Can We Blame The Shuttle Explosion On PowerPoint?

from the get-real dept

We’ve written about Edward Tufte’s misdirected campaign against PowerPoint before. Now, apparently, he’s convinced some people studying the Columbia shuttle disaster that we should blame PowerPoint for the explosion. You see, it turns out that the folks at NASA use PowerPoint. In fact, they used it in presenting their findings about the potential risks of having the shuttle re-enter the atmosphere after it lost some of its protective foam on take-off. However, some of the more important points were buried within the PowerPoint (put at the bottom of a slide). Therefore, the thinking goes, we should blame the tool, and not the NASA employees who actually did the research and presented the findings that way. Doesn’t that seem just a bit misguided? They’re blaming the tool, and not the misuse of the tool. If the NASA engineers didn’t have PowerPoint, it’s just as likely that they would have buried the same important bits of information within whatever format they presented their information in and (tragically) the results would have been the same.

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Comments on “Can We Blame The Shuttle Explosion On PowerPoint?”

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Precision Blogger (user link) says:

Tufte's comments on Power Point and the Shuttle ar

If the NASA Engineers had been required to present narrative writing, technical notes about their concerns, they would have been more likely to say, clearly, what the concerns were. PowerPoint encourages very brief overviews that leave out the subject matter. The NASA slide quoted is a masterpiece of confusion that hints at the problems in a way unlikely to be understood.

Incidentally, you can find somewhere on the web, a set of Power Point slides that claim to confute Tufte by stating his own argument against PP in PowerPoint. These slides actually make Tufte’s point – the slides seem to have no argument, and suggest that Tufte’s viewpoint is senseless, because they leave out all of the carefully reasoned evidence and illustrations that Tufte presents against PP.

Those of you who disagree with me – go through your folders and pull out the powerpoint preesntations you’ve taken home from recent meetings and conferences. Look carefully and see how thin the content is. If you weren’t there, or you don’t remember the session clearly, you really can’t DO anything based on the power point slides you’ve got, can you? And at thoses sessions, if the presentor committed the common sin of simply walking you through what the slides said, you can now see that your time was mostly wasted.

– The Precision Blogger

Loraan says:

Re: Re: Re: Tufte's comments on Power Point and the Shuttl

In my opinion, that just means the designer was lazy. Okay, that’s a little extreme, but what I mean is that there’s a temptation to put one or two speaking points on a slide and then spend ten minutes talking about them. That’s a mistake because your audience almost certainly won’t take notes and then afterwards, the slides are useless. When I design courseware using PPT, my goal is that every slide should contain all of the information that the instructor is expected to present on that slide and that a student reading the slide should be able to extract the important information months after the class without the instructor to remind him or her.

Adam Rice (user link) says:

No Subject Given

Sure we can blame Powerpoint.

A) It’s from Microsoft, therefore it is a tool of the Evil One.

B) More seriously, some tools are better for a given job than others. You don’t pound nails with a saw. You don’t give business briefings in the form of interpretive dance, and maybe you shouldn’t do them in Powerpoint so much either.

I’m not saying that a useful presentation could not be assembled in PPT, but I think it is fair to say that PPT skews writers towards a different form of expression than narrative writing: it makes it very easy to do a brain-dump of factoids with no organization or bad organization. This creates the mistaken impression of objectivity, but does nothing to further understanding. It also makes it easy to spend time choosing just the right clip-art for your flying bullet rather than writing.

Jay says:

Can We Blame The Shuttle Explosion On PowerPoint?

Blaming PowerPoint for the ineptitude of the slide designer is akin to a person who is learning how to play baseball, where the bat is a little too big for them to handle, not “choking up” properly and missing, blaming the bat or the ball.

Was it PowerPoint that decided where to put the point, or the slide maker, the human? Granted, the latest versions of PowerPoint can do a heck of a lot now, and more in the future, but the order of the information is still at the hands of the user.

I guess one can logically state that PowerPoint slides do not kill, but rather the presenter or designer of the slide?

Nicholas Petterssen (user link) says:

PowerPoint is like a banana...

Ohhh the analogies are just flowing. So far Microsoft’s software has been compared to a gun, a baseball bat and a saw. Surely PP is a tool, and a tool is only as good as the hand that weilds it. I think it’s about time we put that argument to rest as its about as old as… well let’s put a moratorium on the metaphors shall we.

The biggest thing (IMHO) that we can pull from all this is that PowerPoint is somewhat of a one-trick pony (damn, it’s just too tough to stop, sorry). Actually, I take that back. PowerPoint is a pretty versatile tool, but because of it’s versatility it lacks focus. Microsoft has really spent their development time on creating a very powerful “container” application. It’s designed to ingest and somewhat organize all of your stuff, but it seriously lacks any creation tools, unless you call the ability to explode text a creation. I call it a distraction.

Nay, PowerPoint itself is not responsible for bad presentations. However, Microsoft is quite responsible for not placing more powerful tools at the fingertips of average people attempting to design effective visual communication experiences. In the end, very few of us are skilled at communictaing visually, yet the bullet list has become the defacto standard for visual communication. Why, because that’s the default text format (and slide layout) that PowerPoint uses. In the end I believe presenters have to rise above “default” status and spend more time really thinking about what types of media they want to put into their PowerPoint containers. And meanwhile we can hope that somebody gets a little more creative and designs software that’s more than just a brown paper bag.

So if I had to pick one, I think Adam Rice had the best comparison with the hammering nails with a saw analogy. Aww hell, let’s lift that aforementioned moratorium. Analogies are just too fun.

Sheila says:

slides are not a book

Loraan, I do not think you truly understand powerpoint. Actually the slides are only a tool to aid you in making your point and are NOT supposed to make your point for you. A slide should only contain the info needed to focus your audience’s attention while you explain your real case. The best things an a slide are short bullets, charts, and graphs. NOT long detailed points in small text…that info is best put elsewhere and not in a live presentation; you want people listening and not merely reading.

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