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Debugging Tips

Debugging is a fairly essential part of programming, and this post aims to give you a few general tools and strategies to help you debug effectively.

Debugging Tools

Most IDEs and languages have various tools to help you with debugging. In this post I’m going to use JavaScript and a web browser as an example, but most of this applies in other places as well.

One of the simplest, but also most powerful, debugging tools is print statements. These have different syntax in different languages but the basic idea is the same. In JavaScript use console.log and view the output in the console portion of your browser’s developer tools

How to use print statements

Disadvantages of print statements


These are IDE, rather than language, dependent. I’ll show how to use them in a browser, and the basic strategy remains the across different IDEs. Searching something along the lines of “how to use breakpoints <your ide>” in Google should help you understand the semantics.

To use a breakpoint:

Advantages of breakpoints

Disadvantages of breakpoints

Debugging Strategies

Know what you’re looking for

The most important part of debugging is knowing what to look for. A good way to fix design-related bugs is to make a design for your app, ideally before you even start coding. The App Lab blog post on Figma has an example of how to do that.

Explain the problem to someone

Explaining your code to someone (or something) else can help you solve it. It doesn’t need to be another programmer, a friend or cat will do fine, but the actual act of explaining the problem line for line can help you see where the bug is.

Figure out how to reproduce the problem

Make sure you know how to make the bug appear consistently. Usually this is simple, but it can be more complicated, espeically in asychoronous environments. Frequently the bug can be traced to a specific function. If this function is pure (meaning that it only depends on its parameters and not class or global state) you should probably just test the parameters that cause the issue on that function, rather than running it through the whole app.

Find the exact location of the error

Using the tools above narrow down where the bug is occurring in your code. Finding the exact line or function is generally key. Use the debugger or print statements to find where the output goes wrong and trace it back to the origin of the bug.

Make methodical changes

Make one change at a time and test it, particularly if you’re not confident how it will change the result. Otherwise you may not be sure what actually solved the bug.

When you’re stuck, ask for help

Sometimes you just need someone else’s input in order to solve a problem. After trying for at most a couple of hours, seek out some else’s help. You can drop by the AppLab or ask for help on the App Lab Slack.