Test Your Apps

In the previous Understand Django article, we saw how static files like CSS, JavaScript, and images can be incorporated into your site. Now we’re going to focus on how to verify that your website works and continues to work by writing automated tests that check your pages and your code logic.

  1. From Browser To Django
  2. URLs Lead The Way
  3. Views On Views
  4. Templates For User Interfaces
  5. User Interaction With Forms
  6. Store Data With Models
  7. Administer All The Things
  8. Anatomy Of An Application
  9. User Authentication
  10. Middleware Do You Go?
  11. Serving Static Files
  12. Test Your Apps
  13. Deploy A Site Live
  14. Per-visitor Data With Sessions
  15. Making Sense Of Settings
  16. User File Use
  17. Command Your App
  18. Go Fast With Django
  19. Security And Django
  20. Debugging Tips And Techniques
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Why Write Tests

I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this, then you’ve either got a Django project or are considering working with Django to build a project. If that’s true, think about your project and how you would make sure it works.

When you start out with a project, whether for a tutorial or for something real that you plan to grow, the fledgling site has very little functionality. To check that the site is working, you can start up the local web server, open your browser, navigate to the localhost URL, and confirm that the site is functional. How long does that take? 5 seconds? 15 seconds? 30 seconds?

For starting out, manually checking out your site is fine. What happens, though, when you create more pages? How do you continue to confirm that all your pages are functional? You could open up the local site and start clicking around, but the time spent confirming that everything works begins to grow. Maybe your verification effort takes 3 minutes, 5 minutes, or perhaps much more. If you’re not careful, your creation may start to feel like the mythical multi-headed Hydra, and what once was a fun project to work on devolves into a chore of tedious page verification.

You can’t eliminate the fact that a larger project means that there is more to check. What you can do is change the name of the game. You can change your page checking from something manual that may take 15 seconds to verify a page to something that a computer can do in milliseconds.

This is where automated tests come into the picture. Automated tests let computers do what computers do best: run repetitive tasks repeatedly, consistently, and quickly. When we write tests, our goal is to confirm some logic or behavior in a deterministic way.

Let’s look at a test for a hypothetical add function which functions like the + operator. This should give us a feel for what an automated test is like if you’ve never encountered tests before.

def test_does_it_add():
    assert add(40, 2) == 42

The test works by running the code and comparing the result to whatever we expect that result to be. The test asserts that the equality statement is true. If the equality is false, then the assertion raises an exception and the test fails.

This automated test would take virtually no time to run if you compared it to running the function in a Python REPL to inspect the result manually.

Seeing a silly example of an add function doesn’t really help you much with how you should test your Django project. Next, we’ll look at some types of tests for Django. If you add these kinds of tests to your project, you’ll be able to make changes to your website with more confidence that you’re not breaking things.

Useful Types Of Django Tests

When we explored the anatomy of a Django application, I noted that I always delete the tests.py file that comes with the startapp command. The reason I do this is because there are different kinds of tests, and I want those different kinds to live in separate files. My apps have those separate files in a tests package within the app instead of a tests.py module.

My tests package will often mirror the structure of the application itself. The program which executes tests, which is called a “test runner,” typically expects to find tests in files that start with test_. The package often includes:

  • test_forms.py
  • test_models.py
  • test_views.py
  • etc.

This structure hints at the kinds of tests that you’d write for your application, but I’ll touch on specifics more a bit later. Broadly, when we write automated tests, there is an important dimension to consider: how much application code should my test run?

The answer to that question influences the behavior of tests. If we write a test that runs a lot of code, then we benefit by checking a lot of a system at once; however, there are some downsides:

  • Running a lot of code means more things can happen and there is a higher chance of your test breaking in unexpected ways. A test that often breaks in unexpected ways is called a “brittle” test.
  • Running a lot of code means that there is a lot of code to run. That’s axiomatic, but the implication is that a test with more code to execute will take longer to run. Big automated tests are still very likely to be much faster than the same test executed manually, so running time is relative.

