Friday, October 30, 2009

Blame Powerpoint

@cybersal asks @RSessions a different sort of s/ware complexity question from his usual stuff: "How would you compare complexity of PowerPoint 2007 v 2003?"

The first point I want to make in discussing this question is that there are two different things, both called "PowerPoint". One is a lump of shrink-wrapped software, which I call technology-as-built. The other is the PowerPoint that people actually use, which I call technology-in-use. (Fans of Chris Argyris will recognize the parallels with espoused theory versus theory-in-use). If different groups or communities use PowerPoint differently, there may be many different PowerPoints-in-use corresponding to a single PowerPoint-as-built.

The distinction between technology-as-built and technology-in-use is extremely important for technology adoption and management. (My favourite example of this remains Lotus Notes, which for some time after its initial release was mostly used in pretty boring and unimaginative ways, merely as a jumped-up file management system. I guess it took at least two years before the technology-in-use started to catch up with and then exceed the intentions of the Lotus design team.) My notion of technology maturity is based on a stable relationship between technology-as-built and technology-in-use.

However, this distinction is largely ignored by IT analysts, who try to rank the "vision" of the software producers but entirely overlook the "vision" of software consumers. This is related to my point about Venturesome Consumption (Oct 2009).

By the way, the distinction is implicit in my post yesterday, Blame Excel, where I distinguished between blaming things on Excel itself (technology-as-built) and blaming things on people using Excel stupidly (technology-in-use). Is Microsoft responsible for how Excel or PowerPoint are used? Clearly software providers cannot be blamed for the stupidity of their customers, but Microsoft clearly has a strong interest in promoting good use of its products, and providing some protection against bad use.

Now here's how this distinction applies to the question of software complication and complexity. Let's acknowledge that each successive version of PowerPoint-as-built has loads more features, new menu options, design styles and so on. But let's also acknowledge that many PowerPoint users are still using
  • the same limited subset of features
  • the same font (Ariel)
  • the same style (bullet points, like this)
  • the same clip art (those horrible cartoon men). 

When people talk about Death-By-PowerPoint, they are generally talking about PowerPoint-in-Use. It is clearly possible to produce lively and informative PowerPoint presentations, but many people (including Bill Gates) don't seem to find this very easy.

So there is a growing gulf between the technology-as-built and the technology-in-use. This is where the unnecessary complexity gets in. The more complicated the technology-as-built,  the greater the risk of poor results from the technology-in-use.

Update: I just found a presentation by Professor Yannis Gabriel called Against the tyranny of PowerPoint: Technology-in-use and technology abuse (2008).

Related Posts: The PowerPoint Collection


  1. Richard,
    Thanks for these interesting observations on my twitter dialogue with Roger.

    Like many people, I have struggled to master the new Office Ribbon interface for PowerPoint, despite being a fluent user of earlier versions. However, Microsoft has claimed that this interface enables better usability of Office 2007 over previous versions and I do know of one person who agrees that this is so.

    So I was wondering if it's possible to assess mathematically how complex a user interface is, and thought I would try this question out on Roger, given his crusade against complexity.

    My personal argument for asserting that PP2007 is more complex than 2003 is as follows:

    Powerpoint 2003, along with other Office applications, used to have a simple structure of menus, menu items, toolbars and dialog boxes which were very transparent concepts that made software features easily discoverable, including the new ones that appeared with updated versions.

    Office 2007 has introduced a new and very rich set of UI objects which the user needs to understand -The Office Menu, Ribbons, Main ribbon tabs, Smart ribbon tabs, Ribbon groups, Box launchers, galleries, and what-not.....

    We no longer have the ability to customise toolbars to add our favourite actions as icons and create a 'technology in use' that is suited to an individual's style of working.

    Interestingly, I had no difficulty transitioning to the ribbon interface that was implemented by Mindjet for its Mindmanager product.

  2. Thanks for the comments Sal, and the detailed example.

    "Microsoft has claimed that this interface enables better usability of Office 2007." I just wonder what kind of evidence Microsoft could possible adduce for such a claim.

