Slide Design Basics … for UX Researchers

And almost anyone who’s not a designer.

Noor Ali-Hasan
Jul 30 · 9 min read
Shelves of books, magazines, and stationary displayed in a bookshop in Montreal.
Shelves of books, magazines, and stationary displayed in a bookshop in Montreal.
A bookshop in Montreal. Photo by author.

Whether I’m putting together a research report or putting together a deck to get a point across, I spend a lot of time working with Google Slides. I joke that Slides is my current artistic medium of choice but that’s really not too far from the truth. I get a lot of satisfaction (and joy!) out of imagining how an idea is going to look and then being able to execute it. Growing up I spent a lot of time drawing and painting and the process of designing a slide deck can sometimes feel very similar.

Throughout my career I’ve received a lot of positive feedback about my slide design skills and more recently my storytelling skills. I’ve reflected on my process as I design slides and in this post, I’ll share why you should even care about how your slides look, my tips and tricks for designing slides, and how to up-level your design thinking.

A few things to get out of the way before we get started:

  1. There’s no magic bullet. I wish I could give you one software to use or book to read so that you could design better slides. But just like getting better at stats or getting better at interviewing people, designing good slides is a skill. The more time you spend working on it, the better you’ll get.
  2. Yes, this takes time. You might look through the list of pragmatic tips & tricks I have listed out below and wonder, “OMG who’s got time to do all this work?” Guess what — you do! Part of your job as a UXR is to communicate your findings … good slides is one way to do that.
  3. I’m going to make the assumption that you’re writing your research reports in a slide editor (like Slides, PowerPoint, or Keynote) and not a word processor (like Docs or Word).
  4. Since I’ve been working with Google Slides for the past 7+ years, I’m going to reference specific features in Slides. But the tool you use is irrelevant — the design principles are what matter. And you should be able to do the same things in PowerPoint and Keynote.

Why you should care.

If your job title includes “user experience” or “UX,” it’s part of your job to understand good design and how to apply it to your work as a UXR. Saying that you’re a researcher and not a designer, isn’t good enough.

Sometimes when I provide feedback to more junior UXRs about their slide design, they dismiss my concerns or think I’m being silly or petty. This practice isn’t about making something “pretty.” By the way, don’t ever refer to design work in this way — it’s condescending and minimizes all the craft and practice that goes into good design.

How you present your work is critical to your success as a UXR. It is a core communication skill. The clearer and easier your work is to understand and comprehend, the more likely people are going to read your work and for your work to influence people’s thinking and eventually have impact on your product and organization.

If your job title includes “user experience” or “UX,” it’s part of your job to understand good design and how to apply it to your work as a UXR. Saying that you’re a researcher and not a designer, isn’t good enough.

Looking down 7 floors to a lobby through an elevator.
Looking down 7 floors to a lobby through an elevator.
Google London office near King’s Cross Station at Christmas 2019. Photo by author.

Pragmatic tips & tricks.

Here are some principles that I adhere to when I’m designing my decks:

Start with a good template. I sometimes see UXRs struggle to make a deck look good and sometimes that’s because they’re wrestling with a bad template. Your life is going to be a lot easier if you start with a good template. If you work at a large company, there’s a pretty good chance that someone on your team has a template (or two or three!) that you can use for your reports. A good template for UXRs is one that enables you to have slides with text, tables, and/or photos, without the template’s design getting in the way. A good template is one that’s got a slide master … so you can stay consistent (more on that later). If you don’t have access to a good template, Slides does have some good templates like the Streamline and Swiss templates. You could even use them as starting points and modify them to meet your needs.

Steal from your designer friends. I get a lot of inspiration (and learn a lot) from all the designers I work with. When I see a well crafted deck (usually made by a designer), I try to figure out why I find it appealing. I then try to copy whatever pattern or layout they’re using that I liked so much.

Be consistent with fonts (and don’t use Arial). Every time you create a new text box in Slides or Powerpoint, the font defaults to Arial. Sigh. Arial is a pretty ugly font and I would bet that it’s probably not the font that the rest of your template is using (if you want to learn more about typography and the evils of Arial, watch the Helvetica documentary). Typography is a beautiful art and there are people who can make beautiful slides and posters just with text. I don’t expect UXRs to know a lot about typography but for now just make sure that you’re consistent with how you’re using fonts. Make sure that your headings, subheadings, call-outs/user quotes, and body text are formatted consistently. That means that you’re using the same font, size, color, and line spacing.

Don’t overlook symmetry. I see so many UXR slide decks with elements (like text boxes or images) that look like they were just thrown on a slide. Make that stuff line up! I sometimes eyeball it (I’ll even sometimes use my fingers to roughly measure the distance between items). But more often than not, I use the different features of the Arrange menu like Align (to line things up horizontally and vertically and Distribute (to make sure that the space between items is equal). I’ll often use the Group feature when I have two elements that I want to treat as one (for instance, a photo with a caption).

Screenshot of the Arrange menu in Google Slides.
Screenshot of the Arrange menu in Google Slides.
The Arrange menu is your friend. Screenshot by author.

Don’t cram so much stuff in each slide! I know it is a cliche but less really is more. Cramming a ton of stuff on each slide is a hallmark of so many UXR reports. I’m not totally sure why but I suspect it might be because some UXRs are treating Slides like Docs (e.g. thinking of each slide as one section of a written report or academic paper). It won’t cost you anything to add more slides to your deck and sometimes it is a lot easier to tighten up the design of a deck (and sometimes the writing) if you split up one text heavy slide into multiple slides.

