The Pitfalls of PowerPoint
Lessons from the Columbia Disaster
Nov 12, 2018

PowerPoint and presentations usually go hand in hand. But, is PowerPoint always the best way to communicate a message? In this post, UX Designer Libby Duryee dives into the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster to illustrate why PowerPoint should be used with care.

A Piece of Foam

In 2003, as the Columbia Space Shuttle launched, a piece of foam insulation broke off the fuel tank and bounced off the left wing of the shuttle. Though the launch was successful, NASA engineers scrambled to determine the extent of possible damages to the wing. How big was the piece of foam? Where exactly did it hit? How fast was it going? Could it have damaged the thermal tiles that protect the shuttle from overheating?

NASA brought on Boeing Corporation engineers to answer these questions. The engineers presented their findings in 3 reports, laid out in 28 PowerPoint slides. However, the slides were so dense and confusing that senior NASA officials did not grasp the true implications.

One of the greatest thinkers in visualizing information, Edward Tufte, believes that the way Boeing engineers presented the information ultimately contributed to the Columbia shuttle disaster. In his essay, The Cognitive Style Of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within, Tufte breaks down a key slide from the Boeing findings to illustrate the (potentially devastating) costs of presenting a technical narrative in PowerPoint.

The Problem

Let’s take a look at the slide below. The first problem, Tufte notes, is the sheer number of bulleted lists throughout the engineers’ presentation. This particular slide is crammed with 11 statements, arranged into 6 different levels of hierarchy.

PowerPoint Slide

Additionally, the narrative is broken into fragments, in some cases so poorly worded it’s hard to figure out the key takeaways. To add to the confusion, acronyms are sprinkled throughout, pronouns are vague, and units of measure are inconsistent from one slide to the next.

Due to this, a reader could easily miss important information. For example, the third tier bullet noted that the debri impact was “significantly outside of the test database”. Further down, the last bullet shows that the foam debri that hit the shuttle was 640 times larger than anything previously tested. But, this information is only revealed in a single, cryptic bullet: “Volume of ramp is 1920cu in vs 3 cu in for test”.

Thus, high-level NASA officials glossed over the doubts located in lower-level bullets. They concluded that “the Columbia was safe and, furthermore, that no additional investigations were necessary”. Subsequently, this resulted in tragedy when the Columbia space shuttle burned during its attempt to return to earth and all 7 of the astronauts on board died.

The Solution

This story is a dramatic and haunting example of the potential dangers of framing technical narratives in PowerPoint. As a presenter, here’s what you can do to make sure your presentation doesn’t go awry.

  • Just talk: Each new slide is a potential distraction. Is the slide you’ve designed worth the risk of dividing your audience’s attention? Resist the temptation to have a slide for every key point in your script.
  • Let the content be your guide: Unless your goal is memorization (as with flash cards), small chunks of data arranged on a series of slides is not the best format. The narrative and content should drive the cognitive approach, rather than the limitations of PowerPoint.
  • Resist default PowerPoint list styles: These list formats force you to break your narrative into fragments stretched out into multiple slides. Use complete sentences and provide your audience with enough context to understand and retain your message.
  • Establish credibility: Channel good teachers in designing a presentation. To establish yourself as a credible authority, introduce a concept and back it up with reasoning and evidence.
  • Provide a handout: Tufte notes that people can read three times faster than presenters can talk. Instead of cramming everything into slides, consider a handout. It could easily include more content than your entire slide deck and will create a lasting impression on your audience.

Read Edward Tufte’s essay: The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out the Corrupts Within.