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Metaphors for Presentations: Conway's Law Meets PowerPoint

-- Edward Tufte

Response to Metaphors for Presentations: Conway's Law meets PowerPoint

From Apple's 1984 commercial [ http://www.curtsmedia.com/cine/1984.html ]

Big Brother speaks: "My friends, each of you is a single cell in the great body of the State. And today, that great body has purged itself of parasites. We have triumphed over the unprincipled dissemination of facts. The thugs and wreckers have been cast out. And the poisonous weeds of disinformation have been consigned to the dustbin of history. Let each and every cell rejoice! For today we celebrate the first, glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directive! We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology, where each worker may bloom secure from the pests of contradictory and confusing truths. Our Unification of Thought is a more powerful weapon than any fleet or army on Earth! We are one people. With one will. One resolve. One cause. Our enemies shall talk themselves to death. And we will bury them with their own confusion! We shall prevail!"

-- Tchad (email)

Other Ask E.T. readers might be interested to know that Conway's original article, How Do Committees Invent, is reproduced on his website.

-- Tom Carden (email)

An important but complex issue in evaluating visual presentations, including PowerPoint, is: what are the causes of a presentation? What are the contributions of content quality, presenter skills, presentation methods, cognitive styles, and prevailing standards of integrity? To begin with, reasonably certain answers are that the causal structure is multivariate, that causes tend to interact and are not independent of one another, and improvements will result from working on all factors.

George Orwell's classic essay "Politics and the English Language" gets right the interplay between quality of thought and cognitive style of presentation: "The English language becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts."

Imagine Orwell writing about PP: "PowerPoint becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of PowerPoint makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." The PP cognitive style is familiar to readers of Orwell's remarkable and prescient novel 1984.

Consider the NASA presentations. What are the causes of the dreaded Engineering by PowerPoint that 2 intense investigations of NASA, and my own work, have criticized? Engineers incapable of communicating by means of standard technical reports? Lack of intellectual rigor? Designer guidelines and bureaucratic norms that insist on PP for all presentations, regardless of content? The cognitive style of PowerPoint? A bureaucracy infected throughout by the pitch culture? The PowerPoint monopoly and the consequent lack of innovative and high-quality software for technical communication? A Conway's Law interaction of causes? Some or all of these factors? In what proportion?

Sorting all this out is not possible. Nevertheless, under most reasonable allocations of causal responsibility, the practical advice remains the same: To make smarter presentations, try smarter presentation tools. Technical reports are smarter than PP decks, other things being equal. Sentences are smarter than the grunts of bullet points. PP templates for statistical graphics and data tables are hopeless.

In my essay, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, many comparisons of various presentation tools in action indicate that PP is intellectually outperformed by competing tools. For the 10 case studies, 32 control samples, and an unbiased collection 2000 PP slides, PP does poorly in the comparative tests, except for beating out Pravda in the statistical graphics competition.

Some of these comparisons are for the same users with the same content. Matched comparisons of this type control for selection effects, such as the entertaining hypothesis that PP is a stupidity magnet, differentially attracting inept presenters with lightweight content (and thereby making PP look bad). Our evidence helps isolate PP effects, independent of user or content. Such comparisons--Consumer Reports style--provide a competitive analysis of of presentation tools. In such tests, PP's performance cannot be blamed on its users. For example, in the shuttle investigations, given that the presenters are NASA engineers and the content is rocket science, which then is the better presentation method, PP or technical reports? This is a remarkable natural experiment. Both the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and the Return to Flight Task group clearly and decisively conclude that technical reports are distinctly preferable to PP.

Should we ignore, and not act upon, the Consumer Reports ratings of the safety of various cars because driver quality and road conditions make substantial contributions to safety? Note that in serious safety analysis of cars, selection of certain types of drivers to certain types of cars is statistically controlled. My evidence, in part, seeks to control for user and content effects in real workaday public presentations. Thus for presenting cancer mortality data (content held constant), I make comparisons among the original table published in The Lancet, a redesigned table, a graphical table for the data, and 6 PP graphical templates. Or, similarly for weather data and mortality data, PP templates for tables and graphics compete against newspapers and classic mortality tables. The 32 control samples, across a great many fields, are compared again and again with PP's performance. About 90% of the control displays and the PP displays were generated by others in public presentations and are not concocted for a special experiment; thus tables in newspapers are compared with PP tables and so on. (PP table templates perform especially poorly when compared to tables in the sports, financial, and weather pages.) That is also the research design behind the 10 case studies; for each case, content and users are constant, and then variation in presentation methods can be compared relatively free of content and user effects. Comparing actual PP displays for presenting data with alternative methods helps make our thinking about presentations evidence-based, rather than platitude-based.

