It doesn’t take long to see the difference between where Google is coming from and where we are going with Acrobat.com. This tweet from a few weeks ago is one pithy perspective:
“I must admit Adobe’s Buzzword looks like creamy, fattening butter next to trim, healthy margarine GDocs. But I like butter…” – @mahyuni
I love seeing that sort of emotional response to Buzzword and Acrobat.com. At the risk of dangerously mixing saturated fat and cardiac metaphors, I think the reason people respond so deeply to Acrobat.com, even in its early “unfinished” stage, is that we believe great designs engage both hearts and minds.
To start the discussion, let me brag a little on the early success of our collegial competitor, Google Docs.
Although relatively few people use Google Docs regularly, Google is clearly doing a lot to raise overall awareness of how ‘cool’ and convenient it is to create documents online. I was lucky enough to work with the co-founders of Google Docs (nee Writely), Sam Schillace and Steve Newman, in the early days of Adobe (nee Macromedia) Contribute, and it is exciting to see their success. It is also exciting to be in a market with strong competitors…usually means there is a “there” there.
Good design works, as GDocs shows. It does what you expect. Good design fits the motto of my alma mater – your hands can make it do what your mind thinks it should. And, importantly, good design can be measured, which is a big benefit from an engineering and marketing perspective. Google is famous for design analysis by the numbers, doing things like testing 41 shades of blue. That makes sense, given that Google was founded with a passion for information, for analyzing data. And numbers are everywhere when you are running an online business. For good or bad, I spend a lot more time looking at charts and graphs and data cubes than I do looking at product designs (the rest of the team gets to do that fun stuff).
So to be clear, even great designs must first be good.
But while good design might be good enough for processing information, it is not good enough for collaboration (or perhaps for people-centric innovation in general). If information is about bits of data and the patterns they create, then collaboration is about groups of people and the ideas they create. And we people are a curious lot with some strange ideas; we want things to be better, but we don’t like to change.
That is where great design comes in.
Great design changes people. It makes them not just willing to change, but it gets them excited about it. It is the difference between loving what a product can do (mp3 players) and loving the entire experience of doing it (iPod). Great design can’t be easily measured until after its impact is obvious, but it causes people to write things about Buzzword like this from David Pierce, or the end of this posting by Dustin Wax, or this recent email feedback from a customer:
“Hello, and congratulations on the product. I have found it very pleasant to use and it makes me feel like writing for no reason…” – Tomás Caironi
Why did Tomás write that to us? (And no, he is not a starving poet.)
I can tell you that focus groups did not hold sway over our dark user interface (no need to run the numbers there). Focus groups didn’t get that excited about the beautiful appearance of text on the page, and they mostly yawned at the clever and colorful commenting feature. Some of them were even uncomfortable about the idea of having “little pictures of strangers,” aka avatars, next to people’s names. And our sleeping baby dialog, while cute, is perhaps a bit odd inside a professional software product.
I know what would happen if we ran A/B tests past a few hundred thousand people and looked at the data. After the first 24-hours we’d be off building a product that looks and acts like Google Docs…or perhaps, more to the point, like Microsoft Word. But the data from the following 6-month period would tell a different story.
In that vein, here is a number for you: in an academic study last year, after using various products to collaborate on projects over the course of a semester, 85% of students preferred Buzzword over Google Docs and Word. In other words, 100,000 people a week are signing up for Acrobat.com for good reason.
We are not trying to collect all the world’s information as quickly as possible, and we are not trying to build a new office productivity suite. We are trying to build a better collaboration solution, so people can work together more effectively on their ideas.
So our user interface is dark and simple because we want your ideas, i.e. documents, to take prominence. The text rendering is beautiful because we want the zen of your ideas to radiate from the screen (hey, I can’t help it, I live in Marin County and work in SOMA). We did our clever commenting and let people pick personal avatars because collaboration is about people, generally people with strong opinions who know each other fairly well and have a thing or two to say to each other. And we put the baby up there because people like to have fun, especially when working together on ideas.
We still do focus groups, A/B testing and number crunching, all the stuff you need for good design. But we also have some brilliant designers who, when it matters, set the direction and design some love into our products. Because when it comes to collaboration, we believe good design is not good enough; only great design is going to change the way we all work together.
I’ll end with the rest of the story from Tomás Caironi. He went on to write this:
“…I have been trying to use it whenever possible, but it can’t be my default writing app yet. This is because I’m studying engineering and this means I have to write many formulas into my coursework…However, this is not a common feature in web-writing-apps and this is not the main issue given that there are many LaTeX renderers online from which to extract an image. What makes it especially difficult in Buzzword is the inability to import images from a web URL…[fixing this] would improve immensely the usability of Buzzword for students of exact sciences.”
That’s the other great thing about great design – people care enough to spend time telling you not just what’s wrong, but how to make it better. And we’re listening.
Next time, maybe some thoughts on SharePoint, or perhaps a bit about the people using Acrobat.com…who are all these people, anyway? For future updates you can follow me on Twitter @erikdlarson.