June 26, 2012

Inside Adobe: The user is king

By Kay Khoo

Adobe’s headquarters in India isn’t typically where one might expect to find the Kyoorius team looking studiously at the behind-the- scene working of the software major. A recent visit to the company’s Bangalore office made for a fascinating look into the trials, errors and thinking that go into the constant tweaking and up gradation of the software that we take for granted. One might say software isn’t the most exciting subject that one would expect to read about in a design magazine but if you were to look at Adobe from the point of view of how everything (including talent, process and new ideas) comes together, it has been a revelation to discover some of the fascinating projects that the company is working on — some that you will be reading about in the subsequent paragraphs and others that you are likely to discover when they officially launch.

Jaydeep Dutta
India Head, Experience Design Adobe India

Kyoorius’ Kay Khoo caught up with Jaydeep Dutta, India Head, Experience Design Adobe India and spoke to him about a variety of subjects ranging from the inner workings of the Adobe India team, understanding user problems especially the ones that users aren’t able to articulate or haven’t encountered yet, and hiring unconventional hybrid talent who are neither designers nor coders.

To give readers a background, Jaydeep Dutta quit a career in brand consulting (he was working at Ray + Keshavan — The Brand Union) to join Adobe India. Considering his brand consulting background, Dutta admits to wondering if hiring him was a risk for Adobe at the time, but shares that the company, then was looking to hire someone who had a broader vision and could look to unify its user experience themes, approaches and the team itself. This was an approach that had worked in Adobe’s US office as well. He says, “The opportunity to see an Adobe product from end to end, irrespective of its flaws, was what also drew me to this world.”

Read on for the detailed interview.

Could you tell us how the Adobe team works together on a typical design problem?

JD: We design to a very unique set of user needs. Our customers often use our products, on the average for 2 years per version, 5–6 hours a day, if not longer. Compare that to a daily newspaper, website, cereal packaging or an annual report.

Therefore the typical problems are fairly unique. These come in two flavours — the progressive/predictable and the disruptive. Progressive are the ones that we encounter at regular intervals — ie., cyclically. For example: what would the next version of Illustrator or InDesign be? We need to look deep and look carefully at user problems we are trying to solve. Designers play a critical part, along with the Product Managers, in envisioning the shape of things in the years to come. Also, for every product  team of 30–40 engineers, quality folks, product managers, program managers — there is usually one designer. Design, and the designer, occupy a key seat, become a guiding force at the start and remain critical till the end of each cycle.

We start by testing hypotheses we may have or to gain fresh insights, or both. Our designers travel to where clients are. For example, the only designer for Illustrator worldwide is in our team and has visited fashion houses in New York to Pixar and Warner, Mitsubishi and Toyota in Japan and many more. Designers meet users in their home, offices, conferences and research facilities in the US, Europe, Japan, Asia — to get a first-hand view of what they say (and what they often don’t). What users want and what they fail to articulate but often actually need.

Over the cycle, problem-solving means progressively chipping away a long wish-list — balancing user needs with technical feasibility, Adobe’s own focus areas with how the tech world outside is shaping up and more. We have lots of brainstorming, quick prototyping, plenty of reviews and presentations — with product teams, with the design teams — sometimes the India and the US teams, or even internal presentations in US to a wider stakeholder audience. It may mean travelling to US or elsewhere — where the stakeholders are, to present to them.

A cycle is usually 12 months — but it can be longer. Take Photoshop & Premiere Elements for instance, the consumer version of Photoshop & Premiere respectively and amongst the biggest selling photo/video-editing consumer software in the US. The Elements design team led a huge overhaul of the UI framework — from ground up. When completed, it would have gone over two cycles — but will also spill over into the next cycle as we are not fully satisfied with all the changes and detailing. The entire process is not easy, it’s not fast. But it’s rewarding to see users comment, like it, love it and also suggest new things.

