The state of productivity apps

The state of productivity apps

The reviews of the new iPad Pro are coming in: ten years after introduction this tablet device has caught up in performance with the average laptop. Most reviewers come to a similar conclusion: yes, the device is powerful, but it does not let me do the things I want it to do to replace a laptop completely. The enthusiasm for mobile devices as work tools seems to dampen a bit. I must admit that I am going through a similar process, re-adjusting priorities for where I want to take the SlideMagic app next after V1.0, the web app.

I have not solved the problem yet, nobody has, but here are some observations that I am taking into account and thinking about:

  • There are different user segments, consumers, professionals, and even within professionals there are differences: a blogger or tech reviewer has different computing needs then an investment analyst or a web designer.

  • A single user segment has different uses for a device that can overlap between segments. Presenting for a big audience, making quick edits in the taxi, walking through a few pages over a coffee, focussed slide design, crazy/creative concept development, brainstorming.

  • User experience is incredibly important, and even the smallest glitches, delays, or inefficiencies can become annoyances quickly. (Web user interfaces still cannot match those of a properly designed native app).

  • Some things can be done better with touch, but the good old mouse pointer has its value too. Fingers can be clumsy.

  • It is very hard for people to get used to new interface concepts, part of the reason why the basics of PowerPoint are pretty much the same as they were 20 years ago. This is also true for touch interfaces, personally I did not bother to learn all the 3 finger swipes and other gestures on my phone, tablet, or laptop track pad. In the same I way I never learned the keyboard short cuts on a desktop beyond CTRL-C and CTRL-V.

  • Cloud-based collaboration is still messy and confusing,. Multiple people editing the same master document is often not helpful. It is often not clear what you shared with whom, what access permissions, is the file, is it the folder, etc.

The solution is somewhere out there, but it is unlikely to follow broad generalisations and buzzwords such as “cloud”, “mobile first”. Then again, the 1995-based desktop app did not work either. I will keep on thinking.

Cover image by Elena Koycheva on Unsplash

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Non-cheesy quotes?

Non-cheesy quotes?

Most quotes in business presentations are cheesy cliches uttered by people you never heard of. What can you do to avoid falling in this trap?

  • Decide whether your story actually needs a quote at all. In many cases the answer might be “not really”. That workplan deck for a major cost cutting project does not get any more cheerful with a happy “let’s do this together” quote at the end.

  • If you want to give it it a try, make the quote very specific to your situation. Googling “inspirational business quote” will definitely not get you a specific phrase. Generic inspirational quotes have been used so much that they might actually have the opposite effect of firing up people to do something passionately. Quotes with a touch of humor or self-mockery could work much better.

  • To weed out the business book best seller authors, search for quotes by specific people, either because they are in a relevant field or maybe because you admire them. Oscar Wilde produced many for example.

  • Make sure you get the exact, correct, original version of the quote by doing a bit more research than the first Google result

  • Place the quote on a nicely designed slide.

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More waffles

More waffles

These 2 maps by the NYT times are another great example of the use of waffle charts. Both of them are unfortunately very hard to replicate in PowerPoint.

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Cover image by Lindsay Moe on Unsplash

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Grading exams

Grading exams

I asked a teacher in high school once how he actually grades exams. I think it was the history teacher, or a teacher of another subject that invites verbose and unstructured answers from students.

Students were trying to cram in as much material as possible in the answers (the shot of hail approach) to maximize the probability that they got something down on paper that could deliver them points. Students also tended to pepper their writing with buzzwords, or complicated language to show off their mastery of the subject.

The teacher on the other hand simply had a list of a handful of short bullet points and you got subpoints for whether it was included in your answer or not. No bonus points for elaborations, or verbal padding.

That teacher is a bit like a potential customer or investor evaluating your pitch.

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100% focus on development work

100% focus on development work

I have pretty much stopped taking on custom presentation design work at the moment, as I discovered that it is not possible to build a new software product as a side project. There is the physical aspect of the limited number of hours there are in a day, but more importantly it is the distraction and unpredictable bursts of work that break the concentration when you are trying to create something new. I apologize for disappointing a few existing and potentially new clients, and hope that this won’t hurt their fundraising efforts. Hopefully all of you get an amazing tool in return.

