Software that speaks for itself, or: are you sure you need Powerpoint?

25th September 2006 @ 11:06 am
weblog, Thinking, Photoshop, excel, Google-Earth, Sketchup, Powerpoint, Presentations and Software
Euro Foo began with introductions to the group: name, affiliation and three words (tags) that describe you. So tough! I picked simulation, architecture and design (I think), but that was way too narrow. Conference introductions are tricky beasts... Aaron Swartz asks "what have you been thinking about?" and Simon Willison asks "what are you excited about?". That's better!

I've been thinking about software that - for the content it generates - is a better presentation tool than Keynote or PowerPoint. Stop, wait, come back! This isn't a Powerpoint bashing post. Of course it will depend what you are presenting and who is doing the presenting. Powerpoint and Keynote are great tools in the right hands, but I'm coming to believe that they often involve doing work for presentation's sake, when you already have good presentation tools in your workflow or - more importantly - when your work could speak for itself.

A colleague once talked me through a detailed 3D model that was built in Sketchup, using Sketchup's views and geometry tools to show things from different angles and manipulate the data as she spoke. Stills in Powerpoint would never have done this justice. Animations would have to be scripted to perfection. She had constructed a solid narrative inside the software, and the ability to manipulate things and show/hide different components came for free inside Sketchup itself. The same narrative could have been retold in a slideshow format, but why create extra work for a less effective result?

In the case of Sketchup, it's easy to see why the CAD software says more about the design than presentation software does - in many cases the Sketchup model is the design. The same thing happens with software like Photoshop, where stepping through the layers and changing filters or moving things around can often tell a better story than a selection of stills.

Google Earth is a great example of software that speaks for itself. With a bit of practice and a little planning you can make a presentation within the software that is far richer and more persuasive than out of context screen shots. Likewise with Excel, almost the entire point of the software is that everything is out there for everyone to see. And a live spreadsheet has currency too - you can pass it around - just like KML in Google Earth. Sure you can pass around a presentation or report with charts and tables to explain your analysis, but the live spreadsheet data is the analysis, and there are a few simple tools (like Juice Analytics' slider for Charts) that make the analysis even more accessible.

My own work in architectural simulation arose out of a dislike of "black box" models, where assumptions and specifications would be prepared and then a simulation would be run by an external agency who would deliver their findings in a report. Our reaction to this was a granular, individual-based model presented in a dynamic interactive way - not sure about a particular result? Interrogate the model to find out what went wrong. The result of the model was an experiential way to understand a particular scenario, a story telling tool. Just like most of the software you have on your desktop.

Perhaps people do want just the answer, and not the journey, but it's still worth asking: are you sure you need Powerpoint?