The Case Against Demos

It is always tempting to develop demos when developing software. I have driven myself and others down this path many times. The aim being to come up with an inspiring ‘facade-only’ features quickly that can encourage ‘buy in’ from your target audience.

However, with a few exceptions, I have never actually found they lead to many interesting places . Demos have a few paradoxes that are not immediately apparent when you get that great idea which is where the software could be or should be or maybe, just maybe, might be. So it’s worth spelling out, for myself if for no one else, why demos are, generally speaking, a bad idea.

  1. a good demo works – the ultimate paradox. There is often no difference between building a good demo and building the thing itself. So, don’t kid yourself that a demo is going to be a magically shorter shot to the moon. It’s the same distance to the moon in a demo rocket as it is in a real one.
  2. demos are fake  – demos are fake ups, but you think it will better demonstrate to people what your software is capable of doing. But it is not doing it, because it is fake.
  3. demos can yield unreasonable expectations – so you make a great demo software. People buy into it! So when are you going to deliver? Soon, right!? It’s almost there! Wrong.
  4. demos waste development time – that speaks for itself.

The longer I get in the tooth, the more I think you should demo what you have. I think that many times demos are presented as a kind of proxy for the future state of the software. Almost smoothing over some deep anxiety that you aren’t far enough down the road yet. You want people to think you are further down the road than you are. Sure. I get it. I’ve been there. However, I think you have to be confident about what you are doing. Show what you have now and stand strong. It is where it is. Talk about the future, don’t demo it.

note: I’m not talking about exploratory prototypes. I think this is another thing altogether. These are necessary and useful explorations even if they don’t immediately lead anywhere, sooner or later the learnings will emerge when you need them.

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