Cover image by Javier Graterol on Unsplash

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Waffle charts in presentations

Waffle charts in presentations

I never have been a big fan of waffle charts:

  • I find it harder to read them then straightforward bar or column charts (in a similar way, pie charts are less readable)

  • They are a pain to maintain in PowerPoint/Keynote (counting boxes)

But, what people do to show the results of the US elections is clever. by adding the semi-saturated colours in, you get a nice sense of how things are developing:

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Coding one month later...

Coding one month later...

Here are some more observations from my refresh course in programming 30 years after graduating in IT:

  • My engineering degree came in handy to understand the basic concepts of programming language, but that was actually just a start, it makes sure your not intimidated and give up at the first glance of code

  • What is useful though, is the years of experience of finding bugs in code (including my high school years), it requires a certain skill to put in the right checks and breakpoints

  • My design experience is super important, it is so easy to create ugly user interfaces with stupid menu structures

  • 50% of the effort of learning how to code is understanding the tools that help you write code. Wow, these things have moved on since the 1990s, eliminating a first layer of potential bugs by at least getting typos and syntax errors out the moment you write the code

  • I might be approaching 50, but the majority of people doing what I do is in their late teens or early 20s, and many are in emerging markets all over the world, which makes it legitimate to ask basic beginner questions online and have them answered by experts who want to help bring up the next generation. Thank you!

  • Google and Stack Overflow bring a whole new dimension to learning. For each issue there are dozens of posts that address a similar issue you have, never exactly the same, and sometimes the answer is way down the bottom with very little votes as another contributor perfected the #1 answer years after it was posted.

  • Legacy technology and backward compatibility adds an incredible layer of complexity to development. Something that I should be able to use to my advantage as the writer of a version 1.0.

It is all very interesting, and I feel that my combined experience in design and technology will lead to somewhere useful.

Cover image by Jess Watters on Unsplash

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Too detailed?

Too detailed?

Analysts at the bottom of the hierarchy get sometimes mocked for being “too detailed”, the senior partner can make a point at a super high level of abstraction, and this big picture view gets equaled to, well, being senior and successful. Making your way up = losing that obsession with detail?

Well, not really. There is a role for everyone in the team:

  • Sometimes you have to go through massive amount of detailed analysis to support a basic outcome (option B is cheaper than option A) that can be communicated beautifully on just 1 bar chart.

  • That senior partner at some time was a junior analyst as well and all those years of crunching detailed analysis has given her the background to lift things to a big picture perspective.

  • Someone with a more senior role on a project has insight what all the different bits of a project are doing, making it easier to put things in perspective

So, if you as an analyst drop all sensitivity to detail to prove that you are ready to move up, things will go wrong.

Cover image by Andrea Sonda on Unsplash

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Slide designs on 16:9 screens

Slide designs on 16:9 screens

16:9 monitors are the norm now. And while this aspect ratio definitely works great for movies, I find wide layouts work less for presentation slides. Titles tend to get very loooong, and it becomes harder to make nice diagrams that usually call out for a 1:1 shape.

You might not realise it, but the slide headline on top of a traditional 4:3 slide actually created a slide canvas that is pretty much 16:9 below it.

Here is one way to deal with this screen aspect ratio: place the slide title to the left of the slide and use the full vertical space for the slide content next to it. What do you think?

Screenshot 2018-11-04 07.48.41.png

Cover image by Michael D Beckwith on Unsplash

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Business presentation market

Business presentation market

A series of tweets that got me thinking, as someone who is still arguing about Windows versus Mac in 2018

I am definitely in the 10% category, and I think my target audience is as well. Professionals making stuff on PCs is a pretty old/stable market. Many other presentation apps are aiming for the 900m and many of them branch out to other types of content than just business presentations. But 100m is still a big number. I am working hard on making those pro apps a bit less “pro”.

Cover image by Vincent Botta on Unsplash

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Maybe a few more pictures?

Maybe a few more pictures?

Many people find it hard to pose for pictures naturally. Here is a good trick to calm them down: switch of your camera and say the photoshoot is done, but then say, “wait, let’s do a few more just in case”. Your subject is likely to be more relaxed and these are the shots that are probably going to be used in the end.

