SlideMagic slides, not by SlideMagic

SlideMagic slides, not by SlideMagic

Some designers have a distinct look & feel that you can recognise instantly. Recently, I started to see “SlideMagic-type” visuals on the Internet (boxy grid-based slides with one strong colour). Not by people I recognise immediately (Twitter followers, blog readers, SlideMagic users, etc.), and these were not direct copies of my designs: new charts in the spirit of SlideMagic

I consider this a great compliment. SlideMagic is a culture change in business presentation design. The style, the approach, everything is open source. As a side effect I hope to create a financially viable business by offering a tool that makes it even easier to spread the culture to everyone who needs it.

Photo by Moss on Unsplash

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"...and then I wrote the deck in 2 hours..."

"...and then I wrote the deck in 2 hours..."

This happens often, you work on a presentation for weeks, and then 1 day before the deadline, you throw everything away and start from scratch finishing the thing in just a few hours.

No, you did not do anything wrong those first weeks. In fact, it is because of the work you put in, that you can finally write your story down exactly as it should be. If you started the day before the presentation, you would never get there.

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

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"Sloppy" IPO documents

"Sloppy" IPO documents

A piece in the WSJ states that WeWork investors were turned off by ‘sloppy’ IPO filings.

Consistency and accuracy are the #1 requirement for any investment document. As soon as a potential investor needs to stop looking at the content of the business and start worrying about whether the numbers are correct and add up, you probably lost the deal. Trust is paramount. Investment is a leap of faith, and it is impossible to check 100% of all the data before writing the check. If you find some things that look incorrect, there might be more.

The WSJ article does not mention that there were actual errors in the report, just things missing. Details of private jets are not the most important I think, it is the data that allows you to construct how the business actually works: new location, mature location, and that multiplied by the roll out. Every investor presentation boils down to a story that ultimately gets translated into a spreadsheet by someone. You need to spoon feed the right information, without explicitly providing a finished financial model. The latter would enable investors to start “salami slicing”, turning all assumptions down and explaining you why the valuation of your business is too high using your own Excel model.

In the case of WeWork, there was clearly an “elephant in the room” question, and investors needed an answer to it, which they did not get.

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App update - drag/drop, clipboard sunset

App update - drag/drop, clipboard sunset

Dragging and dropping across multiple application windows looks easy, but from a development point of view it is tricky to get right. I think I managed to get it to work for SlideMagic 2.0. In the same effort, I removed the clipboard in story view, that was a hack that I had to use in the web-based SlideMagic 1.0. A hack, because it was weird and confusing to use. No more need for it now.

Beta users should receive the update to their software automatically.

Photo by Joyce McCown on Unsplash

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App update - multiple windows

App update - multiple windows

Screenshot 2019-09-25 08.29.24.png

Over the past week I have been stress testing SlideMagic 2.0, and added 2 important features:

  • Support for multiple windows. Open presentations side-by-side and copy elements back and forth. This is a strong advance of desktop app over browser-based software. Copy-pasting is still fragile here and there, work in progress.

  • The ability to split a grid row or column in 2, which allows you to change the layout of a slide quickly without rebalancing the grid. Grid manipulations now work super-fast and intuitive.

  • I have installed in-app analytics to see where beta users get stuck. As a beta user, you automatically opt-in to usage data gathering, the commercial version will have the opt-out option.

Beta users can simply go the cloud.slidemagic.com, log in, and download a new version of the app.

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Project documents vs. presentations

Project documents vs. presentations

People use the same software to create them, but they are very different.

Project documents:

  • Full of detail, assumptions, footnotes (“Harry wants to make sure that everyone knows that the data does not include South America”), disclaimers

  • Many authors (captains, holders of the pen)

  • Team members have seen page 25 over and over again (“ Why does it still say $23m profit there?)

  • No problem editing them live on Google Docs with 5 people in 4 different locations

  • Aesthetics can be compromised in order to squeeze that extra row in

  • The has agreed on a way forward through discussion, now let’s write it down on the pages

Presentations:

  • Introduce an audience for the first time to a story

  • The audience still needs to be convinced of the way forward

  • Usually one person delivering a carefully crafted pitch

  • Poor aesthetics can definitely harm the effectiveness of the pitch

SlideMagic 2.0 will address document type number 2.

Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

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Is it just me?

Is it just me?

