iPad Pro 2018

iPad Pro 2018

I upgraded my 9.7” iPad to the new 12.9” version after trying one out. Here are my observations:

  • The size and weight of the bigger iPad is now manageable (unlike the first models). It is so light that the programmed weight to size ratio in your head gets confused. Still, this remains a “2 hand” device in most cases. If you need a 1-hand device, this one is not for you.

  • The size is the main reason I got it, it enables me to read “magazines” by smaller publishers do not have the resources to invest in proper iPad apps and simply send out a PDF every month. For this purpose it is great. An A4-sized PDF on iPad is now one on one comparable to a paper one, probably even better.

  • The best way to get a feel for the screen quality is to go back to your old device that you thought was great. It is not yet as stark as the iPhone 3 to iPhone 4 jump, but it is a huge step up.

  • The thing is incredibly fast and snappy

  • The pencil is a huge improvement. I tried working with styli and pencils right from the launch of the first iPad, none of them really worked for me. This one snaps against the iPad with magnets (although it will fall of in your bag), has a matt feel, cannot roll away due to a flat side, has a tap function to quickly change pens, and charges on the side of the device rather than sticking out of the connector. Writing and drawing is awesome. The killer question will be how it behaves in an hour meeting: unlocking the device, battery life, both of which were wrong in the previous version. Constantly messing around with buttons and passwords to jot down something, and then leaving your meeting with a drained battery. Face ID should help (hopefully).

  • I did not get the keyboard, I still believe that writing long texts can be better done on a proper laptop.

  • The iPad is expensive, but you can save on storage if you restrict your movie downloads to those you need on one long haul flight.

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Light or dark mode?

Light or dark mode?

Applications with a dark background are fashionable now. I can still remember back at the end of the 1980s, when screens went the other way: light backgrounds with dark letters, even on green and amber monitors.

Research (lots of it done in the 1980s), suggests that light backgrounds are better. Light tightens the iris, and and a smaller iris can focus better. (Think squinting and pinhole cameras).

As I am coding away on my app, I need to think about this.

  • Again, not all user interfaces are the same. Dark mode can be useful when reading Twitter feeds late at night in bed with others sleeping, but this is not the context of presentation design.

  • We need to separate presenting and designing. Presenting on a big screen is better with a dark background, since the speaker does not get overpowered by this big wall of light. (Dark backgrounds will encourage people to dim the lights in the conference room though, encouraging sleep). In some industries, people sill print decks (banking), and a white background saves a lot of ink cartridges.

  • When it comes to user interfaces, I am again on the fence. Coding on a dark background is more convenient because it is easer to see subtle differences in text color (functions, variables, etc.).

  • Apps need to be more or less consistent. Switching back and forth between light and dark is tiring. If the everyone goes dark, I probably have to follow. (This was probably one of the main reasons for people to switch in the 1980s, switching back and forth from the screen to paper)

  • There is an opportunity to make a starker contrast between the design canvas and the software UI, making one light, the other dark

  • In 2018, dark applications give the impression of being “cool” and modern, which is what a new startup needs…

In short, it is complicated.

Photo by Dmitri Popov on Unsplash

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"Your colleague will understand better"

"Your colleague will understand better"

Overheard from a VC friend: an entrepreneur who was pitching suggesting that his colleague would for sure understand the opportunity, since he has an undergraduate degree in the subject at hand, A few mistakes:

  1. You lost a few niceness points there

  2. Your score for judgement as a salesman in sales pitches just was lowered

  3. Yes, 4 years of undergraduate education in a certain subject has value, but so has 30 years of professional and investing experience.

Even if you think the VC you are pitching does not understand the subject at hand (and you could be totally right of course), hold the feedback for yourself. Instead, make it your problem to convince him.

Photo by Wynand van Poortvliet on Unsplash

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Qwerty in software design

Qwerty in software design

For a number of reasons, keyboards do not follow an alphabetical layout, including increasing typing speed by promoting the use of alternating hands, and/or preventing jams of hammers in mechanical type writers.

I feel that many of today’s presentation (and all other productivity) software is still in the ABC phase. Functions are grouped logically so you can more easily find them the first time around. Instead, they should be grouped in the way you actually use them:

  • How often are they required?

  • What features are typically used together?

