Information Design Watch

March 28, 2007, 1:27 pm

Microsoft on Channel 9

By Henry Woodbury

We’ve linked to Channel 9 before (see here). With its blog format and aggressive comments section, you might not guess it was sanctioned by Microsoft — until you notice the “Microsoft Communities” bar at the top and the little “msdn” in the URL.

Now Wired describes how Channel 9 was born and how it has generated great PR for the company normally viewed as centralized, bureaucratic, and secretive:

…marketers say [Microsoft] has become the model for how corporations can use the Internet to manage their image. “The messages coming out of Microsoft used to be so one-dimensional and managed,” says John McKinley, who until the end of 2006 was CTO and head of digital services for AOL. “Now you can get four clicks into the organization and see engineers talking about products. It gives Microsoft a human face.”

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Technology

March 7, 2007, 8:49 pm

“PowerPoint gives the game away”

By Henry Woodbury

PowerPoint despair makes it to the Guardian Unlimited, in this essay by Jonathan Wolff:

What is it about PowerPoint? Perhaps it is the only thrill left to the jaded academic: not knowing whether the technology you are using will actually allow you to give your talk.

While Wolff mocks the dog-and-pony-show marketing of PowerPoint, he focuses on a larger point:

For those who prefer to project the idea that a talk is a unique event, a voyage of discovery that could go in any one of a number of directions, and may well go in all of them, PowerPoint gives the game away. As someone once said: “The art is hiding the art.” With PowerPoint, everything is on display. Elegantly effortless performance is hard enough as it is. PowerPoint makes it impossible.

As another well-known detractor points out, PowerPoint is relentlessly sequential, undermines a presenter’s ability to present rich data in context, and sets up “a speaker’s dominance over the audience.”

I doubt Edward Tufte is going to change his mind, but if Wolff ever watches Steve Jobs at work he might acknowledge that elegantly effortless performance with presentation software is possible.

Okay, so Jobs uses Keynote. But it’s not the software that makes the difference. It’s the approach.

We do a lot of work in PowerPoint. We have two fundamental strategies for creating elegant presentations. First, we approach the entire presentation as a single narrative or composition. Each slide is a storyboard that advances the theme. This lets us leverage PowerPoint’s sequential format to our advantage. We can set up suspense in one slide and resolve it in another. We can establish a motif, then evoke it again and again. We can use pattern and variation.

Second, we treat every slide as a potential visual explanation. Sometimes all you need is text, but with images you can represent concepts, show connections, and evoke emotion. Images also make presenters inherently more interesting. Instead of repeating bullet points on a screen (which people can read for themselves), the presenter speaks to that which the audience sees.

But Tufte and Wolff cannot be ignored. Sometimes the multimedia presentation is simply a bad choice of format. Let us give Wolff the last word. Referring to the power of the image (say, the portrait of a famous philosopher) he writes:

These days, of course, digital pictures of Descartes are cheaper than ten-a-penny, but I’m still unsure of the benefits of showing his bony face to the audience. They have already got me to look at. And if they are looking at me, rather than a screen, I can look back at them. And I can judge whether they have understood what I have just said, and, if not, have another go at making the point.

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Comments (3) | Filed under: Marketing, PowerPoint, Technology, Visual Explanation

March 1, 2007, 9:33 pm

How Digg Works. Or Not.

By Henry Woodbury

What is Digg?

Digg is all about user powered content. Everything is submitted and voted on by the digg community. Share, discover, bookmark, and promote stuff that’s important to you!

Like a search engine, the Digg engine — trading in its own version of hits — invites optimizers. In Wired News, Annalee Newitz writes how she created an intentionally pointless blog, then promoted it on Digg using a paid service:

If the corporate brass at Digg were right, this would be a complete waste of my money. CEO Jay Adelson told me before I conducted this experiment that all the groups trying to manipulate Digg “have failed,” and that Digg “can tell when there are paid users.” Adelson added, “When we identify a (Digg user) who is part of a scam, we don’t remove their account so they don’t realize they’ve been identified. Then we let them continue voting, but their votes may count a lot less. Then the scam doesn’t work.”

What’s most interesting about Newitz’s story isn’t that Digg can be gamed. It’s that her pointless blog made the popular list because authentic Digg users added their honest votes to her paid ones:

Despite their doubts, Diggers kept digging my blog. There’s a perverse incentive here: Diggers who vote early on stories that become wildly popular become more “reputable” in the Digg system. If you’re trying to move up the Digg ranks, it’s in your best interest to vote on anything that looks like it’s gaining popularity. And my blog, with its flurry of paid votes, fit the pattern.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Technology