May 07, 2009

Innovation vs. Affirmation

Nothing groundbreaking here, just an anecdote & observation.

Yesterday I bumped into Bill Hensler, Adobe’s VP of engineering for video products, and somehow conversation turned to his time as a Motorola intern back in the ’80s–back before even Gordon Gekko was rockin’ a mobile phone. “We did a lot of focus group research,” said Bill. “You know who wanted a mobile phone back then? Nobody. People would say, ‘Why would I want to be interrupted at a restaurant or a ball game? It’s bad enough when people call during dinner.'”

It’s easy to want customers to gift-wrap directions, and Adobe certainly puts rigor into its data-gathering process. (For example, teams go on the road & present customers with a list of potential features, then ask them to stack-rank the ideas, allocate $100 of engineering effort among them, etc.). That approach helps affirm one’s next couple of steps, but it’s obviously not a recipe for bold leaps. (“If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse,” noted Henry Ford.)

I mention this as someone who’s been advancing a few “crazy” ideas for some time, often to the sound of crickets. Sometimes, though, you’ve gotta say, “They’ll like us when we win.”

Posted by John Nack at 10:42 AM on May 07, 2009

Comments

  • Mark Thomas — 12:06 PM on May 07, 2009

    The original Mac GUI team learned early on that it’s a mistake to ask users what they want. They don’t know what they want. Give them what they need.
    Even the Stones knew this.

  • bill — 12:12 PM on May 07, 2009

    This is a good space for “labs” groups. Build working prototypes of weird things, etc., release it into the wild, then see what happens. Some business rationale for what you’re doing is important, but innovation requires bold steps in unexpected directions.
    Regardless of tight R&D budgets, i’d like to see more of this.
    [Me too, and that's one reason I've pushed so hard & for so long to enable rapid extensibility of the Creative Suite via Configurator, Flash Panels, etc. Dramatically lowering the barrier to entry makes it much easier for Adobe & many others to experiment. --J.]

  • Rich Morey — 12:39 PM on May 07, 2009

    I’m always happy to share my opinion (solicited or not!) about Adobe software if anyone wants it.

  • Steve Forde — 1:41 PM on May 07, 2009

    Keep pushing it John. As a fan of both you and Bill H – the idea mill is definitely not dry, and you both have a good ‘gut’ instinct for things. ;)
    Steve
    GridIron Software Inc.

  • Klaus Nordby — 3:13 PM on May 07, 2009

    I read you, dude. Back when I was a graphic designer/commercial artists, I used to tell my clients my corporate slogan: “The customer is always . . . WRONG.”

  • BJN — 3:20 PM on May 07, 2009

    Still don’t want to be interrupted at a restaurant, ball game, or nearly anywhere else. I really like the sound of crickets.
    Product visionaries aren’t necessarily so hot at envisioning what we want/need either. Witness a handful of discards that come to mind:
    Kinkos ordering via Acrobat.
    Adobe Stock Photos.
    Livemotion (despite a superior interface to Flash).
    Adobe Atmosphere.
    I think you pretty much have to take your best shot and see if anyone out here responds. And your best shot should include input from your potential customer.

  • Edward Caruso — 3:32 PM on May 07, 2009

    This is why we have the adjustment panel thrust upon us? Without an option for the modal windows. Users don’t know what we need?
    [People certainly don't see the big picture, nor would I expect them to see it if they weren't paid to think about the future of Photoshop. When people understand where things are going, they stop asking to go backwards & start providing concrete feedback on how to move forward. --J.]
    Sorry for the sarcasm, I just dislike that panel like a lot of others.
    [New rule, please: No one gets to complain about the Adjustments panel without supplying specific details & saying what, exactly, they'd do to change it. --J.]

  • Mark Thomas — 4:17 PM on May 07, 2009

    Since I’ve been up to my bloodshot eyeballs in Lightroom today, I’d like to take this opportunity to mention just how poorly Lightroom’s white balance numeric entry field behaves. The first usability mistake it makes is that it starts to change the white balance in real time as you’re entering a value so that if you hesitate a millisecond while typing, say, “5250” it will like as not apply a white balance of “52” right before your already-fatigued eyes, thus blasting your retina with the blue fire of Jesus which not only temporarily blinds you, but also destroys your color perception for a few seconds. The second usability mistake it makes is that if you then quickly enter the rest of the number, like as not it will ignore what you’ve typed and default back to 2000. The fact that this behavior has persisted through multiple revisions makes me doubt whether the Lightroom team ever tests numeric entry at all, being content to just drag the little slider around all day and consider it good.

