Ric Bretschneider is a technologist, troublemaker, and problem solver. Professionally, he helps people raise the quality of their business communications, mainly presenting. At Microsoft, Ric spent 17 years working on PowerPoint, designing and molding the program that became a juggernaut in business communication. Shortly after leaving Microsoft, Ric was awarded PowerPoint MVP status, a recognition held by only a dozen or so people in the US. In his spare time, Ric runs the San Jose California branch of the Pecha Kucha presentation event, writes, blogs and podcasts. He’s also a huge geek; his obsessions are hidden away on his site.
In this conversation, Ric discusses PowerPoint’s erstwhile AutoContent Wizard.
Geetesh: Ric, you contributed to the design and direction of the AutoContent Wizard. Can you share your thoughts about what motivated its introduction and what made it such a favorite feature?
Ric: Sure Geetesh, thanks for the opportunity.
We have to go way back in PowerPoint history to understand that there were actually multiple versions of the AutoContent Wizard. Originally the content presentations were just files that PowerPoint opened, with a skeletal presentation the user would fill in. When I got ownership of the feature, we decided to make it more of a series of guided decisions the user would make to create a starter document that was a bit more personalized.
At the same time, PowerPoint was undergoing one of the more aggressive architectural changes in its history, adding an object model and the ability to program “on top of” the main PowerPoint application. In simpler terms, a skilled programmer could write code and add features to PowerPoint beyond what Microsoft had put there. Several of the PowerPoint program management team, around five of us as I recall, started creating features in this way. It was difficult work; the tools were very rough. The coding editor was so primitive it didn’t even have a destructive backspace! We did most of our work writing code in Excel, then copied and pasted it into PowerPoint, and then prayed that it would run. In the end, only two of us finished our features; myself and David Gorbet who wrote the fabulous Pack-And-Go wizard.
It’s probably hard to consider these days but back in the 90s PowerPoint was not a household word. As simple as it was to work with, there were concepts that people who had worked with Word or Excel had trouble wrapping their heads around. Things like the difference between selecting a placeholder to move it and clicking into it to edit text. These were much more difficult and users were very frustrated. And the “presentation as a document” model itself wasn’t readily understood. Many users came from older “slide preparation” applications where they created one file per slide and expected PowerPoint to work the same way. It wasn’t unusual to go on a customer visit and see people with 20 separate files for a 20-slide presentation. The AutoContent Wizard was a way to shortcut these misconceptions and give the user less of a blank slate of a document to start their work.
We also tried to help the user think about the audience. Some examples of this are “Communicating Bad News” or “Brainstorming Session.” Putting the presenter into a tactic that would be more acceptable to the audience, to move forward with positive results. “Communicating Bad News” slides that approached a problem through disclosure and next steps used a structure very different from the activity of collecting the inventive ideas of a group in a “Brainstorming Session.” AutoContent Wizard was a popular feature for beginning presenters. And most users were just beginning. Most of the presentation structures used in the wizard came from presentation professionals we worked with specifically for the wizard. We even licensed some work from the Dale Carnegie organization, an international organization known for excellence in speaking.
We helped the user get the document set up for the output type; on-screen, web, overheads, or 35mm slides. (Yes, there were still a lot of people using PowerPoint to create actual slides that would be projected from a carousel projector!) There are a lot of different settings that can and should be made to optimize the presentation for each type of output. When the Wizard put this all on one simple screen, it made it much easier to do than hunting down the individual commands.
Finally, the presentation title was requested, and the user could specify if and how a footer would be added to the slides. Still, one of the harder things for users to do today (admittedly for several different reasons!) We put a couple of additional benefits in there, including a progress indicator, but that was about it.
It was a rare thing that we heard from a customer who didn’t like the option of starting with the AutoContent wizard. Of course a few years later it was a controversial subject.
Geetesh: The AutoContent Wizard no longer shipped with PowerPoint 2007. Many purists say that it was the reason for canned presentations. But many long-time users saw it as a starting point to overcome creative blocks. Was a balance between the two thoughts not possible, or did the feature outlive its usefulness?
Ric: I’m not sure what a purist really is. Is a presentation you write from scratch likely to be better than one written from an outline? Maybe. Is a resume written from scratch always going to be better than one that is started from a set of example sections? It’s a tough call. It depends on the native skill set of the person at the keyboard. It’s easy to lay the blame on a feature, but the reality is that users need real training if they’re going to be expected to create professional documents. And that goes for Word and Excel as well. With AutoContent Wizard we exposed users to good basic communication practices. The hope was that giving them a start, and some immediate success, they would continue to grow their skills.
It should be noted that the PowerPoint team didn’t really decide to cut the AutoContent Wizard. Lots of Office features that were conceptually the same in Word, Excel and PowerPoint were being given over to “shared teams.” Shared teams would implement a set of a core feature that all the apps would use. The benefit there was reduced work for the application teams and a uniform experience for users going between programs. Application startup and File Open were identified as shared team features, and because Word and Excel didn’t have AutoContent Wizards, PowerPoint lost its ability to launch its startup experience.
In reality, it was probably about time. PowerPoint was, by this time, a leading application in Office. The “novice” user had plenty of support from other knowledgeable users, books and magazines, and that whole Internet thing. As a built-in feature, the AutoContent Wizard was only missed for a while.
The concept of a guidance tool for creating your presentations is still solid, but not as a generic concept. There are plenty of organizations that pay consultants to come in and create versions of a wizard that will work specific to their needs. I’ve seen amazing work done in the recent versions of PowerPoint where multiple ribbons support exactly this kind of content guidance and creation that follows corporate guidelines. That object model and programming feature, it’s still benefiting users today.
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