While working on a recent project, I discovered how useful Gherkin can be to clarify features and encourage behaviour-driven development. In short—Gherkin is a way to document changes on a system level—which is easy to interpret for non-developers—making it easier to close the gap between the business side and the tech side of any product team.

From a design point of view, writing Gherkin is comparable to user stories: both outline intended behaviour. Gherkin however really shines during the implementation stage because its phrasing can be converted into reusable snippets for testing. By adopting Gherkin, you actively contribute to the testing process because you write your own tests for the feature you're about to design. This lightens the load on the QA and engineering side while preventing unforeseen bottlenecks. I will only cover writing Gherkin in this post, but there are some great tutorials on how to convert Gherkin documentation into testing scripts for those interested.

So how does it work? Imagine working on a webshop and you’d like to create an ‘add to shopping cart’ feature. In its most basic form, you could write this feature out in Gherkin as follows:

Feature: Add to cart

  When a customer adds an item to the cart
  Then the item should be displayed in the shopping cart

The when signifies an action or event, the then describes the desired outcome. This example is pretty straightforward, so let's pretend the shopping cart is only showing up for logged in customers and we want to reconfirm the action back to the user once an item gets added to the cart. To avoid repetition and keep things readable, we can use a given and an and statement as below:

Feature: Add to cart

  Given a customer is logged in
  When a customer adds an item to the cart
  Then the item should be displayed in the shopping cart
  And a modal should reconfirm the item is added

Great, thus far we’ve described a single scenario for this feature—adding an item to the shopping cart. Features often translate into multiple scenarios and edge cases.

Let’s pretend your team is asking what would happen if a user would hit the add to cart button again? After some thought, you decide to show an extra warning once someone adds the same item twice to the shopping cart. Let’s translate this in a new scenario for the feature:

Feature: Add to cart

  Scenario: Customer adds item to cart
    Given a customer is logged in
    When a customer adds an item to the cart
    Then the item should be displayed in the shopping cart
    And a modal should reconfirm the item is added

  Scenario: Customer adds same item twice
    Given a customer is logged in
    And an item is already in the cart
    When the customer tries to add that same item again
    Then a warning modal appears
    And the customer should reconfirm their action to add the item

Keep adding new scenarios to a feature until you feel like all major edge cases are addressed. Congratulations, you now have a feature written out in a way anyone can interpret it. For a designer, this is a great place to be in:

  • Having a shared understanding of how the feature works beyond the UI helps to spark discussions between team members and document newly made decisions. This will result in less ‘unfortunate surprises’ after the implementation is finished.
  • Understanding the different scenarios early on helps to shape and scope the work to be done on the technical side, this is useful information to have for anyone on the business side too.
  • You’ve just saved yourself a lot of time by holding off from designing out every interaction up front (although you still can if you think it’s necessary).
  • Well written Gherkin documentation is automatically checked against the system’s behaviour, leaving little room for misinterpretation.

I’m still figuring things out myself, but I’ve already noted some things that helped me improve my documentation:

Don’t get caught up in the details

Gherkin works best to explain the intended behaviour of a change, not the actual implementation. Focussing on the latter often results in lengthy documentation. In the example, it doesn’t matter whether we the team decides to implement a single button or a complex dragging interaction to add an item to the shopping cart—it ultimately wouldn’t change the documentation.

Consider using a background if your scenarios share the same givens

When writing scenarios within the same feature, it’s likely that you’ll reuse the same given. While the scenarios in the example were not very complex, they both used the same given (a customer is logged in). If we were to expand on the complexity of these givens or add more scenarios, it could be useful to add a separate background statement instead. Backgrounds are also a great way to tackle a feature from different kinds of users. We could add two different actors to our example using a background as follows:

Feature: Add to cart

  Background:
    Given a logged-in customer named "Anne"
    And an unregistered user called "Sam"

  Scenario: Logged in user adds item to cart
    When Anne adds an item to the cart
    Then the item should be displayed in the shopping cart
    And a modal should reconfirm the item is added

  Scenario: Unregistered user adds item to cart
    When Sam adds an item to the cart
    Then Sam needs to complete the signup before the item gets added

Avoid using multiple ‘when’ statements in a scenario

As the Gherkin documentation suggests, if you feel compelled to add more when statements in a scenario, it’s usually a sign that you could split the scenario up into smaller ones. I like to check whether I can convert my when into a given first. If that fails, I usually break it up into a new scenario.

All in all, I find Gherkin a pretty useful way to outline features and will continue to use it. It helped me and my team patch holes in upcoming features early on and scope the work more accurately. Feel free to give it a go yourself!