February 06, 2014

Think On My Sins: Configurator & the simplification of Adobe tools

I fought the sprawl & the sprawl won.

I always intended to do a long series on what I’ve learned from failures, yet this will be the second & final installment (a bit of a meta-failure). Well, take it for what it’s worth.

In my many years working on Photoshop, I was sort of obsessed with the app’s inexorable growth & complexity. For example, in “Psst–wanna see Photoshop 15?” (Oct. ’05) I talked about the rate at which menu items were getting added. Even if the team somehow found a way to *drop* 60-70 features per release (impossible), we’d only tread water in terms of complexity.

To make real progress, I proposed breaking Photoshop into task-based chunks (for example, showing only photography features when you’re working on photography). Thus you could really feel like the app was made just for you, and that it revealed exactly the right set of features (and tips) just when you needed them.

I didn’t trust Adobe, myself, or any top-down approach to get these chunks exactly right. Instead I proposed letting customers tune the app themselves, building their own workspaces which combined layouts, menu setups, and keyboard shortcuts. Critically, these workspaces could also include custom panels—layouts that you could Lego together to fit your exact needs.

Enter Adobe Configurator. It offered a simple set of building blocks, letting you mix together a custom panel from any combo of Photoshop tools & menu commands you’d like. I never expected most users to invest the time—maybe 1 in 100 would, I figured—but I hoped that a small number of thoughtful, motivated users (the sort I once was) would create & distribute stuff for everyone else.

So, what happened?

  • Configurator gained a couple hundred thousand downloads—pretty great for a nerdy utility posted to Adobe Labs.
  • Some authors like Vincent Versace created & distributed custom panels.
  • The Photoshop team make Configurator much more powerful & used it to create the Knowledge panel for CS5. When you’d click a particular workspace (e.g. 3D), you’d then get a grouping of relevant tools plus interactive How-To content. It was pretty damn cool, if I may say so.
  • Most people didn’t do much of anything, however.

What went wrong? What can we learn?

  • Sharing custom panels was far too hard. (I won’t describe all the onerous steps for packaging, decompressing, etc.)
  • The Knowledge panel didn’t ship in the box with CS5 (the whole 64-bit/Cocoa transition was dicey enough that we had to cut it at the last minute), and the team never included it later. People didn’t care about in-app help, at least to anything approaching the degreed I’d hoped.
  • In making Configurator support this sophisticated use case (i.e. “eating our own dog food”), it became complex & intimidating, when it should have erred on the side of simple on-boarding.
  • Ultimately, the whole problem reminds me of dogs chasing cars: What would they do if they caught one? That is, everyone likes to bitch that apps are too complicated, but when you give them the chance to streamline & reorganize the UI to their tastes, they don’t know what they’d do differently, or they just don’t care to bother.

Could things change? Perhaps:

  • The “settings sync” feature introduced in CC could morph into settings sharing, letting me make what’s mine yours & vice versa. (Example: I go see Michael Ninness teach “Photoshop for Web Design.” I type “ninness” into my copy of Photoshop, see Michael’s custom workspace (including Configurator-style custom panels that present tools with context), hit “ok,” and have it all on my system, period.
  • Adobe could create a Tumblr-simple publishing system for people to share their interactive how-to content, making it appear right within CC apps. (I naively thought that authors would see Configurator’s ability to include HTML views & immediately start populating them. I came to realize that traditional authors are used to writing a manuscript, sending it off, and receiving cash—no futzing with the mechanics of printing & distribution.)

Ultimately my whole obsession may have been a fool’s errand. You don’t turn an apple into an orange; you just make new oranges. Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, etc.—maybe they just are what they are (the ultimate in power and control rather than approachability), and nothing will or should change that. Instead Adobe should build fresh new tools that complement, rather than seek to replace, these powerhouses.

At this point the future belongs to you & to the teams at Adobe. If this stuff is important to you, please let them know what you need & want, and why.

Thanks for reading,
J. 

Posted by John Nack at 10:25 PM on February 06, 2014
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