The resulting user interface might not be logical, but will be very useful. Work in progress.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

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Linchpin jobs - chart makeover

Linchpin jobs - chart makeover

Seth Godin designed this framework to explain what Linchpin Jobs are:

I did a quick makeover of the diagram, keeping the design super simple (life is too short to be spending designing charts at your desk):

  • Move from an XY to a 2x2 layout to make it easer to read the axis

  • Changing the labels of the boxes, axes to get rid of excess text, make them more consistent

  • Change the colours so that the cog jobs stand out (I think they are worse than what I call “lazy specialist” roles

Screenshot 2018-12-09 08.39.00.png

Cover image credit: Jared Goralnick

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Debating

Debating

By coincidence I watched part of the live coverage of a political debate in the Dutch parliament yesterday (after reading a newspaper that provided a link). Here are some of the things I noticed:

  • Most of them are debating to each other, technocrats, rather than the general public and looking to score quick points on technical details. The audience for the live debate is probably pretty small, but news outlets tend to pick sound bites in their coverage later on.

  • All of the politicians want to have the last word: they quickly make an additional point, leaving no time to let the answer sink in, and move on to a completely different subject not to give the opportunity for additional intervention

  • The whole format of an open political debate about a very complex treaty without a clear agenda does not really work, people jump back and forth between totally different topics: fundamentals, practicality, interpretations of words, etc. etc.

  • Politicians like to stick to their hobby horses. Finally, someone makes a point that could be considered reasonable by the opposing party, open the way for a compromise or agreement, and boom, it is followed by the usual dogmas that will block any further changes of mind.

Maybe a good slide deck that breaks down the discussion in 2-3 tangible options what can be done next, with clearly grouped pros and cons can help structure this debate a bit :-).

Photo by Giovanni Gras on Unsplash

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PowerPoint at Amazon

PowerPoint at Amazon

I met someone at Amazon the other day, explaining how they deal with communication (spoiler: no PowerPoint):

  • For a decision, you have to write a memo (2 pages max), no slides / PowerPoint

  • The memo gets handed out in the meeting (no pre-reading), and people have 30 minutes to read it in silence

  • Then, the discussion follows, going straight to Q&A, no presenting

There are obviously some good things about this approach:

  • No time wasted on designing 100+ page PowerPoint decks

  • No time wasted in sitting through presentations where people are reading slides from the screen

  • Less risk that people will jump in the conversation without having done their homework

  • No pre-reading late at night after the kids are asleep

But…

  • Writing a good memo might be more time consuming/difficult then creating a quick presentation

  • Some information on which you want to base a decision is better presented visually than in paragraphs (pros/cons, graphs with trends, tables with financial data)

  • Sometimes, you actually need some time to ponder things over before making a big decision.

On balance, it is probably the right thing to do because it creates a strong cultural statement.

(BTW, I am going to experiment with uploading the cover images in colour, a nice change for 2019, what do you think?)

Photo by Luca Micheli on Unsplash

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Way back

Way back

I was looking back at my old site on the Wayback Machine the other day and noticed how my approach to presentation design has changed. Back then, I would put huge efforts in finding unusual images, study advertising design, push PowerPoint to its limits. The result: some pretty unusual presentations.

Today, I have become much more pragmatic: presentations should be easy to understand (which might mean cutting that exotic visual metaphor), have a pro/no-nonsense look, and very easy/quick to put together, there are more important things to do than battling presentation design software.

Have I become lazy? I don’t think so. Just a more realistic and practical approach to presentation design.

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Set up stress

Set up stress

This post on AVC describes a common situation: technical problems when setting up a presentation. Different computers and different screens (dimensions, operating systems, resolutions, cables, plugs) make it unpredictable what happens when you connect the 2.

This a particular problem in marathon meetings, where a large number of presenters show up one after the other. It is a time waste for the audience and a concentration breaker for the presenter.

The solution in the post was an interesting one: use Zoom (or another web conferencing service) locally (i.e., standing in the same room). This eliminates the need for hardware connections and allows presenters to line up, solve any technical issues before they are due on stage.

In the absence of such a solution, my recommendation would be to always carry a USB stick with your deck around (in PowerPoint and PDF), just in case. Ultimately portable projectors will be compact and capable enough that everyone who has a high-stakes presentation to pitch will carry one around.

Photo by Jeremy Yap on Unsplash

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Looking for 2-5 beta testers

Looking for 2-5 beta testers

My first software product that I coded myself seems to be working and I need a handful of beta testers to work with. I want to see if there are unexpected bugs still hiding in the product, and what happens if people start installing things on a machine other than my own (full of developer privileges when it comes to accessing hard disks, etc.)

What is this product? A plug in for PowerPoint that converts SlideMagic presentations to 100% perfect PowerPoint. Extra bonus: automatic translation to and from a dark background, and flipping between 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratio in a second without distortions. Users get sent a “.MAGIC” file that the tool can interpret.