Years ago I started SlideMagic 1.0 “brain washed” by “modern” application design: cloud, tablet-friendly, SAAS, an always up to date version of software running in the browser.

Bit by bit, I am reverting to a 1990s setup for SlideMagic 2.0, focused on a desktop application with a selected cloud-tweaks:

  • Design apps need to be super snappy and fast, latency because of saving stuff in a database that sits at the other end of the world is not ideal

  • Presentations do get edited on planes that still do not have 100% WiFi coverage

  • Presenting a presentation on a screen that is dependent on a live internet connection is risky, yes even in 2019.

  • Having multiple windows on a screen and copying, pasting, dragging things across is actually useful (not yet implemented in SlideMagic 2.0). It is funny to see the developer discussion on bulletin boards where people are waking up to the challenges of managing multiple windows of the same application. Something web designers usually do not have to do.

  • Storing things in a tried and trusted local file system solves security headaches and is good set up for when creating documents: finding things, copying, pasting. (Long-term storage and archiving is a different story)

Photo by Matthew M on Unsplash

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Stress-testing monitors

Stress-testing monitors

A critical feature of any presentation app is the management of screens when presenting for a live audience. The presentation needs to show up on the big screen, and if possible, the presenter windows with the slide count, next slide preview, and timer needs to pop up on the secondary monitor.

Messing with monitors under the stressful time pressure of standing in front of a waiting audience requires serious stress testing. I am now doing this for SlideMagic 2.0. Pulling out monitor cords mid-presentation, sticking them back in, closing windows. I removed many bugs, but there are still a few left (the dual operating system set up is causing some additional challenges).

Soon, I will have ironed them out all. But as a precaution, I might not go as far as PowerPoint or Keynote where the user does not see the presenter and audience windows explicitly. I will leave them visible as non-maximised windows so the user can find them and move them around if Murphy’s Law strikes.

To be continued.

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App update

App update

Apologies for the quiet blog this week. I am extremely busy ironing out the SlideMagic 2.0 app. This week the focus is on tightening the integration with the Windows and Mac operating systems:

  • Designing app and file icons that look good and stand out next to other desktop icons (clutter)

  • Linking those icons with the ‘.magic’ file extension on a computer

  • Making sure double clicking icons, recent files, recent files in the dock, etc. works

  • Certifying the app both with Apple and with a certification agency for Windows so that double clicking an installer does not generate scary security warnings

  • Adding SSL security to file downloads

  • Accept-cookie banners, and other regulatory issues

To be continued. Beta testers can check in now and then to download a later version of the installer, I am putting a new one up almost every day now.

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(Careful) beta test for both Mac and Windows

(Careful) beta test for both Mac and Windows

I am ready to release a useable version of SlideMagic 2.0 to a very small group of users. There is an app for both Windows and Mac. If you are interested, you can sign up here: http://cloud.slidemagic.com/beta/apply, and I will let you know in the coming days (maybe week) if you made it to the very first beta test group.

In the not too distant future, there will be a broad/no application beta test program, but at the moment I am keeping things small to make sure I have the bandwidth to support early users.

Photo by Abbie Bernet on Unsplash

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How I brought my coding skills back up from the 1990s

How I brought my coding skills back up from the 1990s

This list of resources might come in handy for anyone who is considering learning how to code from scratch, or like me, wants to get back into things again. Your objective could be

  1. to land a job as a developer,

  2. have a startup idea and you want to build it, at least build a prototype in a low risk way without the pressure and money required to hire professional developers

  3. you just feel a bit technology illiterate and want to acquire basic coding skills just as an interest.

For me it started actually with number 3, that slowly turned into objective 2. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, you could simple turn on a computer enter a few lines of simple code and get a computer to do things. Now there is actually a bit more ‘overhead’ required before you have a basic piece of code running that can take an input and do something with it.

Option 1. and 2. are very different. Being a developer inside a huge organisation, and at the receiving of incoming feature requests by others is different from building a project that is really yours. Option 1 can actually be very similar to a regular admin job (a ‘cog wheel’ inside a big machine).

Thinking a bit ahead, I think that ultimately I will not be the person to keep un coding SlideMagic if it ever becomes a big and successful operation, but I am convinced that it is very hard (maybe impossible) to run a technology company if you yourself are completely illiterate in the world of coding.

So, my starting point was an engineering degree from the early 1990s, where I mainly programmed in Pascal. What is sort of left is a basic understanding of algorithms, functions, loops, and variable scopes, that is basically it.