Watch your margins and whitespace. Similarly, whitespace is a hallmark of good design. If you’re finding that your images and text boxes are cramming your margins, you’ve probably got too much stuff on your slide. Break that sucker up! Remember slides are free!

Use good photography. I see so many UXR reports with cheesy stock photos and clip art. Don’t do that! The images and photography you use should never be gratuitous. If you remove that photo, will you miss it? If you won’t then it probably shouldn’t be there. Photos should help you tell the story that you’re trying to tell with your deck. You can find a lot of beautiful photos (for free!) using services like Unsplash. Better yet take your own photos! You don’t even need a fancy camera — the camera on your phone is pretty good. To illustrate this point, I’ve made a point of only including my own photos in this post (all taken with my phone). In pre-quarantine olden times, I always tried to take lots of photos, especially when traveling or conducting field research. Sometimes it was something that I knew was related to some of the patterns we were seeing in our research. Sometimes it was just something that caught my eye or inspired me. You never know when a photo will come in handy for a deck you’re putting together.

Two more tips around formatting photos:

  • When resizing photos, make sure to maintain the photo’s aspect ratio (that’s usually easiest if you resize photos from the corner). So if a photo was originally 4x6 and you resized it in half, it should be 2x3.
  • I like using full bleed photos, like these examples:
Screenshots of 3 slide layouts illustrating full bleed photos.
Screenshots of 3 slide layouts illustrating full bleed photos.
Three examples of full bleed photos in Slides. Screenshot by author.

Use bullets for bullets. This point is controversial but I really hate it when people use bullets as a crutch for good writing (see Tufte on PowerPoint). When you need a bulleted list, then use bullets. But if you’re writing something substantial, then write! Bullets have introduced a style of writing that I find super lazy, looks ugly, and is sometimes incomprehensible. You’ll have a stronger report if you take the time to write (and your report will likely have a stronger shelf-life).

Use memes sparingly. This point is more of a personal opinion/style but I cringe every time I see a UXR deck with slide after slide of memes. Memes are funny and can sometimes really help you make your point. But if all the images in your deck are memes, you’re using too many (and you’re using them as a crutch for good design). And what’s the point that you want your stakeholders to come away with — that you’re good at finding memes?

Design your tables. Your UXR reports are probably going to include some tables. There’s no reason for those tables to be ugly. Unfortunately, the default table style in Slides is pretty meh. If you spend a little bit of time removing unnecessary borders and changing the colors and line weights of other borders, you’ll have a nice looking table.

A screenshot of a slide with two tables: the default design and one that I formatted.
A screenshot of a slide with two tables: the default design and one that I formatted.
A screenshot of a slide with two tables: the default design and one that I formatted. Screenshot by author.

Start with paper (or a whiteboard). If I’m trying to figure out how to lay out a slide, it’s usually a lot easier for me to get my idea down on paper first. If I try to work out my idea in software first, it usually takes me a lot longer and I get distracted by the software. My design will usually evolve as I translate it from paper to software but that’s natural and OK.

Photo of the exterior of the Eames House in Los Angeles (home of design pioneers Ray and Charles Eames).
Photo of the exterior of the Eames House in Los Angeles (home of design pioneers Ray and Charles Eames).
The Eames House in Los Angeles (home of design pioneers Ray and Charles Eames). Photo by author.

How to up-level your design thinking.

The tips & tricks I provided here will help you get started with making your slides look better. But to really build up your communication design skills, you have to start seeing things like designers and understanding design. To start, start by looking at things around you that you find appealing. Why are those things appealing to you? There are a lot of design aesthetics and it’s important for you to understand what you like (and why). I have a tendency to like design that is whimsical and minimalist design (two very different design aesthetics). I love mid-century modern architecture and furniture. But that’s just me — what do you like?

If you want to get more serious, then you should probably take an art or design class or two. I took art classes throughout high school and college, including two semesters of graphic design as an undergrad. Go to art museums (after quarantine!) and learn more about what you’re seeing — what it means and why it’s important.

I usually get a lot of inspiration when traveling and visiting new cities. But since I can’t travel or go to art museums right now, I’ve been finding a lot of inspiration on Instagram. Here are a few accounts that I find inspiring:

I hope you found these tips and tricks helpful and that you can apply them to the next UXR deck you put together. Design is a beautiful and complex field. Learning more about it will make you a better UXR and you might even find more in common with your design colleagues.

UX Research Journal

Start your UX research career with advice from a veteran UX researcher.

Noor Ali-Hasan

Written by

I’m a UX research lead at Google, where I help teams design and build desirable and easy to use products. Outside of work, I love art, Peloton, and Lego.

UX Research Journal

Writings on starting a career in UX research from Noor Ali-Hasan, a UX research lead at Google with more than 15 years of experience in the field.

Noor Ali-Hasan

Written by

I’m a UX research lead at Google, where I help teams design and build desirable and easy to use products. Outside of work, I love art, Peloton, and Lego.

UX Research Journal

Writings on starting a career in UX research from Noor Ali-Hasan, a UX research lead at Google with more than 15 years of experience in the field.

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