Ben Summers’ blog

Using an iPad to show software at networking events

When you’re describing your software to someone who’s never heard of it before, it can be very difficult for them to visualise what it is and what it does. It’s especially difficult at networking events, where you’re meeting lots of people from different backgrounds and have less than a minute to talk about your product.

How could you show software in a situation like this? A laptop is impractical, and printed pieces of paper are cumbersome and totally unlike a computer screen.

The idea of showing static screenshots is promising, and the iPad is the ideal medium for doing so. It’s just a screen, starts instantly, and is a wonderfully natural way of showing someone something digital.

I decided to do an experiment: Load an iPad with some screenshots of my application, ONEIS, and go to a couple of networking events.


The Mechanics

First, you need some 1024×768 screenshots of your application. You could take screenshots of the application running on the iPad itself, but the rendering is subtly different and sometimes the scaling results in visible artefacts. Using screenshots from a desktop web browser makes sure it looks exactly as it should.

I thought it was worth knocking up a quick application to make this easy. Using WebKit and Cocoa, it was trivial to show a web page and save perfect screenshots to a folder in ~/Documents.

Download Snap1024x768, including source

I’m undecided whether it’s worth disabling sub-pixel anti-aliasing before taking the screenshots (Font smoothing for LCD in System Preferences / Appearance). There isn’t such a huge difference in quality on the iPad screen that it’s easy to make a decision. In the end, I just ended up using sub-pixel anti-aliasing because disabling it would be one more thing to do.

Once you’ve created your folder of screenshots, open Keynote on your Mac and drag all the images to the slide thumbnails on the left. This will add one slide per image.

At this point, it’s a good idea to add captions to each slide. This isn’t for describing the slides, it’s to make it obvious that it isn’t live software.

When I did a quick test with an unsuspecting visitor without the captions, there were a few moments where there was uncertainty about what exactly they were looking at. The captions solved this by providing a subtle hint that it’s a set of static screenshots. This is how my slides looked:

I also added a title slide with the logo on a white background, nice and big, with a “Screenshots” title.

After you’ve got your presentation, transfer it to the iPad with iTunes, and import it into the iPad’s Keynote. Switch on the screen rotation lock. You’ve now ready to go and network!


The Results

Chamber of Commerce

The first event was a London Chamber of Commerce networking event. The attendees were both established and new businesses of various sizes, and generally not a technical audience.

When describing ONEIS, it can be a little difficult to get past the initial description of what it looks like and how it behaves. I suspect this is common with most software when talking to a non-technical audience, as there are few shared reference points.

This time, whenever someone asked a question about what it was like, instead of continuing with my description, I just said “let me show you some screenshots” and switched on the iPad.

This worked surprisingly well. Just having a few key screenshots of the application is enough to give a feel for what it does and how it behaves. Unlike a live demo, there’s no distracting “use” of the application, so you can get the message across quickly and efficiently.

It was also interesting how the conversations changed afterwards. Being able to show something concrete which looks attractive, functional and useful instantly improves your credibility.

Hacker News meetup

The second event was the London Hacker News meetup. This is very much a technical and startup crowd, who probably sit in front of a computer all day and try new software all the time.

The pub where we meet is rather noisy and overcrowded. Shouting in-depth descriptions is a little unpleasant for all concerned, so, where it was appropriate, I used the iPad for a quick tour.

Again, this was very effective. While I can describe the system in terms which mean something to us all, showing it is far quicker. Because it was so crowded, I couldn’t have used a laptop even if I’d wanted to. The iPad really is the perfect size for the pub.

It was also fun to discuss the iPad itself afterwards. The conversations generally went something along the lines of “have you found a use for the iPad yet?”. “Not really, but it’s quite nice.”

Better than live demos?

We always demo our software from a VM running on the demo laptop. This avoids patchy mobile internet coverage from ruining the demo or the hassle of finding working WiFi. Running a VM isn’t possible on an iPad, and, perhaps because of the network, demoing web apps which use SSL is rather slow and cumbersome on an iPad over 3G. A live demo isn’t practical.

While you might think that showing the software in real use would be better, I’m pretty much convinced that for quick conversations, having eight screenshots works much better. Even if I had the opportunity to do a perfect live demo, I suspect I’d choose screenshots when talking to someone I’d just met.

I’m going to continue using an iPad for networking events, but refine my choice of screenshots. Plus, I can finally justify my purchase of the iPad.

In conclusion, it’s a big success.


Keynote isn’t good enough

iPad Keynote is more than good enough for normal presentations, but has some limitations for this style of demo. The issues I encountered were:

  • It’s distracting to have to click play after unlocking the screen
  • The delay between tapping and the next slide appearing is annoying when trying to show slides in quick succession. I presume this is so that double tapping doesn’t advance the slide before returning to the slide editor.
  • There’s no easy way to navigate the screenshots – the thumbnails on the left are too small to find a specific screen, and it doesn’t do hyperlinks to other slides in the presentation
  • The navigation to a previous slide isn’t easy to trigger

But the “tap anywhere to go to the next slide” navigation would be perfect if it didn’t have that delay.

I also experimented with various PDF readers, such as GoodReader, using a PDF export from Keynote on the Mac. These did support hyperlinks between pages, but they added a complexity of user interface and annoying animations which I felt would be distracting.


Someone, please write me an iPad app

While it may be a little bit of a niche application, it might be worth writing an iPad application for showing screenshots in casual face to face conversations. I’d certainly buy it.

My suggestions:

  • Have a simple desktop application to grab screenshots and transfer them to the iPad
  • Add visually appealing captions to each screenshot
  • When presenting, use invisible tap areas for a menu and/or thumbnail view with captions below the images
  • Have some facility to show documents, for example, a price list
  • When you unlock the iPad, jump to the first slide ready for the next demo
  • Make sure you disable the screen auto-lock and dimming during presentation
  • It’s probably not a good idea to support video, as it’d be distracting and take too long to show
  • Make sure that any animations are very quick and simple to avoid drawing attention away from the screenshots

Please let me know when it’s ready to beta-test.



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Hello, I’m Ben.

I’m the Technical Director of Haplo Services, an open source platform for information management.


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