When we have tests that run many parts of your application that are integrated together, we call these tests integration tests. Integration tests are good at surfacing issues related to the connections between code. For instance, if you called a method and passed in the wrong arguments, an integration test is likely to discover that problem.

On the other end of the spectrum are tests that run very little code. The add test from above is a good example. These kinds of tests check individual units of code (e.g., a Django model). For that reason, we call these unit tests. Unit tests are good at checking a piece of code in isolation to confirm its behavior.

Unit tests have downsides too. These tests execute without a lot of context from the rest of an application. This can help you confirm the behavior of the piece, but it might not be the behavior that the larger application requires.

In this explanation, the lesson is that both kinds of tests are good, yet have tradeoffs. Beware of anyone who tells you that you should only write one kind of test or the other.

A good set of automated tests will include both unit and integration tests to check behavior of the individual units and the interconnections between parts.

We have to consider another aspect to this discussion: what is the “right” amount of code for a unit test? There’s no absolutely correct answer here. In fact, this topic is hotly debated among testers.

Some people will assert that a unit test should only run the code for that unit. If you have a class that implements some pure logic and doesn’t need other code, then you’re in the ideal case. But what happens if you’re testing a method that you added to a Django model that needs to interact with a database? Even if the only thing you’re testing is the individual model method, a unit test purist would highlight that the test is actually an integration test if it interacts with a database.

I usually find this kind of discussion counterproductive. In my experience, this sort of philosophical debate about what is a unit test doesn’t typically help with testing your web app to verify its correctness. I brought all of this up because, if you’re going to learn more about testing after this article, I caution you to avoid getting sucked into this definition trap.

Here are my working definitions of unit and integration tests in Django. These definitions are imperfect (as are any definitions), but they should help frame the discussion in this article.

  • Unit tests - Tests that check individual units within a Django project like a model method or a form.
  • Integration test - Tests that check a group of units and their interactions like checking if a view renders the expected output.

Now that we have some core notion of what tests are about, let’s get into the details.

Unit Tests

As we get into some examples, I need to introduce a couple of tools that I use on all of my Django projects. I’ll describe these tools in more depth in a later section, but they need a brief introduction here or my examples won’t make much sense. My two “must have” packages are:

  • pytest-django
  • factory-boy

pytest-django is a package that makes it possible to run Django tests through the pytest program. pytest is an extremely popular Python testing tool with a huge ecosystem of extensions. In fact, pytest-django is one of those extensions.

My biggest reason for using pytest-django is that it lets me use the assert keyword in all of my tests. In the Python standard library’s unittest module and, by extension, Django’s built-in test tools which subclass unittest classes, checking values requires methods like assertEqual and assertTrue. As we’ll see, using the assert keyword exclusively is a very natural way to write tests.

The other vital tool in my tool belt is factory-boy. PyPI calls this factory-boy, but the documentation uses factory_boy, so we’ll use that naming from here on. factory_boy is a tool for building test database data. The library has fantastic Django integration and gives us the ability to generate model data with ease.

Again, I’ll focus on these two packages later on to cover more of their features, but you’ll see them used immediately in the examples.

Model Tests

In Django projects, we use models to hold data about our app, so it’s very natural to add methods to the models to interact with the data. How do we write a test that checks that the method does what we expect?

I’m going to give you a mental framework for any of your tests, not only unit tests. This framework should help you reason through any tests that you encounter when reading and writing code. The framework is the AAA pattern. The AAA patterns stands for:

  • Arrange - This is the part of the test that sets up your data and any necessary preconditions for your test.
  • Act - This stage is when your test runs the application code that you want to test.
  • Assert - The last part checks that your action is what you expected.

For a model test, this looks like:

# application/tests/test_models.py

from application.models import Order
from application.tests.factories import OrderFactory

class TestOrder:
    def test_shipped(self):
        """After shipping an order, the status is shipped."""
        order = OrderFactory(


        assert order.status == Order.Status.SHIPPED

We can imagine a project that includes an ecommerce system. A big part of handling orders is tracking status. We could manually set the status field throughout the app, but changing status within a method gives us the chance to do other things. For instance, maybe the ship method also triggers sending an email.

