Interesting thing of the day:
Apropos of a post on the Planet Money blog about a guy who has started the “Anti-PowerPoint Party” I started doing some link-following and came across an interesting piece by Edward Tufte on the very outsized role that PowerPoint appears to have played in glossing over the dangers of attempting to return the damaged space shuttle Columbia from orbit in 2003. A saga in its own right, the decision-making hierarchy leading to the decision to bring the shuttle back to earth as-was, and the fairly scathing follow-ups regarding that process highlighted by the Return to Flight Task Group 2 years later, point not only to the outsized role that PowerPoint came to play as the lingua franca between engineering, management and outside contractors at NASA, but to other even more disturbing revelations. PP became, in many cases, the sole documentation for significant engineering decisions and projects. From the Return to Flight Task Force’s final report (link to full report is here as PDF):
We also observed that instead of concise engineering reports, decisions and their associated rationale are often contained solely within Microsoft PowerPoint® charts or emails. The CAIB (Columbia Accident Investigation Board – ed.) report (Vol. I, pp. 182 and 191) criticized the use of PowerPoint as an engineering tool, and other professional organizations have also noted the increased use of this presentation software as a substitute for technical reports and other meaningful documentation. PowerPoint (and similar products by other vendors), as a method to provide talking points and present limited data to assembled groups, has its place in the engineering community; however, these presentations should never be allowed to replace, or even supplement, formal documentation.
Several members of the Task Group noted, as had CAIB before them, that many of the engineering packages brought before formal control boards were documented only in PowerPoint presentations. In some instances, requirements are defined in presentations, approved with a cover letter, and never transferred to formal documentation. Similarly, in many instances when data was requested by the Task Group, a PowerPoint presentation would be delivered without supporting engineering documentation. It appears that many young engineers do not understand the need for, or know how to prepare, formal engineering documents such as reports, white papers, or analyses.
The report is a fairly good read (on extended skimming in my case) and many large hierarchical organizations would do well to read it and learn from it, detailing further, as it does, the role of outsized personalities in dominating what are supposed to be strict protocols for decision-making, insufficient risk-management strategies, etc.
But back to the Tufte piece. One of the interesting points he highlights in the piece is the way that working in PowerPoint leads to a curious version of Conway’s Law, which states that “…organizations which design systems…are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.” To put it another way, if you have a software product being designed by three groups with less than ideal communication structures in place, the likelihood is that you will end up with a software product with three fairly distinct parts with less than optimum interfacing between them. In the same way, Tufte quotes the CAIB report, which “found that the distinctive cognitive style of PowerPoint reinforced the hierarchical filtering and biases of the NASA bureaucracy during the crucial period when the Columbia was damaged but still functioning.”
I’ve been thinking on data presentation a lot more lately. Once you start noticing things about the scaling of a graph or the point at which a data series begins, etc. etc. it becomes a lot more complicated to draw inferences from such data. In the Columbia case, Tufte’s inference is that abridged data created with PowerPoint severely compromised the very outcome of the process it was meant to facilitate.
Such things are all around us really. I had to do my first 2 PowerPoint presentations last semester and fortunately the limitations of PowerPoint were outstripped by the time limitations I had in which to speak. While I mostly used it to show some graphs and a few photos (and okay, I had a few bullet points scattered around) quite a few of my classmates either literally wrote their scripts on PowerPoint and read it facing the screen or just used the most unrelated and gratuitous graphics (with any number of fades and switcheroo effects between them) that I could imagine. But such things are not limited to college classrooms. Such practices are going on to shape bad decision-making all over the world, so keep your eyes peeled. This small essay gives some great points to watch out for in language use/framing, context of data presented, etc.