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Journal scaramush's Journal: Rant, Rant, Rant.

Here's a rant I sent out recently about using powerpoint to archive business process information. In case you can't tell, I hate it. I hate it so much, It wasn't enough that I ranted at my co-workers, I felt the urge, nay the NEED to rant to /. about it. I know the icon is for "censorship", but it was as close as I could find to "STFU-about-something-already!".

Ugly templates aside, I don't actually have a problem with people using PowerPoint to make presentations. It's not necessarily to the benefit of the audience, but it makes things much, much easier for the presenter -- I do it all the time myself. The problem I have with PowerPoint (PP) is when people use it to archive information, because not only is that not PP's strong suit, it is, in fact, antithetical to PP's goal as a tool (which is to help real-time human communication).

As you rightly pointed out, the purpose of writing is communication. However, the real innovation of writing over other forms of non-tool augmented communication (speech, song, dance, etc) is that you can archive it over time. If I hunt you down and ask you how something works in the hall, you can take all the time in the world to explain it to me. You can gesture wildly, draw on the back of an envelope, and answer ad hoc questions. But:

  1. You might forget something important if I ask you to explain it again
  2. If I have to explain it to someone else, I might forget an important point.
  3. If a third person wants to find out about it, they have to know that we know it, and be able to find us, which leads us to
  4. We can't be everywhere at once
  5. I can't search your presentation and just pick out the parts that I need.

Of course, there are several tools (ancient and modern) that I can use to capture the way you described something to me. I could draw a picture. I could record your voice. I could take a series of photographs. I could video tape you. I could write down a summary, notes or a full transcript. Depending on the type of information being captured, all of these could have merit. For example, when I worked at the Hospital, we were trying to explain to incoming cardiology residents which types of heartbeats are indicators of problems. We found words were fairly useful ("BAd-Ump! Ba-da-umP! Ba-daaaaargh! Call 911!"), but once we were able to make a series of audio recordings, things cleared up immensely for the students.

And that's the reason people still use drawings -- for certain types of information (visual, non-movement based), a drawing is still the best way to capture it. I am certainly a firm believe in transforming information into a variety of different forms (flowchart, description, diagram), because it helps people both absorb information and retain it (different parts of the brain being used and all that). As you point out, the tools in PP for creating images are primitive as hell, but they do the trick. Even I can make a flow chart in PP, which means drunk chimps can do it. ;) As the theory goes, you use the least complicated tool that can do the job sufficiently, and the tool you have is always better than the tool you don't.

Which leads us to how to capture information for SQA. The problem is that the majority of information we want to capture for SQA isn't visual or aural, it's procedural and/or abstract, which lends itself best to words. Yes, the occasional picture is extremely useful, and I have no problem using PP to create those picture, but PP is not a useful tool for archiving the written information that goes between the pictures.

PP is unsuitable for archiving abstract non-visual information because it ungracefully straddles live presentation and text capture -- It is designed to be augmented by a real live human being talking. Because of that, the layout is such that only a few words can be displayed at a time (certainly far less than on screen displaying HTML or a word doc), making it hard to write down complex ideas. Additionally, the speaker is supposed to provide context and meta-content, so there's no (easy) facility to add that information in after the fact. This means it's very hard to "skim" or search a presentation for information -- You pretty much have to go through all the slides and read each one until you find what you want. Finally, you can't escape its proprietary format. Not everyone can read PP files, and short of a screen scrape, It's hard to get the text out to use again in another format (I haven't looked into all the "export as..." options, so perhaps you can save them as CSV? I don't know).

So to sum up why PP is a bad way to archive information:

  • Most PP slides are missing information that the speaker is expected to fill in while talking
  • The layout does not lend itself to complicated explanations
  • (Generally) There's no meta information (chapter/index)
  • (Generally) There's no way to make a change log
  • There are only primitive ways to search
  • It's a proprietary format that's hard to massage from one format to another
  • From a business perspective our documents, should conform to the lowest common denominator. We should be able to access them from a million different tools because who knows what we'll looking at them with in 2 4 10 years from now

So what should we be using other than PP? The way I've chosen to [archive my part of the thing we were talking about] is XML for data storage with XSLT->HTML for presentation, but I recognize that's a unreasonable amount of overhead for most people. Slightly less optimal (but still better than PP), I'd like to see HTML meta information pages, with links to word documents or PDFs. Then I'd like to see the drunken chimps, and finally PP presentations.

...And that's about all I have to say about that. Aren't you glad you didn't ask? For those of you keeping score, I lost. Some people are still using PP to archive materials :(

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Rant, Rant, Rant.

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The road to ruin is always in good repair, and the travellers pay the expense of it. -- Josh Billings