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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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.

Screenshot 2018-11-12 07.28.39.png
Screenshot 2018-11-12 07.28.56.png

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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