Cover image by Sweet Ice Cream Photography on Unsplash

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Most rewarding blog post

Most rewarding blog post

The comment section on this blog is usually fairly quiet, so I don’t get a lot of direct feedback about whether my posts are useful or not. There are regular readers who send an email now and then, and I bumped into people I thought were strangers but had been following me for 10 years.

In general, I hope my blog gives the world better/less boring presentations, and cuts the time people spend creating them, there are so many better things to do than designing slides. Also, I hope that I can give the foot soldiers, the junior analysts, who are working late in various office towers around the world to meet a presentation deck deadline, some encouragement to speak up about what they think is right.

One post provokes a lot of responses: a little trick to recover a PowerPoint file on a Mac after a crash, even if Microsoft claims it is no longer there. It is just great to get these responses, some of them in language that captured the energy when that document you had been working on all night re-appeared on the screen.

Cover image by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

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Document editing 1990s vs now

Document editing 1990s vs now

This post by Seth Godin about “STET” reminded me of my time at McKinsey, where in the early 1990s presentation design was pretty much a manual activity. You would draw all your charts by hand, then give them to the graphics department who would produce them for you.

Graphics designers make typos: suggested valuations of take over targets could be cut in half, or worse changed by +/- 10% which makes the error much harder to spot. Graphics designers had mostly no understanding of the context of the document, which could lead to pretty funny interpretations of hand writing.

As a junior analyst, you found yourself in a sandwich: every sentence and number had to be checked for typos, graphics designers tend to push back on poor chart design (please ask the senior partner to stop writing these dense bullet points will you), and the senior consultants would use the opportunity of this “slow” production process to try out endless variations of headlines and chart orders. Most instructions were scribbles on faxes and/or instructions in lengthy voice mails. All of this usually at hours where the rest of the world was no longer in the office.

Looking back at those days, I estimate that roughly 25-50% of the time (=fees) of these management consulting projects would go into document production. The solution was there, now we just need to put it on paper convincingly (and for the analyst: with the correct numbers).

Today, everyone probably has an understanding of PowerPoint that is good enough to produce most of these documents. This is a huge efficiency gain. But we also have lost something I think. That process where everyone is painstakingly focused on those 25 pages with a red pen really made sure people put their thoughts in slides, with everyone more or less in agreement. A more careful approach than quickly slapping/Frankensteining charts together.

Cover iamge by Mark Rabe on Unsplash

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Automatic 16:9, dark background conversion

Automatic 16:9, dark background conversion

The SlideMagic presentation web app has a few neat tricks up it sleeve, one of them is automatic conversion to a dark background (and back). I managed to get that one to work as well in the new PowerPoint conversion plug in.

And I added a new one that has not yet been implemented in the web app: automatic 16:9 conversion that keeps your picture cropping in tact. The tool reads the center of the image crop, and repositions the picture correctly in the new aspect ratio.

It is interesting to see what you can do now that I have control of an entire presentation file with all its bits and pieces and can basically tell an algorithm to do with it what I want.

I hope to get the plug in ready for release soon, some further stress testing is required, plus I need to get smart on signing software / distributing license keys. Watch this space.

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Stock image creep in Unsplash

Stock image creep in Unsplash

I really like the free photo site Unsplash, I hardly use stock image sites such as iStock or Shutterstock anymore. As a pro with paying clients, the prices of the stock images are not really a concern in the overall budget of a presentation design project, it is simply the dilution of quality of these big stock photo sites with cheesy images.

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But worryingly, I see the first “stock images” pop up on Unsplash as well, I hope they will continue to curate their uploads carefully, or maybe add a “stock image alert” warning button on a photo.

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Rehearsing

Rehearsing

Rehearsing a live presentation is the best way to invest time in your pitch, better than tweaking slides and editing headlines.

Many rehearse settings go as follows: the project team takes turns in going through their slides, sitting down at the table, looking at the laptop, starting and stopping (to do a quick edit), and not doing a real practice: “OK, on this page I will lay out the company strategy” <CLICK>.

This is a bit like an imaginary workout: “and then I will do the 10 lifts”.

