Is it a presentation tool? Or a visual storytelling tool? Visualization software? Or a zooming editor? Budapest-based Adam Somlei-Fischer, founder and lead designer of Prezi, and Peter Halacsy, founder and CTO of Prezi, were interested in soliciting feedback on their product’s category when they visited frog design’s San Francisco studio last week and demoed their tool. Having marketed mind-mapping software previously in my career, I felt sympathetic: At the time, we went through a similar exercise, and after endless discussions and focus groups we ended up with a label only a committee could come up with: “enterprise productivity software.” Yawn. One must not be concerned that the Prezi guys will get trapped by the lowest common denominator – they’re too smart, too opinionated, and too small (ten people).
Suppose, though, Prezi is a presentation tool – as the name (and Techcrunch’s praise: “the coolest online presentation tool”) may well imply – then of course it faces a mighty contender: PowerPoint is the dinosaur in the room. Microsoft's program has been around for 25 years, and by some estimates 30 million PowerPoint presentations are created every day. You’ll be hard-pressed to find any major company that completely foregoes using it, despite its disputed benefits and “Death by PowerPoint” claims that accuse the software of being an all-too-convenient prop for poor speakers. Edward Tufte, one of the most vocal PowerPoint critics, in a famously agitated essay (“The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint”) even drew a causal relationship between NASA’s PowerPoint slides and the Challenger crash in 1986.
For PowerPoint haters, Prezi surely offers hope. Unlike Keynote, which is highly popular among designers because it offers higher visual fidelity and a better user experience, Prezi differs radically from PowerPoint in that it requires an alternative mental model: Information is displayed in a non-linear fashion. That’s also true for mind-mapping, but Prezi offers additional linear paths, knowing that “time is linear” when you present, as Adam Somlai-Fischer put it. Users can jump in and out of these paths and are thus given enormous flexibility in storing and presenting information.
This very flexibility, however, presents a serious adoption barrier: Many first-time users, as the two Prezi founders would readily admit, struggle with the challenge of filling a “blank canvas,” as they can become overwhelmed by the freedom (and pressure) created by a level of user empowerment they’re not used to within the strict confines of PowerPoint templates. Prezi is asking you to literally think outside the box, but there is a real danger that the brilliance of the tool can get in the way of your content. I saw several conference speakers rely on Prezi this year, and while some of them used it so masterfully that I didn’t even notice the software, some were deliriously inundated by Prezi’s rich possibilities and went gaga with dizzying “jump cuts” from topic to topic, disrupting their presentation and confusing the audience. At the end of the day, you still have a story to tell, and Prezi’s simple way of putting information anywhere you like can ironically lead to the very information overload it aims to avoid – it is just too tempting to create mega-maps and add more and more data to them. But that’s just a minor concern, and some training and (self-imposed content discipline) will make you easily forget about PowerPoint.
Prezi has a lot going for it. Backed by TED and solid VC-funding, with a soon-to-open new office in San Francisco, Twitter creator Jack Dorsey as advisor, and a ton of media buzz, the company is poised to aggressively grow adoption in the mainstream corporate world. Power to Prezi!
Tim Leberecht is the CMO of frog and the publisher of design mind.