November 05, 2007

Photoshop, as seen through Johnny Cash

In One Piece At a Time*, Johnny Cash tells the story of building a Cadillac from 20 years’ worth of evolving, mismatched parts.  I’ve gotta say, I know the feeling.

Photoshop has been accreting power & users for the better part of two decades.  The once-little app has proven almost endlessly adaptable to new needs and workflows, but all that morphing has a price.  In many cases we’ve traded simplicity for power, and not all the pieces look like part of a cohesive whole.  In fact, I sometimes joke that looking at some parts of the app is like counting the rings in a tree: you can gauge when certain features arrived by the dimensions & style of the dialog.  (Cue old-timey prospector voice: "Oh, Lighting Effects–you can see the scorch marks from the great fire of ’43…")

This isn’t exactly a news flash–far from it.  So, the question is, What exactly are we gonna do about it?  No one wants to work with–or work on–some shambling, bloated monster of a program.

The good news is that we’ve been plotting the solutions for a number of years, chipping away at the problem.  Good stuff comes to the surface in bits and pieces, but we haven’t quite turned the corner–yet.  A few thoughts:

  • We must make Photoshop "everything you need, nothing you don’t."   Presenting the same user experience to a photographer as we do to a radiologist, as to a Web designer, as to a prepress guy, is kind of absurd.  The new ability for users to choose between Photoshop & Photoshop Extended helps somewhat, but it’s just one step.
  • With this goal in mind, we must make Photoshop dramatically more configurable.  We’ve been chipping away for several cycles, enabling first workspaces, then customizable menus & shortcuts.  We need to be much bolder, though, and I’ve been dropping totally unsubtle hints about this for ages.
  • I don’t expect most users to customize the app–nor should they have to do so.  Rather, I expect the power users–authors and experts, you and I–to tune the app to taste, then share our knowledge.  Let people solve their own problems, then share the solutions.
  • With the power of customizability, we can present solutions via task-oriented workspaces.  Today if a user walks up to Photoshop and says, "What do I do?," the app kind of shrugs, stubs out a cigarette, and says, "I dunno–you tell me."  That’s not real cool, and we can do better.
  • By leading people to best practices, we can start deprecating (and later removing) outmoded functionality. ("A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left
    to add, but when there is nothing left to take away," said Antoine de Saint-Exupery.)  
  • Meanwhile we’ll put energy into simply polishing what’s already present.  (Refine Edge is a good example from CS3.)

So, why am I telling you all this, and why do I think it’s worth reading?  I’m saying it because although we can’t (and probably shouldn’t) turn the whole battleship (or Caddy, if you like) on a dime, we get the need, and we’re on the case.  We’ve been toiling away beneath the surface, setting the groundwork for change.  There are no magic bullets, but I feel that for the first time in my 5+ years working on this team, we’re within striking distance of some big things–and everyone reading this will play a role in making things better. Just thought you should know. :-)

In the meantime, as we fight for each little gain, I’m reminded of a quote from Edmund Burke: "Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little."

[Update: I’ve posted some clarifications & responses here.]

*Lyrics, plus Johnny in a kind of Benny Hill-esque video for the song.  Thanks to our friend George Reis for drawing the comparison.

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