The real practice:

  • Can be on your own in the beginning (so you can embarrass yourself if needed)

  • Laptop with the slides behind you (or dual monitors with presenter view)

  • Imaginary objects to create an “audience”, divide your eye contact to the red chair, the water jug, and the desk light for example.

  • No stopping, at least not in the middle of a slide, if you trip up, you have to correct as if it happened in front of 200 people.

  • Time your talk

Even if you think you know your story, you will notice that it is tough to say things clearly, without “uh”s, without duplicating what you already said, without getting stuck, but things will improve radically after a few iterations.

I think 99% of the world’s brilliant speakers simply have given a the same pitch in some form or another hundreds of times. Yes, they get confronted with a new slide and present it brilliantly without preparation, but, that slide probably contains a story that they have told many times before.

Cover image by Alora Griffiths on Unsplash

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2x2 matrix overload

2x2 matrix overload

This 2x2 chart is hard to understand (source on HBR)

From a design point of view:

  • Axes labels are hard to read

  • Axes labels are too blunt, mathematics has its uses

  • Too many dots at locations that are too precise

  • Typography of the labels goes across the boxes

  • The 4 quadrant labels do not stick out enough

And that’s the design part. More importantly, the content… The title of the chart seems to suggest that it is just an example of how to use 2x2 matrices, but I think people are serious about its content. A comparison of apples and oranges. I need to start casually learn how to do data cleaning, and not yet get into AI but be prepared for it, and to use AI, I don’t need to understand statistics at all.

Cover image by Nick Femerling on Unsplash

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What do you do?

What do you do?

It is important to settle the basics about what you actually do in the first instance of a pitch. It will pop some of the suspense, but in return you get the upside of an audience which pays attention instead of one that is trying to figure out what you do.

In fiction, readers are longing for that moment where the entire plot comes together. In business, not really.

Recently, I coached a company in the field of quantum computing, and I suggested to put 3 very short bits of info at the very start of the presentation, and claimed that this would actually not kill the “suspense” in the talk.

  • A super quick “reminder” of quantum versus traditional physics

  • A super quick highlight what quantum vs. binary computing is

  • A super quick description what a “quantum computer” actually is, physically.

The challenge is not to elaborate about the points above on that first summary point:

  • In Newton’s traditional physics, objects have a specific location and behave according to the laws of gravity (i.e., electrons “flying” around an atom nucleus), in quantum physics, these boundaries no longer exists and you are no longer able to say where objects are precisely.

  • Quantum computing uses this ambiguity of an infinite number of states an object can be in, instead of a discrete 0 and 1, we now an infinite umber of states that opens up the potential for massive parallel computing

  • Today’s quantum computing setups are lab installations in which scientist try to control / measure these states, and try to use the speed of their variations to solve problems where you need try out a particularly large number states (i.e., trial-and-error AI algorithms). It is still early days.

Not scientifically correct, probably not correctly worded, but people will get the idea.

Cover image by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

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PowerPoint conversion is working!

PowerPoint conversion is working!

I managed to implement the conversion of all SlideMagic features, including the tricky ones (data charts, image cropping and positioning, speaker notes, etc.) into a razor sharp PowerPoint deck with all shapes, data charts, objects completely editable if you created them yourself from scratch.

(This as opposed to the current PPT conversion that makes a rendering that works as you as you do not touch/edit any of the shapes inside the deck)

Now it is on to debugging and making everything super robust in every possible user (ab)use scenario.

The current setup is in a lab environment and not yet kosher enough for public release. If you are curious, are have a SlideMagic deck that you are desperate to convert, email me your SlideMagic presentation ID and I can apply the new technology for you. The conversion software only runs on Windows, but since it is me doing the conversion on my machine (for now), both Windows and Mac users can submit their decks.

Cover image by Rob Bye on Unsplash

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The art of procrastination

The art of procrastination

Waiting with things until it is too late to do them properly is not very good practice. But postponing the moment you open your computer to start making slides before you have a really good idea could be helpful. Take time to ponder different approaches.

In the video below, film score producer Tom Holkenborg gives his point of view from the world of music.

Cover image by Xu Haiwei on Unsplash

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