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One software, many uses

One software, many uses

PowerPoint is used for many things in today's corporations:

  • Quickly write documents for internal use
  • Maintain the competitor intelligence database
  • A tool to draw the system architecture diagram
  • Organize your thoughts, make a work plan
  • Brainstorm ideas live in a group
  • Logo / design concept prototype
  • A UI spec (that’s how I used for SlideMagic)
  • Big stand up presentation to outsiders - big audience
  • Big stand up presentation to insiders - big audience
  • Big stand up presentation to outsiders - conference room
  • Big stand up presentation to insiders - conference room
  • One-on-one "coffee chat"
  • Document for reading for outsiders
  • Document for reading for insider 

To name a few. We get problems when we confuse the application and the target audience. A project status update on the overhead of the big annual industry conference, pretty pictures without explanations when you want your budget approved by the CEO.

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How to brief a presentation template designer

How to brief a presentation template designer

The traditional approach is to hand the designer a blank slide and say "we need a fresh PowerPoint template". You will get a slide back full of supporting graphics, logos, page numbers which shows that the designer added some value.

Here is the better approach: give an actual slide with content and ask her to improve that, including the template. The likely result is a well-designed slide. Now delete all the content and see what you are left with. It is likely to be an empty page... Here is your new PowerPoint template.

Oh, and the most important part of the template design project is not the template (i.e, the blank page). It is to make sure that the standard colors and fonts are programmed correctly. That's a programmer's job, not a designer's job.

In my presentation design app SlideMagic, things are easier. Upload your logo, use the color picker to select your accent color based on the logo, and you are all set.


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Searching slide libraries: Bitlasso Reveal

Searching slide libraries: Bitlasso Reveal

Most people amass a huge library of PowerPoint and Keynote slides on their computers. File search as a tool to find presentations is collapsing under the load, and searching for a specific slide inside a presentation is impossible. Most people are now using their email program as a document archive ("where is that deck I sent Sally last week?"). 

BitLasso's Reveal is a new program that aims to solve this issue. After installation it builds a database of all your slides and makes them searchable by keywords. The first try is very impressive, you use a specific topic that you still remember from a long time ago, and pop: there are the slides!

Slides are grouped together if they are similar (with yellow highlighting the differences), you can group them by date, by title. It all works brilliantly.

As a graphic design nitpicker, I noticed that fonts are not rendered correctly. But, remember this is a search tool, not a presentation application.

For the average user, this tool works great. For me, a professional presentation designer who has an incredibly large slide library with presentation for many, many, clients there is still a problem. Common business search terms will return so many slides that it is still hard to find the one you need. This is not a problem of the software though, more a result of my profession.

One suggestion could be to allow the search results to be grouped by some sort of directory, or limit the search inside a specific directory, since most users will have a basic level of organization by project on their hard drive to focus the search.

A second concern for power users is the size of the database. Mine quickly ran in the gigabytes after 15 minutes of indexing. Again, I suspect most regular people won't have this problem, and computers by now should be able to handle pretty large files as long as there is sufficient hard drive space available.

All in all, a product worth while checking out. A free trial allows you do 30 searches (give the database indexing some time before you spend them), and the full version of the product costs $49. The software only works on Mac at the moment.

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Status reports in PPT

Status reports in PPT

This Tweet caught my attention:

Yes "status reports" are a distinct category of presentations. Some sort of weekly, monthly, quarterly updates, that follow more or less the same template. A lot of time is spent (wasted) on creating these. In the short run, you can do a lot with workflow automation. For example create the entire presentation in Excel, which has the same drawing and charting capabilities that PowerPoint has. And yes in the end, SAAS dashboards might replace them all together, if, and that is a big if, the dashboard is designed well.

The "other" type of presentation, the one in which you pitch an idea, a budget, an investment, is here to stay. Each story is different, each pitch is different. Still, people spend too much time on PowerPoint to create them (hopefully my presentation design app SlideMagic will change that), but the creative process will not be automated anytime soon.