It runs on Windows only, since I had to dive pretty deep into the Microsoft .NET libraries to get all this to work. (At the moment, I deal with Mac-originated conversion requests partly manually, you get the same quality conversion sent to you with a time zone delay, but this will not be sustainable if request volume goes up).

This product is not the final stage of SlideMagic, more a first step for me to test whether I can ship useful software. I am catching up with technology since my 1992 graduation from engineering school, now I have moved on from PowerPoint plugins to writing Windows desktop applications from scratch for a next product release. Desktop apps are a bit “1995”, but for B2B design work, “cloud” might not always be the best solution. In any way, I have to pass this station before being able to move on to web and possibly mobile app technologies. It is fascinating to see that you can basically do anything in software if you are not intimidated by technology and have the courage to leave the traditional boxes/application models and user interface approaches.

If you area a Windows user and are interested in helping out, send me an email to jan at slidemagic dot com.

Photo by Nicolas Thomas on Unsplash

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Artificial voices

Artificial voices

Computers and software have become powerful enough that it is now possible to have them sing a song on a melody and lyrics you write. (Vocaloid by Yamaha). The quality is not yet that of a diva, but the result is acceptable enough for trying out songwriting ideas.

This “text to speech” technology could be interesting for presentation design as well. If a computer voice can read out your pitch with a convincing intonation, you could test out your ideas without having to contract a voice actor (which you would never do for an everyday business presentation).

When you glance over a sentence in a document for the 100th time, you are not really reading it anymore, you just check the latest edit you made. Hearing the whole thing out loud, can wake you up to the fact that it has become bloated, fluffy, loaded with jargon, buzzwords, and boring.

Photo by Maaria Lohiya on Unsplash

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Switching to the new PowerPoint conversion

Switching to the new PowerPoint conversion

In the coming days, I will switch SlideMagic PowerPoint conversions to the new software that I have written: no more imperfect renderings but a perfect 1-to-1 translation. The conversion still involves processing centrally, but ultimately, I will release a DIY plugin for Windows users, I am still stress testing it.

In the future, this feature might become the premium offering of SlideMagic, the ability to save “.magic” files to your computer, translate them to PowerPoint freely to collaborate with your colleagues, and present decks offline.

Cover image by rawpixel on Unsplash

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Font sizing

Font sizing

When people submit their SlideMagic documents for conversion to PowerPoint, I still have to peek inside for a second for a quick manual operation. Here is the most common design mistake I see: different font sizes in boxes that are part of the same list or grouping.*

Screenshot 2018-11-26 07.03.55.png

Yes, bigger fonts are better, but in case of lists, it is the lowest common denominator that determines their size. Slide design is like formatting headlines in a print newspaper: you need to edit text to make the message clear, but also to fit things in the typographical constraints.

* Users in te app are warned beforehand about this.

Cover image by Andre Benz on Unsplash

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Macbook Pro 2018

Macbook Pro 2018

I am now working with my new MacBook Pro computer set up for 2 weeks. In 2015, I got an iMac because it was the only option to enjoy that huge 5k screen back then. Some observations:

  • I am happy to have the option of mobility again. If your work consists of replying to emails, mobile devices are OK to work outside your office, but for design and coding, that is a different story.

  • While the LG 5K monitor is less sturdy than the iMac, it is easier to adjust and has a much smaller footprint. The screen quality is exactly the same (it is probably the same hardware panel as the iMac), some might perceive the glossy finish of the iMac to produce deeper black tints.

  • Having worked for a number of years on 1 monitor, I rarely switch back to a 2 monitor set up (laptop + monitor). I tend to use that second screen for distractions (email, Twitter), and life is actually better and more productive without these. (I do need those 2 monitors to test my “presenter mode” feature of my app, pulling my hairs out over how hard it still is to coordinate 2 application windows in 2018…)

  • The monitors have become so good today that there is no longer the issue of “compromise”: working on the desktop monitor is better because the screen is better. Now there are 2 different work modes with equally good monitor options: laptop screen at close range with trackpad, fixed monitor and mouse at longer range. Both are good.

  • There are a number of 13” screens in the family, and I must say I much prefer my 15”.

  • People have been bashing the MBP in reviews, but I must say it actually works fine. (Contrary to popular taste, I got the silver one and not space grey for that retro feel).

  • USB-C dongle hell is hidden, after some trial and error with USB hubs, I now have my entire office (plus music studio) feed of one single charging/monitor/USB cable, easy connecting and disconnecting in my office.

  • I am not using the touch bar that much. The ESC key could as well have been a real key. It is baffling that the volume slider is not present as the default option, but requires an extra click. Touch ID is great.

