Jun - July 2018
Design a company-wide presentation template to meet needs of various departments
Improved users' overall PowerPoint making experience by offering versatile pre-defined layouts in the template along with supporting materials for technique training and guidance
I bet you have used presentation templates before — whether the default ones in Microsoft PowerPoint or those professional ones from the Internet. But do you ever think of how these templates are designed? I never did, until I was asked to redesign FINRA’s standard presentation template as part of my internship there.
To be honest, when I first got the task, I felt my skills were underestimated. Even if I was a junior UX designer who came from a non-design background, I believed that with my education and project experience, I was qualified for more challenging work. After all, how much you can do to a presentation template?
But then I started looking at the problem with a UX mindset. It suddenly didn’t seem as simple as I initially thought. Good products serve needs, solve problems, and optimize workflows — in essence, they make people’s lives better. So, how could I improve people’s lives by designing a PowerPoint template?
It had been several years since the last update of the previous template, and my team came across many people complaining about it along the way. Knowing that, I started talking to users, with the goal to understand why they are unhappy with the previous template and what would be their expectations on the new one, in other words, their pain points and needs.
I conducted 13 interviews across nine departments with heavy users of presentation templates: they present weekly for internal presentations and one or two times a month for external ones on average. My mentor, Alvin Borlaza, a senior usability testing specialist, helped me recruit qualified interviewees via internal emails. I worked on the interview protocol and led conversations during interviews under the supervision of Alvin. Each interview lasted for 40 minutes to one hour and notes were taken to record key points. After each interview, I collected slides that made previously by interviewees for further analysis.
Information gathered from interviews were synthesized and categorized using Affinity Wall. Three other designers who were well-informed about the design context, Alvin and I together translated them into design insights and vote to prioritize tasks.
The table below summarizes the primary information gathered at this stage (left side), and each of them was translated into one or several design insights (right side). We used the design insights to make sound design decisions.
1. Identify Layouts
Based on the design insights above, I identified series of common patterns that repeat in most of our interviewees presentations such as cover pages, table of contents, transition pages, ending pages etc. I wireframe for these common patterns as they would help me to communicate ideas clearly.
2. Experiment with Components
In addition to common layouts, I found there were certain components reoccurring all the time while reviewing past presentation decks. For instance, it is common behavior that people bring in screenshots and annotate them using the shape tool in PowerPoint. In extreme cases, users might annotate in various ways even on one single slide, resulting in a inconsistent overall look. To alleviate these situations, I provided a series of pre-designed components with standardized look.
3. Validate Design Decisions
To make sure these layouts would be really useful to users rather than imagining that they would be useful, I asked around and sent out my InVision links with wireframes for feedback. Specifically, I was looking for answers to three questions:
What do you think this layout is designed for? — to see if they understand a design
Can you imagine when and how you would use this layout/component? — to validate if a design would be useful to them in real world cases
Is there anything you often present in a certain way? — To capture as many common patterns/layouts as possible
After a number of conversations with users, it became much clearer to me what they needed and wanted. I then added colors and backgrounds to wireframes following company’s design guideline.
Light & Dark Version of the Template
4. Design Tutorials and Trainings
The progress was ahead of the timeline and I was asked to help with some slides redesign — mostly about improving formatting and visualize concepts. When I saw distorted clip art and super-indented data table on the slides, I realized that providing a presentation template would not totally improve the presentation experience. The root issue is that the users did not the expertise to master Microsoft PowerPoint for their own needs.
That was the moment I raised the idea of providing training materials for PowerPoint use and design. By researching on the Internet and reflecting on user behaviors inferred by previous slides, I came up with four topics that people might need help with: shapes & smart arts, align tools, images and others. Take the topic of images as an example, I offer tutorials with regard to image scaling, cropping and selection in a format of slides deck and attached links to image libraries approved by the company for quick access.
5. The final product
The template went through two rounds of iterations before getting to the final design. One major issue that occurred was about template size — initially it was 10Mb, then it was reduced to almost half-size (5.3Mb) as I replaced background images with compressed jpeg files and removed layouts that are less-needed by users.
