by Cliff Atkinson
one of the world's leading authorities on usability say about
PowerPoint? As cofounder of the Neilsen Norman Group and author of the classic The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman
is a strong advocate of user-centered design and simplicity.
Surprisingly, Norman disagrees with PowerPoint's most vocal critic,
information design guru Edward Tufte.
Don, PowerPoint has been widely criticized and lampooned
in the media lately. From your perspective, what do you think is
the problem with PowerPoint?
Don Norman: PowerPoint
is NOT the problem. The problem is bad talks, and in part, this
comes about because of so many pointless meetings, where people with -
or without - a point to make - have to give pointless talks. The problem
is that it is difficult work to give a good talk, and to do so, the
presenter has to have learned how to give talks, has to have practiced,
and has had to have good feedback about the quality of the talks - the
better to improve them.
CA: What do you think of
Edward Tufte's criticisms of PowerPoint?
DN: Tufte misses the point
completely. His famous denunciation of the NASA slides, where he points
out that critical information was buried, is not a denunciation of
PowerPoint, as he claims. The point was buried because the presenters
did not think it important. They were wrong, but it is always easier to
find blame in hindsight than with foresight. The slides matched their
understanding of the importance of the issues.
Tufte is criticizing the symptom. Tufte has
politicized this to benefit his seminars - but the correct culprit is
the erroneous analysis of the tests, not the way the engineers decided
to present it to their audience.
Tufte is correct when he complains about
misleading data and bad summarization that oversimplifies and may even
omit important footnotes and qualifications about the data. Tufte is
wrong when he confuses great depth of detail with a good talk.
Tufte would overwhelm the talk audience with more
data than can be assimilated in a talk. He doesn't seem to realize that
there are really three different items involved here:
1. The notes the speaker will use (which should be
seen only by the speaker).
2. The slides the audience will see.
3. Handouts that will be taken away for later
A talk can NEVER present as much information as a
written paper. Talks should be pointers to the important material. But
neither the spoken talk nor the accompanying notes - PowerPoint or not -
should be confused with or used for the real information.
CA: So there's a difference
between the study document and the oral presentation?
DN: Any dense, detailed
information that requires study to understand can NOT be presented in a
talk - it can be summarized and described, but the study and
concentration required for understanding should be done elsewhere. Talks
are for summaries.
CA: Should people use
bullet points in PowerPoint presentations?
DN: Bullet points and outlines
are not bad ideas. A proper outline structures the talk. Proper bullet
points summarize important concepts. The problem comes about when
speakers prepare a dense set of outlines, turn them into bullets, and
mindlessly read them to the audience. But this problem existed long
before PowerPoint. I used to have to sit through dull, boring talks by
government officials and military contractors long before personal
computers, when slides were hand drawn or typed and projected by
CA: Why is it important
for PowerPoint users to keep the audience in mind when designing
DN: All good design involves
seeing things from the point of view of the user of the design.
Preparing a good talk is design. And it is critical to see things from
the point of view of the listener or viewer.
CA: How does someone
determine the right amount information an audience can absorb during a
DN: There are good guidelines
already in existence. No more than one idea per slide, for example.
Tufte would disagree with this. Once again, that's because he likes to
spend hours studying each slide. Well, that is for the handout. The talk
has to be dramatically condensed.
CA: When should people use
PowerPoint, or not?
DN: Slides should be used only
when there is a need for visual aids. Most talks have no such need.
Outlines and bullets are aids to the speaker, but the speaker should use
them as cues to talk - not read, not lecture - talk - with the audience.
There is no need for the audience to see the speaker's private notes.
The best talks I have ever heard had no slides at all. The best talks I
have ever presented had no slides. And today, my best talk has a lot of
photographs and only a few slides with words - only three words total,
to be precise, for the entire one hour talk (not counting the title
CA: What do you think of the
presentations of Larry Lessig, who has been called a 'PowerPoint
virtuoso'? (see interview here)
DN: I thought Lessig's talk was
excellent, but I wondered why he used any slides at all. Sure, when he
presented his movie clip, he needed to show something on the screen, but
even though his slides were clever and well done, the fact that he used
them meant the audience had to sit in the dark. I prefer it when the
audience can se the speaker and, in turn, as a speaker, I like to see
So although Lessig's slides were a good example of
PowerPoint, personally, a better example would have been for him not to
have used any slides at all.
My favorite slide is one that is all black. I ask
the facilities people to turn up the lights when that appears. Then I
can communicate with the audience. When I show slides - and almost all
of my slides are photographs that illustrate things I can't otherwise
describe - then the lights go down. But for talking, it is best to have
no slides, and all the lights.
All responses by Don Norman are © 2004 Donald A.