Where we can, we borrow interaction patterns and paradigms from our existing products. We do not want to reinvent the wheel — just make the experience consistent and almost invisible so that the users can focus on their work. Easier said than done though because different products have different underlying technologies and are built on years and layers of code-base. Dieter Rams once said that “good design is as little design as possible”. We believe in that. His assertion that “when we concentrate on the essential elements in design, when we omit all superfluous elements,we find forms become quiet, comfortable, understandable, and most importantly, long lasting”. That resonates well with us. After all, we are not just a technology company or tools company or a design company. We are an ideas company.

That brings me to the second problem type: disruptive problems.

These are undefined, sketchy and unpredictable. It may be that we saw some cool technical demo from the many Adobe engineers — some crazy and wonderful code thought in abstraction and as designers, we decided to put it in context and make it usable. It may be that we thought of a new idea, solved an unarticulated need. That’s the big challenge and the fun of it.

It may lead to a new product, an app, a feature within a product or a service. Over the last few years we have put some method to the madness and found a way to effectively balance these with our cyclical product work. I still refuse to call it labs — its not labs for me. It is practical, pragmatic innovation and it’s a part and parcel of every week’s work or skunkwork.

Being skunkwork, we can’t always go out and show it to everyone — especially our users. But we keep doing loads of internal presentations and brainstorming, we work with engineering to get a proof-of-concept: a working demo. Partnership matters. It’s a long road to the actual creation of a new product within Adobe, and we need to do the due diligence.

Another venue for us to test internally matured ideas is the Adobe Max conference, held every year in Los Angeles. New, ground-breaking work is often presented to an audience of over 3000 delegates — designers, developers, students, gaming-gurus, fans, media. The keynote sessions are always astounding and also give our consumers and tech-pundits, a view of the direction we are headed in.

How does the Adobe team work on understanding the issues/ problems that designers / users face in their work? How is this approach internalized at Adobe?

JD: To add to what I may have said earlier, we have researchers based in US for the Experience Design team (XD) — we do not have them in India as yet. But soon we should look into adding this competency. There are several research studies run by marketing teams, product teams and branding teams through the year — some pre-event, some post. There are many points and reports to connect and get a comprehensive picture from these varied and detailed studies.

What’s more – we also have a very active Pre-release community. They sign up, sign NDAs, go through a few hoops and are privy to the next version of software early on. Their comments help us over the cyclical course of building the software.

However we want our designers to get a first hand insight into the world of users. For example, our Senior Designer for Captivate, attended a conference in Las Vegas where he met our users and those of our competitive products. This was followed by a week in Washington DC, spending each day at a reputed design studio — observing the expert users. It gave him an unparalleled perspective.

However, balance is called for. It is easy to get carried away by edge cases — for example — 1% of users, who are very vocal about a few specific needs or features are not representative of a majority. It’s not about amplifying your volume, it’s about the merit of the argument.

Thus, all said, we must put user visits, user research and pre-release feedback in context. Users are often reacting to what they have now, their current problems and frustrations or opportunities. We are looking at a much wider spread of things — especially rapidly changing technology and the context in which our users work — their industries, revenue models et al. And we need to keep abreast of that too — our internal design, marketing and engineering groups do a great job of tracking and flagging up these changes. Talking to hardware manufacturers like Apple or Samsung or talking to our designer friends in other industries help as well. Well, “it takes all the running around to be in the same place” as Lewis Caroll said.

The team consists of a bunch of thinkers who might or might not have programming background, and some might not even have design backgrounds. Typically, one would expect that Adobe would hire folks with coding and design expertise, how does this unconventional approach help in creating a team that can collaborate and ideate together on problems?

JD: I guess being an interaction designer implies being able to think and design workflows controlled by the user, that move and morph about in time as opposed to designing for pages or static surfaces. There are many similarities and a few differences between film and interaction. The key differences between interaction and video/film/animation being that the latter is a linear time-based flow whereas in interaction design,we need to think of multiple scenarios depending upon what the user chooses — and some may not be ideal scenarios — like crashes or glitches.