The final version contains 40 slides with versatile layouts to meet diverse needs, plus supporting materials introducing best practices for slides design and general PowerPoint techniques covering four topics to support the slides making process.
Similar to producing an app or a website, several concerns came in at this stage regarding delivering the PowerPoint template:
Delivery method — How would users use a page/layout? Do they select from master slides? Or copy and paste from the template?
Customizability — How would the templates be customized to serve various needs? What should be editable and changeable in the pre-defined templates?
Compatibility — How does the template work on different machines and present settings?
To ensure the compatibility of the template, I worked with the desktop engineering team for font installation (we use Open Sans and it is not installed in most of the computers) and tested the template on both Windows and Mac machines. We also tested it on different displays and made small tweaks based on testing results.
As planned, we launched the template on July 9th, one month after my internship started. The template was then available on company’s intranet.
We had a company-wide presentation with attendees both online and offline across five branches of the company. My mentor, Grayson Scott was the primary speaker and I presented tips and tricks for making presentation slides. Later I was assigned to be the main contact for the project for follow-up questions and user support.
The template has been used in several big presentations (with 100+ audiences) since its launch and will stay with the company for a couple of years. In general, users are happy about the modern look and pre-defined layouts of the template. People also reported that embedded resource links and training materials are very helpful.
Avoid Designs that Against User Habits
My intention of offering reusable components did not work out well. One reason could be that the components were less noticeable as they were located at the end of the template. Another reason, and the primary one, was that it did not align with users’ habit.
Imagine you have a screenshot on a blank slide and you are about to annotate it. The most natural behavior for you would be opening the “shape” panel and start creating a new rectangle or circle rather than scrolling all the way down to find a pre-set annotation component. It can be a design insight for PowerPoint to add a floating panel for dragging and dropping components, but for now the design is not helping users.
It is possible for people to learn and adapt to the new system, but habit changing needs strong motivation and also takes time. For tools that people use on a daily basis, the best thing to do is avoiding designs that greatly against user habits.
Creativity vs Unclear Design
Talking to a lot of people and observing them using the template proved again that “users are unpredictable” and “your design may not be used as intended.” In some cases, we call that creativity, but in others, it might suggest unclear purposes of your design, meaning that users don’t know what it is or how to use it.
For example, in the template, I used an oval as a graphic placeholder where users can insert a image and get it in a round shape. But in the reality, I have seen people inserting numbers into the oval, using the oval as a background for icons and scaling images to fit the size of the oval. While there is no CORRECT ways of using the oval, I saw this as an indicator that people may don’t know how a shape can be used to crop an image. I then introduced this trick in the training material and spread the words when people came to me for support.
I am inspired to see these different variations derived from a single oval, and I am happy to share my perspective so that others might get inspired too. I realized that design, in this case, is less about establishing rules and principles, but more about sharing and exchanging ideas. However, if a design is supposed to direct users in a certain way, it’s important to make sure that the intention of the design is well-communicated to users. It is another topic beyond the scope of this article.
I was very lucky to get a supporting team and a group of users who appreciated my work and were willing to share their appreciation with me. They helped me understand which part they liked about the template, what I was doing well and boosted my confidence as a junior designer — see, I did make people’s life better!
On the other hand, I’ve met “unhappy” users and received negative comments on my work. At the beginning, I got into a defensive position easily and tried to argue for myself. But once I accepted and embraced these criticisms,I was surprised how educational they could be — they either lead to more comprehensive design decisions, better understanding of design process, or reflecting on my communication strategies.
I also found that a bonus of this project was that by talking to a lot of people about my work and ask for feedback, I actively advocated the idea of user-centered design and let it be known and understood by more people! GOOOOO UX!
Thank You Notes
At the end of this article, I would like to say a BIG THANK YOU to my mentors Alvin and Grayson for their guidance and support, and two other brilliant UX designers in the team — Tanya and Dmitry, for their great advice. Thanks Lily, Amy, Ray and Aalap for their feedback on this article.