Thursday, April 29, 2010

We have met the enemy, and it is first-draft design

Excellent commentary by Nancy Duarte on the recent NYT article. (A more readable version of the original alarming graphic is also available.)

A few things about the graphic:

1) This is an example of a diagram that was probably developed by analysts to help them understand something. Think brainstorming. The presentation mistake here (aside from the general bullet bullet bullet approach) was trying to use the same diagram to explain things to people who were most likely not part of the original discussion. Of course it stinks for that purpose. To build on Nancy’s commentary on our first-draft culture, it’s easy to imagine the excited consultants transposing this diagram from a whiteboard into PP, then – confusing the effort that went into drawing it with its value – it subsequently showing up in every PP deck that discussed the topic for the next year. What appears to be missing was the second (or third) iteration: translating the understanding into a diagram that explains the important points.

2) As a consultant, and not knowing the full story, I am disappointed and embarrassed that this diagram ever made it out of the working group and onto the screen of a client. On the surface this seems like a pretty serious delivery failure. In my own experience I have often seen (and created) some pretty confusing diagrams and models in the course of trying to understand a complex problem or system. But those things usually end their life on a white board or as a scan, they rarely survive in their original form as a deliverable because they were never intended to be such. The final deliverable often bears no resemblance to the original because after we think we understand an issue, the focus changes to explaining it. And those questions are different (see Dan Roam), so the results are usually different. I have referred to this as iterative design but for it to work, you have to actually do the next iteration.

So the moral of the story is: do the second iteration, your audience will thank you.

1 comment:

  1. In defense of PowerPoint

    PowerPoint has been implicated in everything from questionable thinking in Afghanistan to the Clinton-era health care debacle to the Challenger disaster. I rise in defense of this software.

    Let the record show that I am no Microsoft apologist. My twenty-something children learned their street language from oaths I screamed at Bill Gates most early mornings of their childhood, as I tried to get successive generations of Windows/Office PCs to perform.
    But I am tired of hearing useless thinking hide behind useful software.

    PowerPoint is the most honestly named product I have ever seen. After all, they didn’t call it “Power Talk” or “Power Think” or “Power Listen”. They certainly didn’t call it “Power Decision Support Software”. They told us everything right in the name. This is a tool to help you point at what’s important, in a powered and powerful way.

    The software fulfills the promise of its name. Last week I stood in front of 140 people from disparate backgrounds and organizations in a brightly-lit room at the new Minneapolis Twins ball park. I had a few minutes to set up their thinking for a whole afternoon of sessions. I needed to point out to them what they should listen for. PowerPoint helped.

    A few years ago I had to roll out a change program in a global company. In six weeks, I had to explain what we were doing to about 40 offices in 20 countries on four continents. The audiences were often made up of non-native English speakers. The speaker – me – speaks English too quickly and glibly in the best of circumstances, and these circumstances included jet-lag and exhaustion. I needed to make sure that I pointed to the same key factors, messages and changes in each office. Key messages in big dark letters on the screen respected the needs of colleagues whose reading comprehension of English surpassed their ability to understand (my) spoken English. PowerPoint helped.

    I even assign a PowerPoint deliverable to my undergraduate students. Filling 15 pages of text with Googled excerpts and bland generalities is no challenge to these students. Figuring out what is important and saying it clearly on two slides? That’s a challenge for them.

    And that indeed is the challenge for all PowerPoint users. If you can’t figure out what’s important – or if you don’t have anything important to say – don’t blame the software. To paraphrase an organization which I hold in only slightly lower esteem than Microsoft, “PowerPoint doesn’t bore people. People bore people.”

    Does PowerPoint risk oversimplifying the complex? Sure. So does standing up in front of a powerful audience with a limited time to speak, with no technology involved. Bad thinking, bad guidance and bad audiences are real problems. They tend to lead to bad decisions and outcomes. PowerPoint does not create those problems.

    PowerPoint does make it easier to get away with bad thinking (both by presenters and by audiences). Its real danger is that it can sometimes mask bad thinking behind a thin veneer of polish and presentation. Then again, that “venereal disease” is not unique to PowerPoint. That disease afflicts every listener who falls for a tailored suit, expensive haircut and fancy pedigree. I don’t recall anyone saying Bernie Madoff needed PowerPoint presentations to fool “sophisticated” investors around the world.

    Using PowerPoint to study, understand and explain complex systems and interactions is just dumb. That’s like trying to perform brain surgery with a hammer. But if I have to drive in a nail? Spare me the multi-million-dollar state-of the-art GE micro-vision-electronic brain enhancing thingie. Hand me the hammer, please.

    If the brain surgeon comes at you with a hammer, you have my permission to disrespect that brain surgeon. Or to flee. But don’t blame the hammer.