What happens when designers play with basic office software

Transition to a non-design environment

If someone had told me a year ago that I would be designing in and for a MS office environment, I would have replied, “Get outta here! It’s ridiculous!” Ridiculous or not, I’m doing it now.

I come from a boutique consultancy environment — we’re talking small teams, an agile decision-making process, and openness to using almost any technology out there. When a year ago my career shifted to a non-design, more corporate environment, I was caught more than a little unprepared. When I was approached by an internal client about creating a set of training materials for a new type of assignment, the first thing I thought was how cool it would be to make it in the form of a mini-website or a mobile app — something interactive and engaging. Long story short, after numerous days of discussing my ideas with the client, I found out that the only available technology I had was Microsoft Powerpoint. Sad face. Hands down.

Hidden power of basic office software

But you know what they say: “it is what it is.” I thought, if the Egyptians managed to build the Pyramids with their bare hands, I could definitely build something amazing in Powerpoint too. I decided to go ahead and give its features a closer look, and it turned out that Powerpoint, in good hands, is a pretty powerful instrument and, aside from its too-frequent use in creating boring corporate slides, it is possible to do a lot of things with it, and to do them quickly and intuitively. The interactive tools, in particular, are what caught my attention. Presenting information at a high level and giving the reader the possibility to drill down into details, and have some control over this process — this is essential for learning.

In Powerpoint it’s hard to get too crazy with the architecture of your resource, since everything needs to be linked manually, but building a linear narrative is not difficult at all. Think of a typical website in the late 90s, with a fairly simple structure; or mobile experiences, which are sequential stories too, and don’t implicate the use of tabs or multiple windows. These kinds of experiences can easily be created in Powerpoint!

Interactive learning material we’ve created

Our objective was to design a so-called “pre-work” material, distributed internally prior to formal training. Its purpose is to give people the initial understanding of a new type of projects by demonstrating the process of a typical assignment.

Our idea was to represent the process at two levels:

1. High level map. Show the process at a high level — create a map with the core steps and touch points.

2. Detailed screens. Explain these core steps in detail on separate screens, and provide samples of the tools used in each step of the process.

Finally, use interactivity to link the two levels and put the reader in charge of the learning process.

Take a look at the storyboard.

This has been a tremendous success. It comes as no surprise that people get more engaged and excited about the learning process, the subject, and further exploration when they obtain new knowledge from approachable and intuitive interactive resources.

All in all, the main takeaway for me was that it’s not access to the latest technologies, but good design thinking (i.e. considering desirability, technical feasibility, and business needs) along with fundamental design skills (i.e. typography, graphic, and interaction design) that are still the most important innovation tools out there!

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