If you’re looking at a big project, building a demo can be a necessary step to at least help figure out how the finished product is actually going to function. A demo may be a part of your planning process, a tool to collect data from users or even a way to help prove to potential investors that you have a concept worth funding.
As important as demos are, it’s important to get them right. These best practices can help you head in that direction.
Don’t Invest Too Much Time in a Demo
It may be counter-intuitive to talk about how important demos are and then tell you that you should spend too much time building a demo. But if a demo is an intermediary step that you need to complete before you can get to the real thing, it’s best to get something that just barely meets your needs so that you can quickly move on to actually developing the application you’re interested in. Feel free to do all those dirty hacks that won’t hold together in something that’s getting heavy use — provided you get something that you can show people.
Investors will understand if your demo isn’t much more than a series of sketches and you can collect a surprising amount of information by watching a user point to the button she would push if it actually worked. Go just as far as you need to and no further.
Develop Your Demo in the Language You Know Best
There are languages that are particularly good for certain tasks. You probably have a good idea of what you should develop your project in already. But if that isn’t the language that you know best, leave using it for when you really start development. If you’re looking to build a semi-functional demo, you don’t want to be learning a new language at the same time. The only exception is if your best language is not even capable of whatever you need to accomplish. In that case, learn that new language first and try to get up to speed with it before diving into your demo.
Keep Notes on Everything
There’s a temptation to say, ‘I’m just building a demo. I don’t need documentation for something that’s going to get thrown away when I start on the real thing.’ And it’s true that you probably don’t need very detailed documentation, but you do need to keep notes on the process. Write down any problems you run into, ideas you have and so on. Even better, record how people — especially prospective users — interact with your demo. A short video now can make development later a lot easier.
Image by Flickr user Ronny-Andre Bendiksen