    I have no difficulty seeing some kind of link between complexity and better usability, but I can't see any reason why this should be a linear relationship. Perfect usability would mean just complex enough (in some contexts for some purpose).

    Your argument about the complexity of PP2007 seems to be relative to the user's understanding, and this would therefore be an evaluation of technology-in-use rather than technology-as-built. It is also subjective, not in the sense of unpredictable taste but in the sense of being relative to a knowing subject. I suspect that Roger's methods of evaluation do not apply to such considerations.

  3. This is a fascinating discussion, and I love @Cybersal's idea of using a mathematical formula to measure the complexity of a UI.

    In my own complexity analysis, I measure the number of business functions in a "module" and the number of connections that module has to other modules.

    Then, when looking for the least complex grouping, I apply the principle of synergistic placement, that is, functions get placed in modules based on their synergistic relationships.

    Perhaps these principles could be applied to user interfaces. So, for example, CUT and PASTE are clearly synergistic (you wouldn't want one without the other), and thus belong in the same module, whereas ITALICIZE and SAVE are clearly not synergistic.

    Don't know if this principle could apply here, but it is an interesting possibility.

    Thanks, you two, for moving me out of my normal complexity box!

    - @RSessions

  4. "Microsoft has claimed that this interface enables better usability of Office 2007 over previous versions and I do know of one person who agrees that this is so."

    I've decided this is the output of Microsoft's propaganda machine (and all the drones repeat it as if it were the truth).

    I am grateful to Richard for differentiating, "technology-as-built" vs "technology-in-use". These are powerful phrases that will help me differentiate stories I've been trying to tell for decades.

    I will say that I vehemently disagree with his examples of "user stupidity". Indeed the death by PowerPoint example isn't even related to use -- it's a cultural artifact of 'language' (where the tool becomes a mechanism for 'formatting' a language).

  5. Paula picks me up on "user stupidity". With regard to Powerpoint, I didn't intend to accuse anyone of stupidity, merely to point our that many intelligent people use Powerpoint in dull and unimaginative ways.

    With Excel, the situation is slightly different, because bad use of Excel can produce results that are not just boring but grossly inaccurate. The examples of poor Excel usage come from the Thinkovation blog.

    But I don't want to blame the users either, so maybe I shouldn't have used the word "stupid".

  6. I swear there are interesting dynamics of trust going on here because I'm not even sure when I mentioned the term "user stupidity" that I was faulting him for it's use (although in retrospect I probably should have : ).

    Just to try and make clearer my point, people use the tools in dull unimaginative ways because they're not seeded with imaginative examples. Even the MS online shared template space is grossly lacking the really cool stuff I know people have done with their tools.

  7. All,
    To add another angle - mostly along the complexity/usefulness/ mathematical vectors (or would that be axes?? I wonder)
    I have had a love/hate relationship with Powerpoint (regardless of version) - it is beguilingly easy to throw bullet points onto a slide (UI) and believe that they have deep meaning, when you havent thought through what it is you want to "simplify" / coalesce, and then be prepared to argue (in the debate sense) about. UI has to be accompanied by context and meaning to the viewer, I think! Then Chris Bird and this guy helped me start to work out the challenges..
    No final answers for me anyway - but more ingredients to the stew!

  8. Interesting to see how multi-faceted this topic is.

    Going back to the Office product.... having been motivated to try and find out a little more about why Office 2007 is the way it is, I discovered this video presentation.
    from Jensen Harris, the guy who was Group Program Manager of the Office 2007 User Experience team.

    If you have a spare 90 minutes, you might find it quite illuminating, both in terms of what is discussed and what is not discussed.

    The good news is they rejected a lot of ideas that would have been a lot worse!

    They appear to have used Roger's idea, as there is a reference to something called 'Feature Affinity Research'.

    My concern is that a significant main reason it was (and is) difficult to find things, is that the help system is not very helpful. If you don't use the precise terms that Microsoft use to describe your search then the chances are you won't find what you are looking for. This is still the case.