So here is what happened over the course of a year or so:

  • After some deviations, I decided on a language: Javascript and stuck to it. Javascript is broadly used, and can be applied anywhere, from front-end web pages to servers. Only one language to learn that covers everything and is modern and fresh.

  • In my spare time I started reading this book: Eloquent Javascript in multiple rounds. (It is free). First pass to broadly familiarise myself with concepts, notation and terminology. Then to understand it better, then to do some exercises.

  • I made sure I set up some kind of environment on my computer to write code, save it, “spell check” it, in my case I use the open source Microsoft Visual Studio Code (this is different from the paid Visual Studio that is geared more towards development for Windows).

  • I made sure I had some sort of project I could focus on to practice my skills. In my case, the first challenge was to interpret presentation files from my own SlideMagic 1.0 system: could I read the file, extract its components and start rendering things on my screen? In this way I could gradually up the complexity: starting with boxes and text, moving to images, and graphs. Doing the actual coding is super important. It is like learning a spoken language, you will never learn if you don’t do.

  • Stackexchange is your biggest friend. There are millions of people trying to learn how to code, they all have the same questions like you, google any question, and this site will give you the answer.

  • Prioritise what you want to learn. The mess that is front end web design can keep you distracted for days trying to figure out how to get things to line up on the screen, during this time you are actually not progressing with your coding skills.

  • To build a web server I followed along with one online video instructor: Academind. (I checked out many). First random videos, then following some of their YouTube playlists for free, then subscribing to their paid Udemy courses: highly recommended.

  • The development world is full of framework that go in and out of fashion. I actually decided to stay away from them at the moment, and learn the pure approach and not to get locked into something specific.

As I am writing this, I am still learning and you could do too. As a profession, as an entrepreneur, as an interest, or maybe as an interesting project to take on with your kids.

Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

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Sketch - Photoshop killer

Sketch - Photoshop killer

I am (was) a casual Photoshop user. Now and then, I need a tool like this to take a background out of an image, or project een image on a 3D object such as a well.

For more than a decade, I have been pulling my hairs out every time I tried to use the program. I am a pretty skilled computer / software user, but I never managed to get over the dip of becoming an efficient user. In addition, the hefty subscription charge that was introduced does not really make sense for light users such as me.

Now, in my role as coder of my own presentation design app, I actually need a PS-like tool again to manage images that need very precise dimensions and DPIs (something irrelevant in PowerPoint). An inability to create a simple background image that scales on retina displays @2X in less than half hour with the final blow.

So I tried Sketch and everything was done within 5 minutes without the need for any tutorial. Creating the background, adding text, adding shapes, scaling, exporting. Highly recommended!

Sketch is a role model for SlideMagic. The software was started as a graduation project (actually by a student of the same university I got my Computer Science degree), and then moved slowly but surely over the course of a decade to become a market leader.

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Scale economies in sales pitches

Scale economies in sales pitches

For a small company that is just starting out selling, it is impossible to reach out to the world. Not enough people, not enough money, not enough time.

Think about something that people usually use in manufacturing: economies of scale. One approach: invest a huge amount of fixed cost to build a massive plant that then can churn out products at a very low cost per unit (huge fixed cost / huge production volume). The other approach is specialisation. By focussing on just one tiny product in a tiny product segment, you might get to the same scale for that product as big competitors do who have to worry about 5,000 other items.

The same is true in sales pitches. You can scatter yourself and pitch clients in different industries, different continents, of different sizes. Or you can just focus on one industry, learn the “language” the people speak there, understand their problems, get referrals to from one happy client to another.

Which sector? Obviously it should make sense given your product. But after that, it is probably up to you. I guess that most companies that follow this approach got there by coincidence. Somehow you start winning pitches and getting leads in one sector and run out of time to focus on another.

Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

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How would you introduce it?

How would you introduce it?

When someone asks me for an introduction to my network with an idea that needs to be pitched, I noticed that I can be as effective in explaining the basics of an idea in a few lines in an email as an entire slide deck.

Why?

I really think about my “audience” (usually a friend or business relationship that has a lot of prior knowledge or interest in the thing I am pitching, otherwise I would not bother to make the introduction). Out go the buzzwords, the market stats, directly raising the points that are unusual, surprising, unexpected, to someone who has a decent understanding of this type of business.