Image from Wikipedia

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Two new screen interfaces

Two new screen interfaces

Both Microsoft and Google launched new screen-based devices over the past few days.

The Microsoft Surface Studio is a desktop computer with a very large touch display. It can be used in regular upright mode, or folded down, which turns it into a giant, almost-horizontal tablet. There is a new interface gadget, a cylinder that you put right on the screen. 

I think this might be the future of desk-based design interfaces. Portable tablets are too small. Upright touch screens are to cumbersome. This hybrid looks great. 

Google introduced the Jamboard, a big touch screen that is meant for white boarding in meetings. The main feature is the collaboration supported by Google software. You can upload, edit, move things, and people not in the room can join the conversation remotely.

The features look impressive, the size of the screen might still be a bit small though to enable really productive group collaboration. Time will tell. 

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PowerPoint Designer - first impressions

PowerPoint Designer - first impressions

Microsoft has been adding a number of features to PowerPoint recently. One of them is Designer. In the Design tab of the ribbon, a new button appears on the right "Design Ideas". Clicking it generates alternative layouts of your slides on the right side of your screen.

The layouts are pretty nice. Microsoft has "automated" the design of 2 types of slides:

  • Image collages, multiple photos get put in different suggested grids, with place for a title
  • Process bullet points that can be translated to horizontally spaced out sequences of equally sized shapes.

Both are useful. Layman designers usually have no idea how to crop a nice photo collage, and translating that bullet list into a horizontal sequence looks nice, especially on wide 16:9 screen.

But here comes the but. 

  • The algorithm only works on these types of slides, so layman presentations will look inconsistent as same slides cannot be improved by the algorithm
  • And in case of the bullet transformation, PowerPoint needs to analyze the text with language processing, to decide that you are describing some kind of process. I had a hard time to trigger the algorithm, and in the end typed the exact same text as was used in Microsoft's explanation web post.

Microsoft is on the right path, these suggested layouts look a lot nicer than the SmartArt objects. And, getting layman designers to use some sort of grid is the biggest possible improvement you can create in slide design.

But I think it will take some time before language interpretation will be so sophisticated that PowerPoint understands the meaning of a slide and can pull a suggested layout from its library. That's one step above asking Siri to book a movie for you. 

Images get a nice suggested cropping

Images get a nice suggested cropping

Multiple images trigger multiple grid suggestions

Multiple images trigger multiple grid suggestions

No suggestion to clean up this grid

No suggestion to clean up this grid

No suggestions for these charts

No suggestions for these charts

Language interpretation concludes this is not a process

Language interpretation concludes this is not a process

This is a process, text taken from a Microsoft post

This is a process, text taken from a Microsoft post

(* Commercial start *)

This is why designed my presentation app SlideMagic with a forced grid structure, which is a fundamentally different interface approach from PowerPoint and Keynote, which are based on free placement and resizing of objects.

(* End of the commercial break *)

PowerPoint Designer is not 100% there yet, but from its look and feel and general creative direction you see that Microsoft is on the right path.

 

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Keynote 7.0 - first impressions

Keynote 7.0 - first impressions

Now that all my data is backed up constantly to the cloud, I have been become more daring when it comes to updating machine operating systems. So, over the weekend I upgraded my client production machine to Sierra, and I could upgrade the iWork applications (I only use Keynote) as well.

Keynote become "7.0", a big upgrade number. PowerPoint and Keynote are both highly mature pieces of software, they work very well and have not changed that much over the years. The big new features in Keynote 7.0: realtime collaboration and live presentations.

Real time collaboration is the main advantage that web app Google Slides has over desktop applications Keynote and PowerPoint. Earlier, Apple launched an iCloud-based version of Keynote where multiple people could access the same file in a web browser. The problem with this format was that the iCloud version lacked a few crucial features compared to the desk top version. If you started out working in iCloud only, there are no issues. But in most cases, you would group-edit a document online that was originally created on a desktop. I struggled finding certain formatting coloring functions which made it hard to keep slides in consistent look, and missed certain table and data chart manipulation functions online (making it hard to edit existing tables and data charts).

