18 October 2005

Is PowerPoint good or evil?

PowerPoint. People either love it or hate it. There is no doubt that Powerpoint has had an influence on the world -- but is it a positive one or a negative one? And who decides?

Here's what the experts say:

The case for evil:
Edward Tufte, information design expert and author of several books on the subject, recently wrote an article excoriating PowerPoint in Wired magazine, entitled PowerPoint is Evil. In it, Tufte compared PowerPoint to tools of propaganda and control:

"PowerPoint's pushy style seeks to set up a speaker's dominance over the audience. The speaker, after all, is making power points with bullets to followers. Could any metaphor be worse? Voicemail menu systems? Billboards? Television? Stalin?"

He goes on to make the argument that statistical data should be presented in one slide as opposed to several:

"When information is stacked in time, it is difficult to understand context and evaluate relationships. Visual reasoning usually works more effectively when relevant information is shown side by side. Often, the more intense the detail, the greater the clarity and understanding. This is especially so for statistical data, where the fundamental analytical act is to make comparisons."

The case for good:
Donald A. Norman, former Apple Fellow and author of The Design of Everyday Things, responds in defense of PowerPoint:

"Tufte is a statistician and I suspect that for him, nothing could be more delightful than a graph or chart which can capture the interest for hours, where each new perusal yields even more information. I agree that this is a marvelous outcome, but primarily for readers, for people sitting in comfortable chairs, with good light and perhaps a writing pad. For people with a lot of time to spend, to think, to ponder. This is not what happens within a talk. Present a rich and complex slide and the viewer is lost. By the time they have figured out the slide, the speaker is off on some other topic."

PowerPoint, true to its name, is a powerful tool. It can be used for good or evil and it can certainly be misused. Abuse of the tool is so common that it has become synonymous with the tool itself: Peter Norvig's excellent satire, The Gettysburg Address as a PowerPoint Presentation, makes the case especially well.

But who's to blame?
Should we condemn the tool because people misuse it? We can't in good conscience blame the tool or the well-intentioned people who try to use it. They are simply following the guidelines, templates and wizards within PowerPoint.

"Wait a second!" you say. If PowerPoint is neither good nor evil, and the people who use it have good intentions and are trying their best, why are there so many terrible PowerPoints out there? Who's fault is it?

It's the wizards.

The wizards and templates within PowerPoint lead us astray. PowerPoint is a visual tool, yet the default setup is text with bullet points. Most of the "design" templates are cluttered or badly designed. The content wizards serve up bland, bullet-point-ridden generic outlines and seem to "autochoose" the ugliest design templates available.

They coach us towards bullet points, chartjunk, "meeting by template" and a thousand other "deaths by PowerPoint." Microsoft makes great tools but when they try to deliver content they seem to fail. A more successful strategy seems to be partnering with content providers as they did with MSNBC.

Wizards, like consultants, come in all flavors, and the ones that dwell in PowerPoint are particularly capricious and not to be trusted. Follow their advice at your peril.

How do you feel about PowerPoint? How do you feel about the wizards? Please share your thoughts.

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Anonymous said...

I'm so glad to see someone take on Tufte's pretentious, flipant attitude towards something that doesn't fit his model of information as high art.

Anonymous said...

Few understand the way the tool works influences use -- it's called interaction design. How a tool is designed and the target user play an irreducible part, interaction is an emergent property.

As you rightly point out, how the developer designs the tool and targets its audience matter. The user has to have some awareness of the 'cognitive style' of the tool used.

Unknown said...

Great point. Microsoft is a great tool and I would love to see Microsoft make it better. Right now I seem to have created a lot of "workarounds" to avoid the tool's attempts to be helpful.

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mhudspith said...

PowerPoint is merely a vehicle for both bad AND good content. So the tool is not to blame for bad presentations, its the ease of access to those with no formal training in using presentation software that is ultimately to blame.

Unknown said...

I certainly agree that the tool is not to blame for bad presentations. It's possible to do great things with PowerPoint. At the same time, I also believe that when you provide a tool to the public you do bear some responsibility to offer people some training on how to use it well.