Thursday, April 29, 2010

The art of being simplistic and the science of using the right tool to explain the impossible

My friend Sam Batterman, Business Intelligence Evangelist, Pharmaceutical/Life Science at Microsoft, offered to do a guest blog post on a topic that's near and dear to our heart: Keeping it simple.

Thanks, Sam, for putting this together. Read on to see what he has to say. Have a comment? Leave it for Sam below.

A few days ago, The New York Times ran a column in which the generals managing the war on terror condemned PowerPoint as a tool perhaps more dangerous than the insurgents killing service men. As a student of Business Intelligence, and a presenter for more than a decade, I have some opinions about this.

First, Microsoft is not blameless. PowerPoint is a huge part of the American and, indeed, the planet's business landscape. It isn't going away, no matter how many NASA officials and generals prohibit its use.

PowerPoint is a tool that has been abused. Abused, just as Excel has been abused as a data warehouse, and compounded the "single version of the truth" so critical in most corporations. Abused just as Access is used as a container for mission-critical datasets, with no backup plan and no redundancy.

PowerPoint is successful and used heavily because it is prolific. With this footprint comes responsibility to describe how to use such a general purpose tool. How many bullets are too many? Some would argue one is too many, but that's making the issue presented here absurd.

There are similar needs for SharePoint sites (how is a SharePoint site different than a network share?), or even the 2007 version of Excel, with its ten-fold increase in addressable rows (from 64,000 to over 1 million). How to use PowerPoint (or any presentation software -- ahem, Keynote!) is a critical skill.

Some common, simple rules for PowerPoint presentations gathered from around the Web.
  • Keep it simple.
  • Be consistent.
  • Don't read the slides to the audience.
  • No more than six words on a slide (ever). This seems draconian, but is a great guideline.
  • Is the slide emotive? (Some would say this corrupts the data you are presenting).
  • No cheesy graphics, and no spinning logos and laser blast sounds during transitions.
  • Don't use more than 10 slides.
  • Use more pictures than words, preferably photographs.
  • Slides assist the presentation. They reinforce the word. They are not the presentation unto themselves.
This list can go on and on. Microsoft got out of the training business quite a long time ago, but perhaps these types of "how to use the tool" discussions should be broadly embedded and available to the public at large -- and perhaps should even built into the product(s) themselves. We have enough examples of "good" and "bad" presentation styles to build these heuristics.

Of course, we would always allow the presenter to "opt out" and give a horrendous presentation. We are freedom-loving people, after all.

My second point is more difficult to absorb. Perhaps our society is beginning to cope with issues of complexity that cannot be easily diagrammed (and presented) as if we understand all the inputs and outputs that impact complex systems.

Let's take a closer look at that diagram.

First off, was this designed in PowerPoint? Or was this drawn in an application such as Photoshop or another tool, and then inserted as a picture? As a person who does data visualization and uses PowerPoint, this diagram seems untenable as something that an analyst drew using the tools that come with PowerPoint. Do you see my point? Are we blaming PowerPoint for the condition and obscurity of this diagram, or the fact that it was "transmitted" to generals in the PowerPoint format?

I've seen some terrible movies and read some horrific books -- bad dialogue, bad acting, cheap sets, dumb plots -- and since virtually all of those were probably done on Microsoft Word (on a Mac or a PC), that means that Word is broken and should be banned, right? Ever "chop" off your friends head with an inaccurate aim of the camera? That camera is the fault, not the photographer.

Every tool can be misused, and the diagram above is a classic example. Need more examples? Here's an example of the limits of population growth on the left. Isn't it nice that it all fits on one page? On the right is a diagram of sustainability of the biosphere. Simplistic? Ridiculously so!

Perhaps these diagrams need to graduate to another level, beyond flatland and beyond static examples. Walt Disney once stated that, "Anything can be explained with animation." Movies and scientific visualizations prove this all the time. In fact, visualization is becoming its own media type as the price point for such tools continues to fall.

Here's an example of a thunderstorm forming -- just one frame out of an entire sequence. This allows discussion, it encourages different viewpoints, and questions of method -- but mostly it shows that the thing is immensely complex. The full movie of this is here.

Most of the video and computer games our children are using contain technologies needed to bring this type of fidelity to our business data, scientific discoveries, government, and military initiatives. The graphics are there, the computation power is there, many of the methods are here. Perhaps this is a cultural and societal challenge in which we all need to move to the next level in experiencing and solving these complexities of the modern age.

There is no substitute for deep thought and open discussion, assisted by well thought-out visuals. And there's no shortage of bad examples of the opposite.

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