In the test above, we’re checking the state transition from PENDING to SHIPPED. The test acts on the ship method, then refreshes the model instance from the database to ensure that the SHIPPED status persisted.

What are some good qualities about this test?

The test includes a docstring. Trust me, you will benefit from docstrings on your tests. There is a strong temptation to leave things at test_shipped, but in the future you may not have enough context.

Many developers opt for long test names instead. While I have no problem with long descriptive test names, docstrings are helpful too. Whitespace is a good thing and, in my opinion, it’s easier to read “The widget updates the game state when pushed.” than test_widget_updates_game_state_when_pushed.

The test checks one action. A test that checks a single action can fit in your head. There’s no question about interaction with other parts. There’s also no question about what is actually being tested. The simplicity of testing a single action makes each unit test tell a unique story.

Conversely, you’ll likely encounter tests in projects that do a lot of initial arrangement, then alternate between act and assert lines in a single test. These kinds of tests are brittle (i.e., the term to indicate that the test can break and fail easily) and are difficult to understand when there is a failure.

The qualities in this test translate to lots of different test types. I think that’s the beauty of having a solid mental model for testing. Once you see the way that tests:

  1. Set up the inputs,
  2. Take action,
  3. Check the outputs,

then automated testing becomes a lot less scary and more valuable to you. Now let’s see how this same pattern plays out in forms.

Form Tests

When writing tests, we often want to write a “happy path” test. This kind of test is when everything works exactly as you hope. This is a happy path form test.

# application/tests/test_forms.py

from application.forms import SupportForm
from application.models import SupportRequest

class TestSupportForm:
    def test_request_created(self):
        """A submission to the support form creates a support request."""
        email = "hello@notreal.com"
        data = {
            "email": email,
            "message": "I'm having trouble with your product."
        form = SupportForm(data=data)


        assert SupportRequest.objects.filter(
        ).count() == 1

With this test, we are synthesizing a POST request. The test:

  • Builds the POST data as data
  • Creates a bound form (i.e., connects data=data in the constructor)
  • Validates the form
  • Saves the form
  • Asserts that a new record was created

Notice that I’m bending the AAA rules a bit for this test. Part of the Django convention for forms is that the form is valid before calling the save method. If that convention is not followed, then cleaned_data won’t be populated correctly and most save methods depend on cleaned_data. Even though is_valid is an action, I view it as a setup step for form tests.

When we work with forms, a lot of what we care about is cleaning the data to make sure that junk is not getting into your app’s database. Let’s write a test for an invalid form.

# application/tests/test_forms.py

from application.forms import SupportForm
from application.models import SupportRequest

class TestSupportForm:
    # ... def test_request_created ...

    def test_bad_email(self):
        """An malformed email address is invalid."""
        data = {
            "email": "bogus",
            "message": "Whatever"
        form = SupportForm(data=data)

        is_valid = form.is_valid()

        assert not is_valid
        assert 'email' in form.errors

The test shows the mechanics for checking an invalid form. The key elements are:

  • Set up the bad form data
  • Check the validity with is_valid
  • Inspect the output state in form.errors

This test shows how to check an invalid form, but I’m less likely to write this particular test in a real project. Why? Because the test is checking functionality from Django’s EmailField which has the validation logic to know what is a real email or not.

Generally, I don’t think it’s valuable to test features from the framework itself. A good open source project like Django is already testing those features for you. When you write form tests, you should check on custom clean_* and clean methods as well as any custom save method that you might add.

The patterns for both happy path and error cases are what I use for virtually all of my Django form tests. Let’s move on to the integration tests to see what it looks like to test more code at once.

Integration Tests

In my opinion, a good integration test won’t look very different from a good unit test. An integration test can still follow the AAA pattern like other automated tests. The parts that change are the tools you’ll use and the assertions you will write.

My definition of an integration test in Django is a test that uses Django’s test Client. In previous articles, I’ve only mentioned what a client is in passing. In the context of a web application, a client is anything that consumes the output of a web app to display it to a user.