  • Eric Peacock — 6:31 PM on May 07, 2009

    What we need is always welcome.
    I still don’t feel that Adobe Media Player or things like Adobe Stock Photos or Start Meeting are features I needed installed by default.
    Bridge Stock Photos was a huge WTF since Adobes first attempt to sell photos failed long before Bridge. We still have a couple of original Adobe Stock photo CDs in our archives so I can’t forget that.
    Configurator makes sense though, it’s optional and built to be an experiment. It’s less likely to fail because it’s not forced on users in the same way. It’s about options.
    Still, I’m wary of the clunkyness that appears to have washed over the entire suite, so watch out when pushing those Flash interfaces until things are polished up.

  • Justin Putney — 7:40 PM on May 07, 2009

    Don’t stop with the ‘crazy’ ideas, John.

  • Adam — 6:34 AM on May 08, 2009

    Go with your vision John, and try to ignore all of the non-constructive/bordering on abusive commenters. Love your blog and contribution.
    Commerce or not, I think the world would be a better place without cell phones.

  • Landon Knauss — 6:57 AM on May 08, 2009

    Ford did give people a faster horse; it was just made of metal. Sometimes it’s just a matter of seeing unconventional solutions to conventional problems.
    Frankly I love the idea of public betas, labs, and the opportunity to speak with engineers.
    I loved what LiveMotion did as a UI for Flash authoring — though it was woefully underpowered I could jump right in and make basic flash animations with little learning curve. And I can’t tell you how often I wished I could mash AE and Flash together.
    [Heh--it was exactly that vision that drew me to work at Adobe. I joined the LiveMotion team for version 2. I think we accomplished a lot of cool stuff, but I agree that the app was underpowered, too. I always think that if we'd stayed alive long enough to do a 2.5 release, we would've started cooking with gas. Ah well; now I just try to influence the Flash team. --J.]
    Bridge is still a sore spot for me though. It always seemed a solution in need of a problem. So much of the functionality of the Web Galleries was lost in Bridge that I revert to older versions of photoshop to get the job done (it can’t process subfolders?).
    [A) You can use the WPG plug-in in CS4. B) You can tell Bridge to show files from subfolders, then select those and go to town. --J.]
    Ultimately if feels to me like Bridge is an alpha version of what will be the Adobe build-you-own app using configurator tools that include function modules from your full line. That’s a much more interesting program.

  • Steven Greenfield — 7:27 AM on May 08, 2009

    John,
    I love the idea of the Configurator. Anytime, you give a bunch of people the freedom to experiment you are going to get lots of ideas. Most of those ideas are garbage but every so often the experimentation produces something that is wonderful. Keep up the good work and continue to provide additional ways for experimentation.
    By the way, I found this interesting story on the web (http://www.storyphoto.com/multimedia/multimedia_photoshop.html). It discusses the Knoll brothers who had an idea in the late eighties about an image processing program. The article states, “many of the Silicon Valley companies that John (Knoll) approached were cool to the idea of their image manipulation program.”
    They kept at it and found Adobe.

  • Darin Warling — 7:31 AM on May 08, 2009

    @Mark Thomas: Here here! You generated my first laugh of the morning. Numeric value entries in Lightroom drive me nuts for exactly the reasons you described.

  • Joe Colson — 8:30 AM on May 08, 2009

    Like Bill Hensler, I remember the time preceding the introduction of cellular telephony, and was a member of the Bell Labs team working as a partner with Motorola then. When we launched the first cellular system in the US (in Chicago) in 1983, the popular opinion was, “Why would anyone want to have a phone in his car?” In a few months, Radio Shack was selling fake car phones for cellular wannabees. I knew then that we had a hit on our hands. Breakthroughs, discoveries and technological home runs don’t come from focus groups. They come from crazy ideas. Keep ‘em coming John (and Adobe).
    [Thanks for the perspective & support, Joe. --J.]

  • imajes — 8:47 AM on May 08, 2009

    Mark Thomas wrote “The original Mac GUI team learned early on that it’s a mistake to ask users what they want. They don’t know what they want. Give them what they need.”
    That simply doesn’t work as there are so many differnt needs and some of the users may actually be smarter than the developers as they are end users/experts in their fields, not software coders and may know way more about what is needed in the real world.
    So much design generally, not just software is so obviously done by someone who never has and never will use what they are designing.
    To be specific on Apple as you cite them, I use a Mac Pro but need a small laptop for professional photographic work whilst travelling. The only current option is a 17″ teatray. Not what I or many other want or need.
    ["Teatray"--heh. I do like my 'tray, though (my third 17" Mac portable in a row), just not when the guy in the airplane seat ahead of me decides to lean back... --J.]
    Ironic that you reference the company that thinks the useless and dreadfully clumsy Finder is an acceptable File Manager, as knowing what they are doing!?

  • Geoff Scott — 11:08 AM on May 08, 2009

    Innovation is important and needs to continually be part of development. Part of the price of trying something new is failure. Not every new idea will succeed. That is simply part of the process.
    Both customers AND businesses need to be more tolerant of failed ideas. Some of the best products come from the ashes of things that did not succeed. Anyone remember the Lisa?
    Keep pushing John. You have great ideas. I know it takes a lot of work, but your successes have been worth your failures.
    Have fun.