In Keynote 7, collaboration is now done right from the desktop app, all features are supported. During the Apple product announcement (video) it all worked perfectly. I tried things, and it worked less perfectly, but maybe because I was trying to collaborate with myself (trying to edit a test presentation in parallel on my phone). I did not get to invite people via iMessage, the email link worked, but there was a significant delay in syncing of the edits, creating sync conflicts. I assume that Apple being Apple will iron these issues out (and they might not happen in a proper collaboration set up where I am not trying to trick the system in collaborating with myself).

Having said all that, I am not a big believer in real-time editing of presentations and other documents. I can see it work when brainstorming a rough design concept, but final design tweaks are best made by one owner of the pen, who decides which input to take from collaborators. A simple commenting system will do here. There are also file integrity issues, collaboration might be fine in the heat of the meeting, but what if you discovered 2 weeks later that people have been editing your sales pitch the moment you show it at a client? All these perspectives apply equally to Google Slides.

The second new big feature in Keynote 7.0 is live presentations. You can share a link to your presentation instantly and have people in different locations on any device see your slides instantly. This is a very handy feature. It works really simple. This will be a powerful assault on all those meeting and presentation viewing applications that always require 15 minutes of background phone calls to get everything to work properly.

In short, Keynote remains a very powerful and useful presentation design software tool. Live presentations is a welcome extra feature. If you force me to compare it to PowerPoint, I would give PowerPoint the slide edge, because of the workflow for the advanced user. It is easier/faster to do basic things such as coloring and formatting boxes. For the average user, there is no real difference.


(Promotion of my presentation app SlideMagic: all this software (Keynote, Google Slides, PowerPoint) is very similar and have one specific flaw, they offer the inexperienced designer too many degrees of freedom to position objects, pick colors, fonts, layouts. In SlideMagic I tried to cut down that freedom, you can do less, but what you do will look decent. Try it out. End of promotion.)

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SlideMagic just got more minimalist

SlideMagic just got more minimalist

We deployed a new version of my presentation app SlideMagic that eliminated the TEMPLATES menus. It makes things even simpler. Templates are now more integrated in the workflow

  • When you click INSERT SLIDE HERE, you get presented with a number of pre-designed layouts in addition to the 3x3 blank grid.
  • In your file browser (the DECKS menu), you have access to a number of featured presentations at the top of the page. These are example presentations designed by me that you can duplicate.
  • In the STORY mode, you can import individual slides or entire presentations (including featured presentations) into your own presentations



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Using templates in SlideMagic

Using templates in SlideMagic

In little bursts of work I will be updating my presentation app SlideMagic over the coming weeks. I noticed that many users stick to the 9 box grid that is the default blank layout of a new slide. Yesterday we released a new insert routine. You now get presented with a number of slide layouts to choose from when inserting a new slide, without having to import and/or clone template slides.

Try it out and let me know what you think.

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The latest cool presentation app

The latest cool presentation app

I saw this Tweet by Garr Reynolds (Presentation Zen):

I agree fully, and as the CEO of an aspiring presentation app (SlideMagic), I am not contradicting myself. SlideMagic is of course cool, but not because it adds spectacular features. It makes you design slides in a very strict grid so that your slides look good regardless of your design experience. Try it yourself.

 

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How do you do it?

How do you do it?

A question I often get after a very simple make over of a slide. Answer:

  • Make boxes the same size
  • Line everything up in a grid
  • Cut excess filler words and passive verbs
  • Us one accent colour
  • Harmonize fonts
  • Reset image aspect ratios
  • Fit everything inside a frame with white space around it

"You make it sound so simple, but it is not.". It actually is. If you struggle doing it in PowerPoint, use SlideMagic, my presentation app.

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Curves in PowerPoint

Curves in PowerPoint

PowerPoint allows you to draw curves as lines, but it is harder to make fills under a curved line without resorting to actual data charts. Here is what I do: I use rectangular shapes to cut/shave a shape. See below. Notice that it is also possible to fill your custom shapes with images.