The most obvious client for a web app is a web browser, but there are plenty of other client types out there. Some examples that could use output from a web application:

  • A native mobile application
  • A command line interface
  • A programming library like Python’s requests package that can handle HTTP requests and responses

The Django test Client is like these other clients in that it can interact with your Django project to receive data from requests that it creates. The nice part about the test client is that the output is returned in a convenient way that we can assert against. The client returns the HttpResponse object directly!

With that context, here’s an integration test that we can discuss.

# application/tests/test_views.py

from django.test import Client
from django.urls import reverse

from application.tests.factories import UserFactory

class TestProfileView:
    def test_shows_name(self):
        """The profile view shows the user's name."""
        client = Client()
        user = UserFactory()

        response = client.get(

        assert response.status_code == 200
        assert user.first_name in response.content.decode()

What is this test doing? Also, what is this test not doing?

By using the Django test client, the test runs a lot of Django code. This goes through:

  • URL routing
  • View execution (which will likely fetch from the database)
  • Template rendering

That’s a lot of code to execute in a single test! The goal of the test is to check that all the major pieces hang together.

Now let’s observe what the test is not doing. Even though the test runs a ton of code, there aren’t a huge number of assert statements. In other words, our goal with an integration isn’t to check every tiny little thing that could happen in the whole flow. Hopefully, we have unit tests that cover those little parts of the system.

When I write an integration test, I’m mostly trying to answer the question: does the system hold together without breaking?

Now that we’ve covered unit tests and integration tests, what are some tools that will help you make testing easier?

Tools To Help

When testing your application, you have access to so many packages to help that it can be fairly overwhelming. If you’re testing for the first time, you may be struggling with applying the AAA pattern and knowing what to test. We want to minimize the extra stuff that you have to know.

We’re going to revisit the tools that I listed earlier, pytest-django and factory_boy, to get you started. Consider these your Django testing survival kit. As you develop your testing skills, you can add more tools to your toolbox, but these two tools are a fantastic start.


pytest is a “test runner.” The tool’s job is to run automated tests. If you read Writing and running tests in the Django documentation, you’ll discover that Django also includes a test runner with ./manage.py test. What gives? Why am I suggesting that you use pytest?

I’m going to make a bold assertion: pytest is better. (Did I just go meta there? Yes, I did. 😆)

I like a lot about Django’s built-in test runner, but I keep coming back to pytest for one primary reason: I can use assert in tests. As you’ve seen in these test examples, the assert keyword makes for clear reading. We can use all of Python’s normal comparison tests (e.g., ==, !=, in) to check the output of tests.

Django’s test runner builds off the test tools that are included with Python in the unittest module. With those test tools, developers must make test classes that subclass unittest.TestCase. The downside of TestCase classes is that you must use a set of assert* methods to check your code.

The list of assert* methods are included in the unittest documentation. You can be very successful with these methods, but I think it requires remembering an API that includes a large number of methods. Consider this. Would you rather:

  1. Use assert? OR
  2. Use assertEqual, assertNotEqual, assertTrue, assertFalse, assertIs, assertIsNot, assertIsNone, assertIsNotNone, assertIn, assertNotIn, assertIsInstance, and assertNotIsInstance?

Using assert from pytest means that you get all the benefits of the assert* methods, but you only need to remember a single keyword. If that wasn’t enough, let’s compare the readability:

self.assertEqual(my_value, 42)
assert my_value == 42

self.assertNotEqual(my_value, 42)
assert my_value != 42

assert my_value is not None

assert my_value

For the same reason that Python developers prefer property methods instead of getters and setters (e.g. obj.value = 42 instead of obj.set_value(42)), I think the assert style syntax is far simpler to visually process.

Outside of the awesome handling of assert, pytest-django includes a lot of other features that you might find interesting when writing automated tests.


The other test package that I think every developer should use in their Django projects is factory_boy.

factory_boy helps you build model data for your tests.

The recommendation when writing automated tests is to use an empty test database. If fact, the common pattern provided with Django testing tools is to use an empty database for every test. Having a blank slate in the database helps each test be independent and makes it easier to assert on the state of the database. Because the test database is empty, you’ll need a strategy to populate your tests with the appropriate data to check against.