  • tunghoy — 12:00 PM on May 08, 2009

    My perspective as a web developer and software trainer is that Adobe is good at something Microsoft definitely is not: recognizing the needs of power users, not just newbies.
    M$ tries sooooo hard to ingratiate itself with inexperienced users that the training wheels don’t come off and they act more like shackles.
    Adobe isn’t perfect (see my comment a few days ago about Bridge), but for the most part, the developers do a good job of making sure these are serious tools for serious users.

  • Mark Thomas — 12:26 PM on May 08, 2009

    Ironic that you reference the company that thinks the useless and dreadfully clumsy Finder is an acceptable File Manager, as knowing what they are doing!?
    I don’t think Apple thinks the Finder is an acceptable file manager. It seems to me that Apple has been deliberately phasing the Finder out, opting instead to write apps which manage their own files, e.g iPhoto, iTunes, Aperture, Mail etc. If you ask a user if he wants the Finder to not suck, he’ll scream “YES!” but in reality we just want to be able to find our emails or our photos and to not be burdened with keeping them arranged. Who wants to use the Finder to keep their email organized? That would be insanity even if the Finder were awesome, because the Finder can never be better than a genreal purpose tool anyway, while Mail can be, and is, specialized to the task.
    Basically, the Finder is becoming irrelevant.

  • Martin Briley — 1:48 PM on May 10, 2009

    “teams go on the road & present customers with a list of potential features, then ask them to stack-rank the ideas, allocate $100 of engineering effort among them, etc.”
    This is a poor approach to determining customer requirements. Instead of giving customers a grocery list of features to pick from, you need to ask them what they use the software for, what they WANT to use it for, what problems they face, and what they like better about competing products.
    Companies take the lazy way out with the grocery-list approach, because it takes time and skill to create a real questionnaire.
    [Just curious, Martin: Where did you get the impression that the technique I mentioned is the only one we use, or that it's used to the exclusion of other approaches (e.g. the one you describe)? I used "e.g." as shorthand that indicates "for example"--as in, one of many useful tools in the arsenal. --J.]

  • imajes — 5:03 AM on May 13, 2009

    “Basically, the Finder is becoming irrelevant.”
    Only to people who don’t value their data long term and never ever want to change software. Another view of Apple phasing out Finder is that Apple are being sneaky in trapping you into their software.
    Good file mamagement should be done with file managers and then databse application can parse them and offer their advantages. The problem with database organisation is that you are then very often stuck with that programme/OS for ever. I file my images/music in ways that make perfect sense to all software, all OSs and humans too. I use both platforms and various programmes to access my data. So database only filing is useless there. particularly as the vast majority of programmes need to look through folders/files to open/save/export etc.
    Plus file mangers are better at some things than Databses and vice versa.
    A lot of people are going to be stuffed in years to come when they have to untangle the mess that databases like iPhoto leave files in. It not as if you can rely on ‘standards’ being standard.
    Though ironically LR is very good at untangling such messes than iPhoto makes of your files, into a File manager/human friendly folder structure.
    John, I caved in and bought a Mac Tea Tray, which dwarves my cute 13″ laptop, which also has a much better keyboard than the monster.
    [Ah, but if you're like me, you'll keep stroking that sweet unibody metal in an almost creepy way. And in any event, the machine will keep you warm (albeit for 3 hours, not "8"). --J.]

  • imajes — 10:43 AM on May 13, 2009

    “That would be insanity even if the Finder were awesome, because the Finder can never be better than a genreal purpose tool anyway, while Mail can be, and is, specialized to the task.”
    Obviously you’ve never uaed a good File Browser as they are very powerful and very useful time saving tools. And are just as focused as say Mail is, but the focus is File Management as they don’t do anything else, so hardly general purpose.
    Br is a very poweful programme and is a File Browser, Directory Opus is not only the best File Manager [sadly Win only],but quite possibly the best [designed] programme I’ve ever used. It saves me sooooooooo much time compared to Finder or even Path Finder whch I use on the Mac.

  • imajes — 12:16 PM on May 13, 2009

    [Ah, but if you're like me, you'll keep stroking that sweet unibody metal in an almost creepy way. And in any event, the machine will keep you warm (albeit for 3 hours, not "8"). --J.]
    My girlfriend sits with her legs out straight when using laptop and the cats like to claim their spot on her lower extremities. With pole position being with feline head pressed flush against fan outlet and legs under warm laptop.
    I have so many hard drives and things plugged in, in my office, I don’t need heating on even in Winter! That’s UK Winter not Canadian Winter.

  • Martin Briley — 11:55 PM on November 22, 2009

    “Where did you get the impression that the technique I mentioned is the only one we use”
    Where did I say that it was?

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