Don Norman in Defense of PowerPoint

How is it possible that I didn’t know that Don Norman wrote a post entitled:

In Defense of PowerPoint

He wrote the post over two years ago. However, I remember the storm over this like it was yesterday. It all started with a New York Times article in 2003 called “PowerPoint Makes You Dumb“. It was written in response to the investigation into the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, which pinned part of the blame on a “PowerPoint Culture” with too little detail.

A sample paragraph from the NYT article:

This year, Edward Tufte — the famous theorist of information presentation — made precisely that argument in a blistering screed called The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. In his slim 28-page pamphlet, Tufte claimed that Microsoft’s ubiquitous software forces people to mutilate data beyond comprehension. For example, the low resolution of a PowerPoint slide means that it usually contains only about 40 words, or barely eight seconds of reading. PowerPoint also encourages users to rely on bulleted lists, a ”faux analytical” technique, Tufte wrote, that dodges the speaker’s responsibility to tie his information together. And perhaps worst of all is how PowerPoint renders charts. Charts in newspapers like The Wall Street Journal contain up to 120 elements on average, allowing readers to compare large groupings of data. But, as Tufte found, PowerPoint users typically produce charts with only 12 elements. Ultimately, Tufte concluded, PowerPoint is infused with ”an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.”

This issue resonates with me for three reasons:

  1. Don is one of the HCI legends. Even though I now work at eBay, I began my career at Apple Computer, working in the Advanced Technology Group before transferring to the WebObjects team after Apple acquired NeXT. Towards the end, ATG was rebranded the “Apple Research Labs”, and Don Norman was the VP (and Apple Fellow). Don’s book, The Design of Everyday Things, is one of the standard bearers for an education in design.
  2. I find myself using a lot of PowerPoint. It started with my work in venture capital, digesting 6-10 new presentations a day presented live, and an uncounted number over email. Now at eBay, I find that in the end, there is no better way to pitch a new business or a new product strategy broadly than to go through the exercise of producing a truly great slide deck. I wonder sometimes whether I now see more decks at eBay than I did in venture capital.
  3. Don is right. PowerPoint has its place. I love to joke about PowerPoint – I even use some quotes from the article in a lunch presentation I do at Stanford every year as an ice-breaker. But the fact is, there is a time and a place for a PowerPoint presentation. Like any other mode of communication, there are situations where the ability to distill concepts into a short, simple visual presentation is the right answer. I have written my share of 1-page memos, 10-page decks, and long emails. There is a time and a place for each, and if you think any one of them is right for every audience and every situation, then you are not thinking hard enough how to match the best communication vehicle to every situation.

So while I can’t say that I’m proud of the fact that these days I probably produce better PowerPoint decks than Java code, sometimes it is the right tool for the job.

As an aside, I remember the Columbia disaster like yesterday. It was a relatively quiet time for me, as I was home with my wife and our new puppy, Newton, who was only a few months old. I woke up that morning, read the news, and we went to get coffee and a bagel to relax and absorb it. (For those in the Valley, we went to the Starbucks & Noah’s Bagel on the corner of De Anza & Stephens Creek, right near Apple)