• 11.07.12

When A Disruptive App Benefits From An Undisruptive Redesign

With its recent design overhaul, the unconventional online presentation app Prezi grows out of its quirky interface.

In PowerPoint, transitions borrow heavily from film. Options for moving from slide to slide include simple cinematic cuts, fades, and swipes, in addition to dozens of other more complex animations wisely left unexplored by movie directors. But if Microsoft’s ubiquitous software encourages us to think of slides as individual shots, the web-based software Prezi renders presentations as epic long takes, like the seamless three-minute shot of Ray Liotta walking into the Copacabana in Goodfellas. Instead of moving from one rectangle to the next, Prezi will zoom into a detail, pan over to a new topic, and then pull out to let your audience survey the bigger picture. It’s a stimulating alternative to the staid slides we’re used to seeing in meetings and lectures, but when the site first launched, the interface was as unorthodox as the final presentations themselves. With their new redesign, however, Prezi decided to shed its idiosyncrasies for a more buttoned-up–and intuitive–user experience.


When Prezi launched in 2009, it was a quirky newcomer into the presentation scene, and it had a website to match. The user interface was dominated by a decidedly unconventional circular toolbar–the “bubble menu,” as the company refers to it–and the main tool for positioning presentation elements was a strange striped widget known as the Zebra. In a blog post detailing the redesign, Prezi’s lead designer David Gauquelin (who was brought on after the company was well into the Bubble and Zebra era), explains, “All of this was OK” because it was in line with the “experimental context where Prezi came from.”

While many early adopters–including those in the company–had grown to love the bubble menu, it was clear that Prezi’s real value was in the presentations themselves. By giving users an infinitely zoomable canvas on which to build, the resulting presentations were able to show contexts and relationships better than a linear PowerPoint ever could.

As Adam Somlai-Fischer, the company’s cofounder and head of design explains it, it became telling how even satisfied power users would never mention the interface. “When talking to successful Prezi users, they never talked about the UI,” he says. Instead, they focused on the “space” and how Prezi gave them an “immersive [way to] zoom into their own ideas.”

As Prezi matured into a serious competitor, garnering upwards of 10 million users, it was clear that things had to get less experimental. Quirk would have to take a backseat to usability. So the company brought on Gauquelin, an alum of Frog Design, and embarked upon the redesign process. After some tests revealed just how big of an obstacle the circular menu was for new users, Gauquelin became convinced that the overhaul had to be complete. As he put it in a presentation to the company, in text overlaid on a slide showing a messy, junk-strewn bedroom, “Changing the posters won’t help now, we need a new room.”

In large part, the redesign was simply a move toward convention: a cleaner, less cluttered workspace and the adoption of a more traditional menu-based toolbar. But it also meant doing a bit of legwork for the users, when possible. Somlai-Fischer, the cofounder, told me he’s particularly proud of how new frames automatically get added to the presentation’s “path”–the visual route the presentation takes from one element to another. When you add a new image or a bit of text, the software now figures out the best way to swoop in on that element based on its geometry. It’s “self-explanatory” for new users, Somlai-Fischer says, but also speeds things up for experienced users like himself, who previously had to do all the path work by hand.

Throughout the redesign process, he explains, there was the fear that a more conventional interface would engender more conventional presentations, and at times the company tried deliberately to differentiate itself from PowerPoint’s visual paradigm. An early version, for example, had frame thumbnails in a horizontal bar at the bottom of the screen–“more like a movie timeline” than slides, Somlai-Fischer says–though ultimately they found that the sideways scroll was too awkward and were forced to concede to convention, putting the thumbnails in a vertical panel on the left side of the screen. The Zebra, too, got the axe, replaced by an unremarkable stack of square buttons. It doesn’t have nearly as much personality as the old tool, but it will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s rotated a clip art image or resized a text box in Microsoft Office–and that’s exactly the point.

To a first-time user, the new Prezi will likely look very normal. And if that means, instead of clicking cluelessly around some circular button cluster, they dive right in and start building their presentation, then the redesign will be a success. It’s proof that in the long run, sometimes a disruptive product can benefit most from a decidedly undisruptive interface.