As you build up your Django project, you will have more models that help to describe the domain that your website addresses. Generating model data for your tests is an immensely valuable capability.

You could use your model manager’s create method to create a database entry for your test, but you’re going to run into some limits very fast.

The biggest challenge with using create comes from database constraints like foreign keys. What do you do if you want to build a record that requires a large number of non-nullable foreign key relationships? Your only choice is to create those foreign key records.

We can imagine an app that shows information about movies. The Movie model could have a variety of foreign key relationships like director, producer, studio, and so on. I’ll use a few in the example, but imagine what would happen as the number of foreign key relationships increases.

def test_detail_view_show_genre(client):
    """The genre is on the detail page."""
    director = Director.objects.create(
        name="Steven Spielberg"
    producer = Producer.objects.create(
        name="George Lucas"
    studio = Studio.objects.create(
    movie = Movie.objects.create(

    response = client.get(
        reverse('movie:detail', args=[movie.id])

    assert response.status_code == 200
    assert 'Sci-Fi' in response.content.decode()

On the surface, the test isn’t too bad. I think that’s mostly because I kept the modeling simple. What if the Director, Producer, or Studio models also had required foreign keys? We’d spend most of our effort on the Arrangement section of the test. Also, as we inspect the test, we get bogged down with unnecessary details. Did we need to know the names of the director, producer, and studio? No, we didn’t need that for this test. Now, let’s look at the factory_boy equivalent.

def test_detail_view_show_genre(client):
    """The genre is on the detail page."""
    movie = MovieFactory(genre='Sci-Fi')

    response = client.get(
        reverse('movie:detail', args=[movie.id])

    assert response.status_code == 200
    assert 'Sci-Fi' in response.content.decode()

MovieFactory seems like magic. Our test got to ignore all the other details. Now the test could focus entirely on the genre.

Factories simplify the construction of database records. Instead of wiring the models together in the test, we move that wiring to the factory definition. The benefit is that our tests can use the plain style that we see in the second example. If we need to add a new foreign key to the model, only the factory has to be updated, not all your other tests that use that model.

What might this Movie factory look like? The factory might be:

# application/tests/factories.py

import factory

from application.models import Movie

# Other factories defined here...

class MovieFactory(factory.django.DjangoModelFactory):
    class Meta:
        model = Movie

    director = factory.SubFactory(
    producer = factory.SubFactory(
    studio = factory.SubFactory(
    genre = 'Action'

This factory definition is very declarative. We declare what we want, and factory_boy figures out how to put it together. This quality leads to factories that you can reason about because you can focus on the what and not the how of model construction.

The other noteworthy aspect is that the factories compose together. When we call MovieFactory(), factory_boy is missing data about everything so it must build all of that data. The challenge is that the MovieFactory doesn’t know how to build a Director or any of the movie’s foreign key relationships. Instead, the factory will delegate to other factories using the SubFactory attribute. By delegating to other factories, factory_boy can build the model and its entire tree of relationships with a single call.

When we want to override the behavior of some of the generated data, we pass in the extra argument as I did in the second example by providing “Sci-Fi” as the genre. You can pass in other model instances to your factories too.

factory_boy makes testing with database records a joy. In my experience, most of my Django tests require some amount of database data so I use factories very heavily. I think you will find that factory_boy is a worthy addition to your test tools.


In this article, we explored tests with Django projects. We focused on:

  • Why anyone would want to write automated tests
  • What kinds of tests are useful to a Django app
  • What tools you can use to make testing easier

Next time, we will dig into deployment. Deployment is getting your project into the environment where you will share your application for use. This might be the internet or it might be a private network for your company. Wherever you’re putting your app, you’ll want to know about:

  • Deploying your application with a Python web application server (i.e., ./manage.py runserver isn’t meant for deployed apps)
  • Deployment preconditions for managing settings, migrations, and static files
  • A checklist to confirm that your settings are configured with the proper security guards
  • Monitoring your application for errors

If you’d like to follow along with the series, please feel free to sign up for my newsletter where I announce all of my new content. If you have other questions, you can reach me online on Twitter where I am @mblayman.