Friday, 24 August 2007

The cognitive style of anything-other-than-PowerPoint

So, OK, it's one thing going to some lengths to point out the limitations of PowerPoint, but what are the viable alternatives?

There are a few options.

In Edward Tufte's booklet, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, he argues that PowerPoint is especially dangerous when trying to communicate complex information. His examples were rocket science (specifically the review of damage sustained to the Colombia shuttle prior to it's destruction on re-entering the atmosphere, which could have prevented the accident) and medicine. In these cases, he goes on to argue, one should use a clear written report, and not rely on any projected visual aides which might distract attention from the all-important-detail. Fair enough, but what about the other 95% of presentations?

Assuming one has decided that slides are the way to get your message across (think twice), there are a couple of options. Eric Meyer has developed a Simple Standards-based Slide Show System (called S5), which allows for the presentation of content in a browser. I'm pretty sure that Sir Tim Berners-Lee used this technique at the talk I attended back in March. It's very simple, very basic, and does the job. It's decidedly low on the eye candy though, so if you want the wow factor you might want to look elsewhere.

Apple's Keynote (Mac only, I'm afraid) is proving robust. It's very easy to use and looks fantastic. It's tempting to fall into the trap of adding effects and transitions just for the sake of it though, as they do illicit oohs and aahs from the audience. But if you can resist the temptation you can leave the audience remembering your message rather than the transitions...!

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Friday, 17 August 2007


Following encouragement from one of my colleagues, I've been spending some time looking into Edward Tufte's thoughts on the cognitive style of PowerPoint.

I wouldn't say I'm a fan of PowerPoint as such, but I have used it for ten years without really thinking about the alternatives. Tongue in cheek, my colleague is refusing to ever edit or save a PowerPoint file (and his boss agreed with this, so long as when he resigns he does so via the medium of PowerPoint - touché!). So I was interested to hear the arguments against this most ubiquitous of tools.

Tufte has some compelling arguments to make. His deconstruction is brutal;
PowerPoint's convenience for some presenters is costly to the content and the audience. These costs arise from the cognitive style characteristic of the standard default PowerPoint presentation; foreshortening of evidence and thought; low spacial resolution; an intensely hierarchical, single-path structure as the model for organising every type of content, breaking up narratives and data into slides and minimal fragments; rapid temporal sequencing of thin information rather than focused spacial analysis; conspicuous chartjunk and PowerPoint Phluff, branding of slides with logotypes, a preoccupation with format not content, incompetent designs for data graphics and tables, and a smirky commercialism that turns information into a sales pitch and presenters into marketeers.
Tufte gives examples which support his arguments, as you'd expect. The examples include the sharing of very complicated information, where PowerPoint is constrained by the amount of information you can fit on the screen. But what about when the information is less complex?

I'm reading Alan Cooper's "The Inmates Are Running The Asylum" at the moment, and there's an interesting comparison to be made. Tufte argues that we shouldn't design a presentation around PowerPoint's capabilities, while Cooper argues that we shouldn't design a web site based on the underlying programming. In both cases, one should establish the goals of the audience and then tailor the medium to suit. The software should adapt to meet our needs, not the other way around.

And that leads me to my conclusion. In the same way that it makes sense to build a website around the goals of the end user, it makes sense to build a presentation around the goals of the audience. It's wrong to leap to the conclusion that PowerPoint is the right tool...but that doesn't mean it can't be. The fact it is used so badly by so many people doesn't mean it must be used badly by everyone. It's just rarer than you'd think to find a situation where it is the right tool, and it then takes discipline to then use it properly. After all, the software practically enforces bad practice through it's design. Standard templates, anyone?

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Get your geek on!

Are you a geek? If so, check out this brilliant new website. Starship Dimensions is a real labour of love. Jeff Russell has gone through loads of the aliens and starships in popular sci-fi shows, and compared their sizes. Sounds lame, but have a look and you'll see why it's worthy of a blog post from yours truly.

I was browsing it while listening to "Sci-Fi Kid" by Blitzen Trapper (from the brilliant "Wild Mountain Nation" album). It wasn't quite a religious experience, but it was close.

Their mothers will thank you

The water in our new temporary offices tastes funny. So we were looking into some water cooler services, and were surprised to find that Pow Wow (one of the best known suppliers of water and water coolers) is owned by Nestle.

Of course Nestle was widely criticised in the late 70s for recommending the use of infant formula instead of breast milk in developing countries. Allegedly, several babies died as a result of drinking contaminated water mixed with the formula. A concerted boycott of Nestle products followed, and several people are avoiding these products to this day.

But it begs the interesting question; at what point should we forgive a company for past misdemeanors? Is it fair to continue boycotting products 30 years after the event? (For the sake of this argument, I'm ignoring the other controversies). Should we wait until all the staff involved in the controversy have left the company? Or just let an 'acceptable' period of time pass?

My personal inclination is to avoid buying Nestle products where there is a quality alternative. Tough luck on the people who work there, but I'm sure there are shareholders still out there who have held Nestle stock since the 70s and should've sold their shares when the controversy came up. But I'm interested to hear other points of view.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Does the TiddlyWiki work on the iPhone?

Yes it does!

Well, in practice this means that the iPhone can render the site properly. The ajax-y goodness works, allowing the user to open new tiddlers, navigate content, use the search facility and edit the site, but you can't save an html file to the iPhone hard drive, which means you can't save your edits.

Plans are afoot though to develop a tailored version of TiddlyWiki for handheld devices including the iPhone. To be able to save edits on the current version of the iPhone, this handheld version will need to be server based and ought to sit behind an authentication process to make it useful. Sadly the iPhone doesn't cache cookies, which means (I think) that the username and password will have to be entered fresh each time. But once we've got round that problem, I'm sure it'll be used in all sorts of different ways, including becoming a contender for the GTD weapon of choice.

You can follow the story on Google Groups here.

PS By the way this isn't my iPhone - props go out to my new colleague James Shi, who has just bought a team phone for us while in Boston. I get my sticky little hands on it next week.