Friday, 24 December 2010

Can I measure how good my slides are?

A few months ago I was sent a link to which is a brilliant tool for usability testing of websites. What it does is create heat-maps of your page designs to make sure the bits that should stand out are standing out. It also draws a path of how it thinks the average ‘eye’ would read the page. From this insight, you can very easily see if there are any glaring errors in your design. These are their words to describe the process they go through:

‘AttentionWizard uses advanced software algorithms to simulate visual perception and attention. It is a combination of “bottom-up” visual system building blocks and “top-down” higher cognitive processes such as object recognition. Bottom-up features considered include: color differences, contrast , density, brightness and intensity, edges and intersections, length and width, curves and line orientations. Top-down algorithms recognize larger letters and text, skin texture, and human faces.’

Around the same time I discovered AttentionWizard, I was also reading ‘Don’t Make me Think’ by Steve Krug. A lot of what Steve says in his book about making websites easy to navigate, using pre-established conventions and familiar visual language all hold true when creating your slides. What I didn’t do at the time was make the same link between what AttentionWizard does and presentation design.

It occurred to me yesterday that the things that AttentionWizard looks for are the exact same things we do as presentation designers to make our content stand out. Why not test slide designs on AttentionWizard to see i’m are making a difference. As I already have them to hand, I thought i’d test the slide I created yesterday for the previous post. Here are the results:

This is the first slide - pretty much straight out of the box as Powerpoint would create it using a standard chart template. I have no idea what the message of this slide is, but it’s something to do with product sales. I would say that 90% of the slides I receive from my clients look something like this:

As you’d expect, the eye has moved all over the image trying to decipher what’s important. What you can’t see from this small thumbnail are the numbers which show where the path of the eye starts and ends - it starts at ‘2003’, flows all over the screen and then ends up on ‘Product B’ in the key. What you can see is that the eye totally ignores the one line that is important to the message in this case, which is the purple line ‘Product D’. 

Next i’ve tried the slide that has been designed with getting message across in mind. Here it’s all about focusing on Product D and the numbers that go with it. 

I’m pretty happy with the results, all the main points have been focussed on whilst the detail has been ignored. Next up, the same general design, but using a slightly harder font to process for the important numbers. 

An even better result this time with the 2 key numbers being the main focus. As I have no idea what the algorithm actually measures, it’s more likely that AttentionWizard is focussing on the numbers because they are in a bolder / stronger font than before rather than the fact it’s a more fancy font. Perhaps they could incorporate this new idea into future updates. 

Finally I thought i’d test the last one which was an attempt to take it a step further by making the big numbers harder to read by changing the colour / outline. 

Very similar results to slide 2 with the big numbers being ignored. With hindsight, using a pale blue grad was probably pushing it too far in terms of ‘making the brain work harder to decipher the important message’. I think it certainly warrants some more experimentation, trying different combinations of colour and font style.

As a designer we’re always working within one set of rules or another, most of the time it’s using a template that’s been designed by a brand agency who are experts at creating stunning brands, but don’t have a clue on how to prepare speaker support. They usually can’t use Powerpoint properly either, but i’ll save that for another rant! The real difficulty is going to be to convince your clients to ignore these expensive brand guidelines and templates they’ve had drawn up and to create their content with the sole idea of communicating clearly. I think the more proof we have as content designers, the stronger case we have when we face the inevitable objections from the ‘brand police’. The ultimate argument when faced with these objections is ‘If I could give you an edge over your competition when pitching your ideas, would you take it?’ Of course, the answer is always ‘yes’.  With tools like this we can prove ‘the edge’,  and there is always the risk that your competition are using the same tools and techniques and you’re not - who has the edge then?

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Make your slides better by making them harder to read

I read a great article yesterday by Roger Dooley called Fancy Fonts Boost Recall. A fascinating article, and at first glance it's contradictory to the received wisdom in my field of presentation graphics which is: For your slides to be effective they have to flow with minimal effort into the viewers brain in as short a time as possible, allowing the viewer to concentrate on what the presenter is saying. 
To summarise the article, Roger says that by using fancy fonts, information becomes more memorable because our brain has to work a little harder. Upon pondering this potential bombshell, rather than contradict the current thinking, this actually adds another layer to the presenters armoury in helping them communicate more effectively. Let me explain; Until now I've always used fonts as a decorative part of the process, as an afterthought as I believe that I should keep fonts simple and clear. Most of my efforts as a designer are based around trying to identify what is important to help tell the story of the presentation, and I do that by using various tools to create a focal point such as size, colour, shape, diagrams etc.
I still think this holds true, my job is to still identify what's important, but the difference now is that perhaps once I've identified it on the slide using the techniques described above, my job is to make it slightly harder to process. So using a fancy font style would do this, but with this new insight i could also use some of other techniques described above to make it slightly harder to process. 
Let me show you some examples of how this could be used:
A standard slide - hard to identify the message and hard to process anything

An improved slide - easy to identify the message and easy to process it

An improved slide using a fancy font  - easy to identify the message but very slightly harder to process that message once identified

A step further - using a fancy font, and recolouring that font to make it even harder to read - maybe a step too far?

With all of this, we're talking subtleties, the 'undesigned' slide might take 15 seconds to work out what's going on, the improved one should take less if we follow Nancy Duarte's 3 second rule. The fancy font slide may only take nano-seconds longer to process, but if the result is a more memorable message then it's time well spent. 
In any presentation, there are always a few key ideas or numbers that you want your audience to remember. I think if used sparingly this could be a great technique to identify them and make them more memorable. I suspect the danger is that if used too often it will just become part of the general 'design' of your slides (like the logo in the corner and the copyright disclaimer most corporates still persist with) and lose it's efficacy. 
I'd love for more research to be done on this, particularly around using other techniques as well as font style to make information 'harder' to process. We'll certainly be playing around with this to find the optimum style over the coming months.

If you're interested in how your brain functions and becoming a better presenter, my colleague Richard Garnett has posted some fascinating presentations with his insights here.

Spencer Lambert

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Take an idea and run with it! That's pretty much how we've ended up with  A week or so ago Richard had the bright idea of using the technology that we've developed for Present.Me to create a charitable video Christmas card to launch in time for the Christmas card rush.

My initial reaction was 'It can't be done. There's not enough time to design and implement it, and it will be a big distraction from the day job which is about finishing Present.Me ready for launch.' This evolved into 'OK, well we can probably build it, but we won't have any time to test it or move it onto a platform that can handle the potential volume'. Somehow (and I really don't know how) I was persuaded to give it a try, and a week later, thanks to Simon's huge efforts we now have a working version.

Richard has very kindly offered to donate $0.10 for every card sent before christmas up to $25,000 which is the amount needed to build an orphanage in Haiti. I guess that's the real incentive to make this thing work. So am I nervous? Yes I am! It's a great idea and I think it's really easy to use, so it could catch on. We still have some unanswered questions about the platform and if it can handle the potential volume, but hopefully as it's a charitable offering, people will be forgiving if it falls over. If only we had another week!

So, if you want to send a christmas message in a fun and new way go to and get recording! Every card counts.

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