Draw a shape

Draw a shape

Position your knife

Position your knife

Use the "subtract" function to cut the shape

Use the "subtract" function to cut the shape

Horizontal knife

Horizontal knife

One more cut

One more cut

Fix the edges with format shape - edit shape - edit points

Fix the edges with format shape - edit shape - edit points

Add an image if you want

Add an image if you want

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Organising application windows

Organising application windows

Yesterday I wrote about how difficult it is to keep your application windows organised across two very large monitors. Colleague Nick Smith pointed me to this neat utility: Divvy. It creates a pop up grid that allows you to position windows quickly. Available for both Windows and Mac OSX. This features should be baked into operating systems as a standard feature.

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iPad Pro review

iPad Pro review

While I have been upgrading my phone fairly frequently over the past years, my iPad has pretty stayed the same for a long time. I got the first one with Retina display (the 3 I think), got frustrated with its weight and got a Mini as soon as that one was equipped with a Retina display. Last week, I got an iPad Pro 9.7. 

Why? I will be honest, screen size. I subscribe to many iPad magazines in niche categories (mountain biking, synthesizers if you are interested) and these smaller publications do not always have apps that adjust to small screen sizes. At 46, I found them increasingly hard to read. 

Also I was curious about the Apple Pencil and keyboard. The big iPad Pro tempted me, but I held out long enough to read the reviews of most users who found its size too bulky. So, here I am with an iPad Pro 9.7. 

The first thing that strikes you is the incredible screen this iPad has. My iPhone 6S looks poor next to it. Second is its weight. Feels the same as my old Mini, despite a much larger screen. 

The pencil is the first one that actually works for an iPad. Over the years I have tried many, many styli, and always found myself going back to paper. All my slide designs start as a sketch on a piece of paper, I like to make them big, so I burn through many trees in a month. I am hopeful that the pencil will finally end this waste. The real answer will come after a month of use or so. The pencil works nicely in the Apple Notes app, but really shines in the Paper app by 53.  The only drawback of the pencil is that there is nowhere to put it. I reviewed a leather designer cover I got for my iPad 3 to carry everything around.

Multi-tasking looks useful: you can now open 2 app windows side by side.

Finally, the keyboard. I never had a problem with typing on their iPad screen, what did bother me was the pop up window for the characters. That is now gone. Attach the keyboard and you have the full screen real estate of the app. I am writing this blog post on my iPad as we "speak". 

It is this keyboard that really makes my presentation design app SlideMagic work on an iPad. The text dialogue box is gone. More and more I am starting to think that SlideMagic could actually be the first presentation app that allows you to create slides on a tablet for real. 

I will report back after some time for the 10,000 km review

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The shortcomings of application windows

The shortcomings of application windows

The main reason to design a new presentation app that is an alternative to PowerPoint (SlideMagic) is the flaw in the windows/mouse-based user interface design that has been with us since the end of the 1980s. Users can drag, move, place, distort, objects as they see fit. Inexperienced designers will get it wrong and put things in the wrong places.

Over my holiday, I have been listening to this Andreessen Horowitz podcast that discusses whether tablets are finally ready to eliminate the laptop:

Some other interesting points that came up:

  • "Where is my mouse?", the mouse pointer is actually not the most logical computer input device. After 2 decades we have gotten used to it, but is not perfect. In the 1980s, engineers combined multi-tasking and windows as one user interface concept. They are different.
  • Arranging and resizing application windows as actually not that user friendly. Most of the time, you want 1, 2, maybe 3 applications open in a convenient grid. (Similar to placing objects on a slide).
  • One of the big shortcomings of tablets today is the ability to create presentation slides (making small edits is not a problem). Maybe it is time to expand SlideMagic to work with touch screens :-)

Image from WikiPedia

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The multiple uses of PowerPoint

The multiple uses of PowerPoint

Presenting slides in front of a big audience is just one application of PowerPoint, and probably not the one that is most commonly used. Here are a few others:

  • Corporate knowledge database
  • Product catalogue
  • Project management and planning tool
  • Word processor
  • Story boarding tool
  • Group brainstorming tool
  • Animation editor
  • System design tool
  • To do list and meeting minutes recording tool

A 1980s presentation design tool ended up being the operating system that power most communication inside a company.