Image via WikiPedia

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Windows on Mac in 2018 (3)

Windows on Mac in 2018 (3)

I upgraded my setup to the latest MacBook Pro (the i5 processor started to struggle with some of my music creation plugins) and can gives some updates on my previous posts over the last 2 months or so. Basically all glitches were due to the late 2015 iMac, especially its graphics card. All is fine now:

  • No pink letter rendering in Chrome

  • No corrupted cursor when waking up from sleep

Now it is just down to small things: a colour picker, screen shots, and that CMD vs CTRL issue.

Cover image via WikiPedia

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Keep it simple: +, -, *, /

Keep it simple: +, -, *, /

It is possible to add incredibly elaborate formulas into 1 spreadsheet cell. My advice: don’t. All my spreadsheet basically rely on simple +, -, *, / formulas that have 2 inputs. Each step in the calculation is clearly labeled, nicely rounded, with pretty formatting.

  • You can spot and trace errors easily

  • You can copy things easily

  • You can change things easily (add more inputs, years, etc.)

  • You can remember easily what yo did 6 weeks ago

Yes, your spreadsheets will become a lot biger, and yes, there will be a lot of repetition as you pull numbers down in new cells, instead of adding the reference directly in the formula. But it is worth it.

I see similar things happening now on the world of coding, where programmers use incredibly dense and clever code. I find it actually much harder to read and understand. And I don’t think it makes any difference to the efficiency of a program, at least when it is compiled, where the compiler strips any excess code.

Cover image by Marco Bianchetti on Unsplash

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Why is design software so tricky?

Why is design software so tricky?

As I continue to break my head over presentation design software, I came to realise that design software is tricky, because - unlike other apps - it covers a lot of different aspects. What is one piece of software, is in fact a bundle of many:

  • A sketch pad to map story ideas and organise your thoughts

  • An canvas that facilitates a creative process that enables you to make something artistically beautiful

  • A library/filing system of information: your own audit trail of your work going back for years, but also the archive of building blocks that colleagues need (the latest product deck, etc.)

  • The central switchboard for collaboration and decision making among colleagues, both in terms of getting/preparing the idea, and presenting, discussing it.

  • The computer interface that everyone (young and old) has mastered, the basics of creating, sending, receiving, opening, printing, “stuff” using a computer. Most people understand their browser, email application, and PowerPoint when it comes to computers

  • A tool that is used for junior people (analysts, secretaries), to “execute” visual ideas handed over to them by others. Someone scribbles a chart and request to have it turned into a digital format. Software needs to be ready with a lot of features to support these random visual ideas.

  • Legacy file formats and user interfaces. Microsoft cannot simply say sorry, this app won’t open files that were created before 2005 anymore.

  • Design software has much more intricate relation to the user interface of a device: small screen, big screen, mouse, touch, keyboard, it will turn the options you have to create something completely upside down. (Unlike, let’s say a database or email app that you can pretty much implement on anything and it will do the same thing).

  • An extremely broad range of users: professional designers, secretaries, CEOs, analysts, all are forced to use the same interface.

  • A wide range of applications: TEDTalks, conference rooms, email attachments.

Most legacy apps get some things right, and are completely failing in other areas. New startups are struggling with prioritising features or target markets

Cover image by CJ Infantino on Unsplash

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Keeping your numbers consistent

Keeping your numbers consistent

Inconsistent numbers in your presentation are a blow to the credibility of your story, and distract the audience as they are trying to figure out why the sales on page 19 differ from those presented on page 5.

  • Calculation errors and typos

  • Forgotten updates to the latest version of the model for some slides

  • Rounding

  • Different sources of market data

  • “Footnote details”: certain numbers include something, others not (sales tax, etc.)

  • Last minute manual edits by someone without access to the spreadsheets

Some of these are not even “your fault” and can be perfectly explained. How to prevent them?

  1. Decide on one view of the world, picking one market data source to go with, maybe with some adjustments, but that’s it. During the analysis phase of the project, ambiguity is OK, when it comes to presenting your story, ambiguity creates confusion,

  2. Put all data in one spreadsheet, and link the different components of your model: if you forecast more sales, market share must go up if the market forecast does not change. More sales, means more sales reps, etc.

  3. For each slide in your presentation, create a small worksheet, or part of a worksheet, that pulls the numbers from your model, and rounds them correctly. Nothing else should be in this worksheet. A column chart for 10 years: just 10 numbers in a row, nothing else. No need to dive into a big worksheet, dig up the numbers, round them. All possible sources of errors and inconsistencies.

  4. Let no one touch the master version of this model

The added benefit of the approach that it is now very easy to update a presentation with a new set of numbers. It might take a bit of time to set up, but it will pay off in the end.

Cover image by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

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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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