Slide Bureau Brings Another Approach to Sparkling Presentations

2/26/14Follow @bromano

The Seattle area is home not only to the behemoth of presentation software, Microsoft’s PowerPoint, but also at least three upstarts trying to improve presentation tools in one way or another.

The latest is Slide Bureau from boutique software design and consulting firm Jackson Fish Market (JFM). The company of “software artisans” focuses on user interfaces, experience, and branding for clients including Amazon Kindle, Walt Disney, Mattel, and several groups within Microsoft, the co-founders’ former employer. For example, the firm helped expand the reach of the Kindle’s X-Ray feature, which helps readers find where various terms or people are mentioned in a book.

Slide Bureau is a tool for creating presentations on an iPad, starting from a set of templates meant to give people the design sensibilities of a professional.

“Our entire job in that business is to give visual voice to people’s ideas,” says co-founder Hillel Cooperman, who spent a decade at Microsoft working on projects including Internet Explorer for Macintosh, MSN Explorer, and Windows Vista User Experience.

Not surprisingly, Cooperman does a lot of presentations himself and is routinely asked how he gets such fine looking slides. “Jenny made them,” he quips, referring to his JFM co-founder Jenny Lam, creative director on the Windows User Experience team from 2001 to 2007. “We always joke, Too bad Jenny can’t make everyone’s slides.”

That was the kernel of the idea of Slide Bureau, which joins other stand-alone JFM products such as A Story Before Bed, which synchronizes video of a parent reading an ebook with the pages of the book.

Cooperman

Cooperman

In trying to improve on the sometimes (always?) dreaded PowerPoint presentation, Slide Bureau joins Seattle-based Haiku Deck, which earlier this month released an iPhone version of its light-weight presentation software; and Redmond, WA-based 9SLIDES, which pairs audio and video with slide presentations, and has lately emphasized its use as a tool for employee training and education.

The conventional wisdom that PowerPoint is too complex for ordinary users to make good presentations was borne out by a pair of German psychology researchers, and published in the journal Technical Communication in May 2012 (PDF).

“The process of slide generation seems to be patchwork, and a large amount of time is spent on design and animation; thus we recommend measures to reduce the time spent on matters of visual style,” wrote Meinald T. Thielsch and Isabel Perabo, after surveying more than 1,000 business and education users of presentation software.

Cooperman calls it ironic and insane that people buy presentation software—PowerPoint, for example, which marks 24 years on the market this May, or Keynote from Apple—and then have to hire designers to make their slides look good.

Lam

Lam

“Why did you even buy the software in the first place just to hire a designer to do all your communication?” he wonders. “Even Microsoft has an agency that they use to make all their presentations. Shouldn’t the software do that?”

At the heart of Slide Bureau is a “template boutique,” where people can select slide layouts with images, maps, Venn diagrams, and other visual elements created by the company. There are more than 160 templates in the boutique as JFM unveils its offering this week.

The user adds the content, but things like fonts, colors, and characters are locked in by the designers “so that you couldn’t screw them up,” Cooperman says.

The initial batch of templates is broad, generic, and designed to be useful in a variety of contexts. Slide Bureau is also making templates specifically geared toward three initial target markets: teachers, restaurant owners, and real estate agents.

One template for teachers and students, for example, is set up for making picture books. One for restaurants highlights a rotating beer special, and might be displayed on a screen or iPad at the front desk. For real estate presentations, a template combines a photo, data on the property, and a Google Map—not an image of a map, but the real, interactive thing. (Slide Bureau templates can include a range of other elements from the Web, such as live stock quotes.)

The plan is to keep adding templates to the boutique based on what users ask for, Cooperman says. Within the boutique is a button to request a professional designer make a specific slide template. “Type it out, sketch it on a napkin, send us your ugly slide,” he says. “We’ll do a makeover on your slide.”

That doesn’t mean it will be ready for your big pitch tomorrow. Rather, the assumption is that for each person requesting a slide template, many more people out there want something like it. “This is like an EKG,” Cooperman says. “This is analytics on our customers… Our product will start to take on the shape and the form of what kind of ideas our customers are trying to convey.”

Template boutique

Template boutique

Each template scales automatically to the correct screen aspect ratio for the screen it’s displayed on (3:4, 16:9, etc.) with no user input, he says. That’s not the case with many other common presentation tools.

During Cooperman’s presentation, he used an iPad—which is where the creation tool resides, for now—to advance his slides, moving them simultaneously in a browser on his Macbook. This “remote control” feature works over the Internet, allowing a presentation to be shown anywhere there’s a browser and controlled from a single location with no setup, apart from sending a unique link to participants.

The company is using Amazon Web Services to host the presentations. The slides themselves employ HTML5, CSS, and Javascript. They work in any modern browser on any device.

His take on the iPad as a content-creation device: “I think there’s only one real table that anyone’s using… These can’t be beat.”

But creating a presentation in Keynote on the iPad, with the need to manipulate fine-grained details using touch and gestures “is a hack,” Cooperman says. It’s a legacy of software designed to be used on a desktop with the help of a mouse or trackpad, he adds.

“We start with the assumption that no matter what computing device you’re going to use, touch is going to be your primary interface,” he says. “You don’t want to have to deal with moving stuff around on a page. You just want to get your content in and have it look great.”

The app is free, and 20 or 30 templates will be free, too. For the rest of the content in the boutique, Slide Bureau will charge on a subscription basis. Prices haven’t been finalized, but Cooperman says it will be something like $7 for a 48-hour pass, $10 a month, or $100 a year. To get the ball rolling, the first 10,000 people to download the app, create a presentation, and share it, will be given a year of free access to all of the templates.

This proliferation of modern, alternative presentation tools is a welcome development for people interested in clear communication, which should be everyone. But are these Seattle companies going after the same market?

To an extent, yes. For one example, Haiku Deck (profiled here last March) and Slide Bureau have both cited real estate agents—who are often building presentations and delivering them on the go—as key target audiences.

9Slides, meanwhile, with its emphasis on embedding video or audio of the presentation along with the slides, probably goes the farthest toward addressing another shortcoming the German researchers identified: “As easy as computer-based presentations are to create, presenters seem to be seriously challenged to create good presentation slides and to deliver a good talk.”

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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