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Keynote for iCloud, a mini review

Keynote for iCloud, a mini review

I had the opportunity to spend some time in Keynote for iCloud last week. We were editing a Keynote file with many people and needed to stay on top of versions. Keynote for iCloud was the logical solution.

It is amazing to see how web apps have evolved. After a relatively long wait time to upload/open the presentation in the browser, it is almost as snappy as if you are working on a desktop app. Browsing through slides, dragging and dropping of images, all great.

The issue is that there are a few features missing compared to the desktop version that are really important to me:

  • Distributing objects horizontally and vertically. The one biggest mistake people make in slide design is incorrect alignment of objects on the slide. Keynote for iCloud has the "soft guides" that pop up when you drag an object, but as soon as you have to deal with a lot of boxes, there is no way to line things up properly. A similar problem happens in resizing table columns and rows (but you could argue that this is a power user feature that not many users will miss).
  • Manipulating themes, especially colours. You can't set them in Keynote for iCloud, your only choice is to pick a template when creating a new deck. When uploading an existing slide deck, the theme colours get copied, but only for shapes. In tables they do not appear. And in data charts you cannot set them either. 

A smaller issue is that an animation that my client created in the desktop version did not play in iCloud presentation mode. I am not a big fan of animations in presentations so in theory this is not a big deal. But, differences in PLAY mode can create unexpected surprises when you deliver an important pitch and all of a sudden your content is displayed differently in the heat of the discussion.

I suspect that Apple had to make decisions what features to include with the mobile version of iCloud in mind. But these 2 shortcomings forced me to take down the Keynote deck into the desktop version, warn my client not to touch the file, and upload it again after I was finished.

Two lessons here:

  1. Slide design software still does not get what are the key features needed for layman designers to make decent slides. (Which is why I created my presentation app Slidemagic which is all about grids and alignment)
  2. Users are demanding. If you offer a product under one brand, users expect all features that they have gotten used to, to appear on all platforms. I experience this myself with users who view my presentation app SlideMagic as an extension of PowerPoint and complain where the pie charts are.

Keynote for iCloud is not there yet, but it is getting close.

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Presentations are short cuts

Presentations are short cuts

Many of a company's operational processes have become a lot more efficient over the past decades, partly with the help of automation and computers.

Above the factory floor, middle management of corporations gets more efficient as well. Computers take over routine tasks, and slide/dice data so it becomes easier to make decisions.

Human communication among decision makers is pretty inefficient. People are bad at formulating and selling their ideas. Presentations have helped though: they have replaced long-winded memos and forced people to get to the point faster. Visuals are easier to digest, and more importantly, it is faster to skip through useless pages of a presentation (PGDN, PGDN) than looking for "the meat" in a text document.

This realisation might help you with the design of your everyday presentations. It should look decent. It should get to the point. It should show interesting, unusual, unexpected facts and insights. You want to get to a decision, you are not aiming to publish a complete, scientific document.

Here is where my presentation app SlideMagic comes in, adding even more shortcuts to make corporate decision making more efficient, and less cumbersome, boring and time consuming.


Image from WikiPedia

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PowerPoint 2016 now lets you customise toolbars

PowerPoint 2016 now lets you customise toolbars

In the latest PowerPoint 2016 software update, Microsoft started to fix one of the last remaining issues in a great product: customisation of the top tool bar. Here is a screen shot of what is new:

Things are limited to just these functions though. In PowerPoint 2011 it was possible to add any function you want to the top bar. File, save, and definitely print, are not the actions a PowerPoint user needs to access all the time. What I would like to see are buttons to align and distribute objects, and move things to the front and the back. Here is my toolbar from PowerPoint 2011:


Image from WikiPedia

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