The scope of my analysis and evidence in limited. Nearly all the evidence is drawn from serious public presentations, with explanations to understand, evidence to evaluate, problems to solve, decisions to make, and, in several examples, lives to save. It is hard to know how many presentations are serious. Perhaps 25% to 75%, depending very much upon the substantive field.

-- Edward Tufte

The comments about a Powerpoint cognitive style, and the seemingly recurring problems at NASA bring to mind a rather systemic cognitive style that infects many organizations: the idea that one is successful in a task if one has followed "policy & procedures". Instead of focusing on results, and actually accomplishing something useful, the worker is rewarded for how well they "crossed their t's and dotted their i's" during the process.

No mind if, during the process, they managed to lead themselves and their colleagues over a cliff ... they obeyed the rules and protocols. Talk about stifling creative thinking!

Back on the immediate PP issue: I recall a recent meeting where every "presentation" was given via Powerpoint, save one. The person involved, a well-respected retired hydrologist, simply remained sitting in his seat and held a dialogue with the audience. Virtually everyone turned towards the speaker and sat in rapt attention as he discussed his viewpoint, etc. If you really have something to say ...

-- Rick Koehler (email)

On the topic of PowerPoint reflecting an organization, anyone see the June 17th article in the Wall St. Journal by Greg Jaffe titled "A Camp Divided". It described some of the trials and tribulations of a military base in Iraq housing both Americans and Iraqis. There is a telling series of paragraphs about 2/3 of the way through the article. "Col. Pasquarette and his team spent several days building a plan before he invited Col. Payne, Col. Saad, and Col. Saad's commander [the latter two Iraqis] to the US side to explain it. The two Iraqi officers were led through a 208-slide PowerPoint briefing in which all slides were written in English. The six areas the Iraqi troops were supposed to occupy were named for New England cities..."

Then the understatement from Maj. Taylor, Col. Payne's deputy: "I could see in their body language that both of them were not following what was going on."

208-slide PowerPoint? Could you imagine if this technology was available 140 years ago? Imagine May 1863 as Gen. Lee and Gen. Jackson sat on a log discussing how to roll up the Federal flank near Chancellorsville that was hanging in the air. "Now here Gen. Lee, on slide 62..."

-- Dave Froberg (email)

Back to Conway's Law and the idea that design mimics bureaucracy: this from Fortune, "Apple: America's best retailer," by Jerry Useem:

"One of the best pieces of advice Mickey ever gave us was to go rent a warehouse and build a prototype of a store, and not, you know, just design it, go build 20 of them, then discover it didn't work," says [Steve] Jobs. In other words, design it as you would a product. Apple Store Version 0.0 took shape in a warehouse near the Apple campus. "Ron and I had a store all designed," says Jobs, when they were stopped by an insight: The computer was evolving from a simple productivity tool to a "hub" for video, photography, music, information, and so forth. The sale, then, was less about the machine than what you could do with it. But looking at their store, they winced. The hardware was laid out by product category - in other words, by how the company was organized internally, not by how a customer might actually want to buy things. "We were like, 'Oh, God, we're screwed!'" says Jobs.

But they weren't screwed; they were in a mockup. "So we redesigned it," he says. "And it cost us, I don't know, six, nine months. But it was the right decision by a million miles." When the first store finally opened, in Tysons Corner, Va., only a quarter of it was about product. The rest was arranged around interests: along the right wall, photos, videos, kids; on the left, problems. A third area - the Genius Bar in the back - was Johnson's brainstorm.

Full article here

-- Edward Tufte

Threads relevant to PowerPoint:
Don't get your hopes up.
Compares tables, slopegraphs, barcharts for showing cancer survival rates.
A look at a rich and complex question: What are the the causes of presentations?

An intriguing but under-explored topic.
Account of the role of PP in the shuttle Columbia accident, followed by many good alternative methods and examples for technical presentations.
Mainly recent examples of leaked PP slides in the Iraq war.