So within the interaction design domain, there are many skillsets we hire for. What is important is understanding and empathy with users, with digital environments — screen- based designs and how these are produced and used. Sometimes too much knowledge of coding may actually be detrimental as designers begin to empathize far too much with constraints instead of pushing the boundaries.

When hiring and expanding the team — we look for multiple dimensions — skillsets, subject matter expertise and domain expertise. And very importantly, we are always looking for designers to stand up for the user, be their champions.

We are looking for three key types of people based on their skillsets. The first are visual designers who organize visually, can bring visual hierarchy, structure and visual consistency. They produce compelling, inspiring and immersive interfaces. Second, workflow designers who, on the other hand, are far more detail-oriented and excellent at drilling down to the minute sub-levels in terms of defining every possible scenario. A hybrid does both and is the rarest of rare skills to hire into. In the absence of a hybrid, a collaboration between the visual and workflow designer brings great results.

On Proto, simple gestures can help create quick, interactive wireframes on a Tablet

Another area we look at closely is subject expertise. So, when hiring designers for DreamWeaver (DW) we looked to someone who was at home with web design, had some understanding of coding, interest in HTML5, insight into the web industry and its changing dynamics. When looking for a designer for Flash — we are looking for someone who has worked in Flash, has gaming or animation experience, knows the product well. When I look at my team, we have subject experts in Photography, Video, Flex, Print and Publishing, Illustration, HTML5, Typography, Iconography, Teaching and many more. These are not authorities, but people with immense interest and a willingness to share. That enriches the team. Then there is domain expertise we must keep in mind — there are those who are excellent at thinking enterprise level software and those that are great at pro-desktop software. The new domain expertise we are looking at, is people who think consumer level software and be at home with social media — Facebook, Twitter et al.

Muse lets designers design while it compiles code away in the background.

Our traditional strength has been Pro softwares. But things are changing. Once upon a time, 18-somethings would start dabbling with our software at design school and as pros they would, and still are, using these. Today my seven year old and Barrack Obama all interact with Adobe products — an example being Adobe Ideas. We are no longer looking at Pros or pros- to-be. A huge customer base of our Elements group of products are actually consumers — often 50+ doting aunts, uncles and grand parents who use these to curate memories. So we are also looking for people with strength in the consumer and social domains, and not just desktop software design. This again brings a different level of collaboration and learning to the team.

Having said that, we now have a very diverse team. And contrary to popular notions, women are leading a lot of product design and a big majority of them are thinking systems and workflows. A tiny minority are what would be called designer-developer — people who are at home with coding and pixel level design detailing. We have graduates and post-graduates from NID, Art Schools, Srishti, IIT and self-taught designers. Some have a second degree from US, Europe. What is common is that they have the passion and patience to make a difference, are thinking of a long horizon and are continually learning and upgrading their skills. And they champion the user’s cause.

In describing some of the new apps created by Adobe, would it be possible to understand, from your perspective, what was the ‘déjà vu’ insight that created the need to invent that particular app? We would like to understand this more from “an inspiration” perspective than a technological one.

JD: There are plenty, and I wish I could describe a lot — unfortunately, I can talk only about a few as of now, as these are in development. With Apps, especially tablet Apps, Adobe can now reach out to narrow areas of needs that its bigger desktop softwares can’t address quickly.

Desktop software is already crowded with features and sometimes the lack of new features and just simple reorganization of the interface can make a big difference. Acrobat X (Ten) was a step in that direction, Photoshop Elements is all set for a release that promises to be the biggest focus on making the interface “inviting and immersive”.

But coming back to your question on the new apps — these fall in the flavor 2 category — ie., the disruptive problems realm. New ideas can, and do, come from anywhere in the company and a decent proportion of these originate from the design team. Sometimes the deja-vu moment is watching a technical demo, a conversation with other teams or a casual comment from a user. Once these seeds of ideas are connected to some other unfinished problems or finished products or Adobe’s rich ecosystem of technology — a new product begins to take shape.As designers we put context, we take in usefulness and relevance, we argue for the user, we make it look real — you can almost touch it, feel it, swipe it before we can actually build an ‘engineered’ prototype.

