

You don't always have to traverse the entire tree, node-by-node, to find what you're looking for. Take a look at the various methods on the UIAElement class and experiment a bit.

You can also log any message you choose using any of these log methods on the UIALogger class:

  • logDebug()
  • logMessage()
  • logWarning()
  • logError()

All of these just log messages of varying severity, but don't affect whether or not the test is marked as passing or a failure.

Building on UI Automation

While Apple may not have provided much support for automation testing beyond a JavaScript API and a reference doc, they (wisely) left the whole mechanism open to easy extension. You can import other JavaScript into your tests with the #import statement. I'm not 100% sure how smart that statement is with regard to paths, but I found that if you put supporting scripts in the same directory as the test script you're executing, Instruments will automatically pick it up.

So I took the extensions I mentioned earlier, plus a few more, and put them into a small, but growing, JavaScript library I call tuneup_js.

You can simply copy all of the JavaScript files into the same directory as your automation tests. For my project, I created a separate directory called "Automation Tests" and dumped everything in there. This is pretty crude and I'd like to improve it, but I need to spend some more time figuring out the nuances of how Instruments handles paths in #import statements.

Please check it out, file bugs, send patches and/or your feedback.

Stepping Back

These kind of tests are high-level, flow-oriented tests that exercise entire scenarios. As much as possible, these run against a "real" system though, at times, you may swap out external dependencies with mocked ones in order to control the test environment and execution.

There have been other third-party open-source projects that have addressed the lack of good automation testing. In particular iCuke and UISpec both have a lot going for them. If you like Cucumber, iCuke is nice for writing integration tests. It's pretty impressive what they've been able to accomplish on their own. Personally I prefer the Cucumber approach to integration tests. However, because iCuke uses a small embedded web server and XML to exercise and validate the UI, I found that I often ran into time-out issues and got frustrated wrestling with XPath expressions to validate my UI.

What iCuke has going for it, and what Instruments can't do, is the fact that you can automate the entire process. As far as I can tell, there isn't a good way to automate getting Instruments to run your automation tests. I hope this is something that either Apple addresses, or somebody figures out a clever hack for.

iCuke responds

I like the way the Apple library is connected to the running application. It definitely feels "first-class" compared to iCuke's implementation 5. Let's hope that we can bring the two approaches together to have one fantastic automation tool.

One thing that none of these tools UI Automation can't really help you with is building reliable, repeatable test harnesses. One of the hardest parts of making good integration tests is setting up application state to test various modes of your application. This is one of the reasons why xUnit-style tests don't work well for automation. Too often people write fine-grained tests that have an implicit order, each test relying on the side-effects of the previous one. This makes your tests highly-coupled and extremely brittle.

In my application I have a couple of initial application states to test. None of these tools provides much help for that. For now, I've chosen to sprinkle a few #ifdefs around in my app delegate to setup the application in a known state. Then I use different build configurations to build separate binaries, each with a different known initial state. There's no doubt that it's a bit Rube Goldberg-esque, but it's a start.

There is a growing list of options available out there for writing automated integration tests for your iPhone apps. Apple's UI Automation tool is just one of them. It has it's pros and cons, but it's a big step forward in the right direction. Now it's up to us to figure out how to build upon them, develop extensions and idioms around them and, ultimately, build better apps.


As I stated earlier, there isn't much out there in the way of documentation, but here are a couple things to look at:


  1. I don't know if this was a ploy to get developers to be more mindful of disabled users or not, but the net-result is a win for everyone. You get better test automation and disabled users get better apps.
  2. I haven't spent the time to figure out which ones do and don't so perhaps there's some kind of rhyme and reason to this.
  3. I have to admit that I was surprised to see JavaScript as the language of choice given Apple's support of the MacRuby project. JavaScript has had to weather a lot of bad press over the years. It's a language that has a lot of quirks but, once you separate it from the vagaries of various browser implementations, you'll find that it's a pretty flexible and expressive language.
  4. This comes from a real app that I've been working on. You can't beat learning new things from a real project.
  5. No disrespect meant for the iCuke team. Honestly, they've done an awesome job, I can't wait to see where they go next. Definitely keep your eye on this project.
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