Personal recommendations can be much more powerful in an informal email between friends. You cannot put “she was only the junior assistant on the team, but believe me, she single-handedly delivered that project” on a slide.

You can raise risks in an honest way that are not always detrimental to the pitch: “the whole thing hinges on whether they can get product costs down, but I think they have a good shot at it”.

Next time when you write a pitch deck, ask yourself the question, what would a friend who is doing you a favour have to write in the cover of the email? Read the resulting text, and maybe it inspires you to change your pitch deck as well.

Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

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App update: Windows!

App update: Windows!

Yesterday I managed to get the Windows version of SlideMagic 2.0 running, generated by a script that eats the same code as the Mac version, but now saving a .EXE file instead of a .app. This means that I can soon open a limited beta testing program across all platforms.

The next challenge is to get certified as a reliable developer, Apple in particular puts up all kind of barriers to installation of apps that have not been vetted.

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Picking the 2x2 axes

Picking the 2x2 axes

Two by two matrices are a popular tool rank options. Watch out when to use them though:

  1. Do you actually have 4 distinct options that can be grouped according to 2 axes? Many situations have only 3 options, where the 4th option that is suggested by your framework is actually not meaningful in reality.

  2. If you pass the first test, make sure you set the axes right: the most favourable scenario in the top right, the least attractive options in the bottom left, the other two the “can’t have the best of both world” scenarios.

Below is an example of a 2x2 used in an article about software lock-in I stumbled across. Flipping the axes makes the diagram a lot clearer.

The original diagram

The original diagram

I quickly created reworked the axes in a SlideMagic 2.0 diagram below:

Screenshot 2019-09-02 18.46.06.png
Screenshot 2019-09-02 18.52.02.png

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Adjusting frameworks

Adjusting frameworks

The world of management theory is full of frameworks designed by MBA professors and/or management consulting firms. Many view in the same of was the laws of physics: this is how you go about solving a particular problem.

That is giving them too much credit. Dogmatically forcing a certain problem/solution into a framework will not work: if it does not fit, it does not fit. Every situation, every problem is different. Here is an example of someone adjusting the famous SWOT framework. Here is my own attempt at modifying a SWOT 2x2.

While frameworks can be helpful start thinking about a problem and planning the work that lays ahead of you, they are often not that good as layouts in presentations that communicate your final recommendations. Frameworks are complicated diagrams, and try to be exhaustive and list everything that is relevant for a problem on the page. For your final slide, that might not be what is needed to explain your findings. Frameworks can be useful to solve a problem, but might not be ideal for communicating the findings.

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But it won't take that much time?

But it won't take that much time?

Many clients do not understand that, no, I really do not have time at the moment to do that small presentation design project, as I am focussing 100% on my coding efforts.

People understand that it is unreasonable to ask for a big project, but that small presentation fix, that should work right? It will only take a few hours.

Here is the problem with those few hours:

  • The opportunity cost of those few hours can be huge, since coding a big feature in the app can take an entire day or more. Knowing that you have to spend a few hours on something else means you won’t even get started on it.

  • Building on that: this small project might actually be an excuse to put off that major feature update

  • Now that I am a bit out of the presentation design flow, what used to take me a few hours, could actually take a lot more time.

  • A small design fix is not a big rewarding project, it is likely to be a fix: a small payment, not my best work, in short a distraction.

Photo by insung yoon on Unsplash

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App update

App update

It took me a few days after the holiday to get back into my own code again (scary how fast you forget things). But I am on a roll again. A major achievement for a 1990s computer scientist is that I got the SlideMagic server running: you can log in as a user to activate the pro features (probably spotless and instant PDF and PowerPoint conversion) and equally important, access to a much broader searchable layout database. The latter works now as well, the server responds with dynamically generated slide suggestions based on search keywords.

The next challenge will be to 1) expand the slide layout database, and make the search suggestions smarter, and 2) to make the user signup/login robust. For most developers, 2) is easy (this is coding 101) and 1) is hard (this requires 25 years of slide design experience). For me it is the other way around.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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Accurately cropping images

Accurately cropping images

Cropping an image accurately can be tricky, especially when PowerPoint is trying really hard to suggest possible cuts alongside snap lines it thinks are useful. My solution, drag the image to a huge size (without distorting its aspect ratio), crop, and shrink it down again.

Photo by Morgan Harris on Unsplash

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