Some of these are companion apps, natural and focused extensions of an existing product. That’s a straight forward inspiration route. For example, a companion App for Elements is already in the pipeline as well as another powerful app that will help users learn photography while leveraging both knowledge from external sources, subject matter experts and a little help from Adobe’s expertise in the digital imaging arena.

Other companion apps include Photoshop Colour Lava, which is a colour mixing tool on your tablet for use in Photoshop CS5 and beyond. You can get your fingers virtually dirty and get to dabble with paint and export to your swatches.

Other examples include Photoshop Eazel and Photoshop Nav that extend the capability of Photoshop to the tablet and allow users a degree of control and playfulness with their desktop software via the iPad.

Illustrator sports a new look on it’s 25th Anniversary

Coming back to addressing a small sliver of a need — Proto is a great example. The code for making quick sketches came first, we brainstormed and worked with the highly talented engineering team to put a context and a bunch of use cases for the application. The end is Proto — a quick sketching and prototyping tool for designers who work on the web and mobile, on the go. Meeting users, collaboration with the engineering teams, senior management and product managers refined and redefined the work. Interestingly, the designer on Proto also picked up a few new skill — sets on the way and now works with ease on Mac’s X-Code, helping developers refine the UI to pixel perfection.

Talent is one of the most challenging issues especially for organisations like Adobe; how do you go about discovering these thinkers and then retaining them?

JD: It has been indeed a challenge and takes up a lot of my time and I do involve my team on this aspect. The biggest support and help comes from my Manager Mukul. He was instrumental in setting up this team and over the years has gained a lot of insight into the design-domain — and become an infallible sounding board.

We essentially go where designers are — conferences in India and many abroad, online social networks, groups on LinkedIn, Facebook et al. But our major reliance is on word-of-mouth and recommendations. We have an excellent internal recommendations program which we tried to also move to the external world — with some success. Friends in the design world (like Rajesh Dahiya) — have been a great help too. Recently, a LinkedIn contact in the US Bay area recommended a bunch of designers — this has led to quality candidates. We have also been looking at US Design schools more recently and hope to tap into European schools, associations and professionals.

Though we almost never hired straight out of school, I have also been working with Indian design schools, more to raise awareness than to hire. The kind of people we are looking for means we need mature, experienced designers. However, if someone is a fresh grad and has the potential, we get them to work with our senior designers, until they are ready. It’s a long process and it has been done recently with some great success. It’s like an internal training program or finishing school almost.

Retention is again an interesting part — and we need to look beyond stock option and salary hikes. The biggest motivator I have found is giving people ownership of what they do — and control. I do not micro-manage and let my designers run the show, own the product, the process and the journey. I am merely a sounding board, a brainstorming aide and step in when there is a problem. Also, the Adobe brand name has its own magic — it’s one of the companies designers aspire to work in and combined with product ownerships and other rewards, it can go a long way.

To stay connected with Adobe on Facebook, reach them at facebook.com/adobexdi
Adobe Color Lava on iTunes / Adobe Proto on iTunes / Adobe Muse

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First published in Kyoorius Magazine 12, featuring Sky Design, Design Orb, Studio Tjeerd, JWT, Wieden Kennedy, Ideas@Work, Abhijit Kalan, Alicia Souza, Anvita Jain, Garima Gupta, Nithin Rao Kumnlekar, Rahul Gaikwad, Rebecca Chew, Saurabh Kumar, Taaneya Balaji, Ratna Ramanathan, Adobe India, Tarabooks, Latika Khosla, Ruchita Mahadok, Harsh Purohit, Michael Wolff, and Shagun Singh. Not a subscriber yet? Subscribe here.

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