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,
October 09, 2013
Mock executions, Notre Dame football, and “I’ll see you in hell”: My path to Adobe
“And you may ask yourself, Well, how did I get here…?”
And if you ask me, the answer will sound much like this podcast I did with Marc Edwards, Rene Ritchie, and Seth Clifford. I enjoyed wildly digressing with these guys about my semi-bizarre path to this gig, the challenges of building Photoshop & new apps, and more. I hope you enjoy it, too. Towards the end I talk about the possible mobile future of Photoshop & Lightroom.
July 01, 2013
On the NY Times, Nick Bilton talks about photographs becoming a ubiquitous, disposable form of communication:
Photos, once slices of a moment in the past — sunsets, meetings with friends, the family vacation — are fast becoming an entirely new type of dialogue. The cutting-edge crowd is learning that communicating with a simple image, be it a picture of what’s for dinner or a street sign that slyly indicates to a friend, “Hey, I’m waiting for you,” is easier than bothering with words, even in a world of hyper-abbreviated Twitter posts and texts.
Apparently text messaging is in (slight) decline, while SnapChat (y’know, self-destructing junk shots for the kids) is reputedly worth $800+ million. This is the part where Old Man Nack officially feels he has no idea what’s going on.
There’s got to be some great Orwell quote about losing the language to make sense of experiences, but, eh, who wants to read all that?
Elsewhere Dave Pell muses about how imaging can separate us from experiences:
We’ve ceded many of our remembering duties (birthdays, schedules, phone numbers, directions) to a hard drive in the cloud. And to a large extent, we’ve now handed over our memories of experiences to digital cameras. [...]
We no longer take any time to create an internal memory of an event or an experience before seeing, filtering, and sharing a digital version of it. We remember the photo, not the moment.
In a world of social media, we can all exist in a droll, above-it-all sugary crust (like Seinfeld talking about how in a cab, everything on the other side of the plexiglass, no matter how dangerous, is amusing & unreal). It’s a good time to remember that Facebook likes, like design, won’t save the world…
June 21, 2013
Steve Jobs & sedimentary layers
I love this short reflection from Steve Jobs, reflecting on technology, impermanence, and legacy.
It’s funny to hear him describe the Mac as being on its way out in 1994. By returning to Apple he invalidated his own prediction, and now at WWDC we hear Apple talking about a naming scheme for OS X for the next ten years. Funny old world. [Via]
April 08, 2013
What principles guide your designs?
Upon joining Adobe our designer Dave pinned up a simple list of five rules. We consult them frequently while crafting our new app:
As you may well know, it’s much easier to meet some of these qualities while sacrificing the others than to maximize and balance them. We’ve already killed off a number of concepts that fell into the “Pepsi Challenge” trap (very appealing at first, but quickly cloying). But hey, if this stuff were all easy, it wouldn’t be fun, and they wouldn’t need to pay us to do it.
April 04, 2013
Principles of simplicity
Once you skip past the hand-wringing & platitudes, Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn have some interesting things to say:
Complexity is the coward’s way out. But there is nothing simple about simplicity, and achieving it requires following three major principles: empathizing (by perceiving others’ needs and expectations), distilling (by reducing to its essence the substance of one’s offer) and clarifying (by making the offering easier to understand or use).
It’s interesting to hear that Trader Joe’s curates their selection, offering 1/10th the product diversity of other supermarkets (though that still means 4,000 different items for sale) and produces twice the revenue per square foot as Whole Paycheck. Such an approach has worked wonders for Paper in beating back the paradox of choice. [Via Dave Howe]
March 20, 2013
“Instagram Is Too Hard”
Seriously? I must politely say that if you’re not willing to take a few seconds to think about improving your image & possibly giving it a caption, I likely don’t need to see it.
I don’t accept that simply maximizing active use, consumption, etc. is an unquestionable good. (That’s how cancers operate.) You want quality, and if Instagram further reduced friction (e.g. by enabling batch upload from desktop apps), it would turn into an unwashed Facebook stream.
Instagram makes me a better photographer in that it induces me to slow down just a tiny bit & try to craft an image/caption pair that my audience will like (literally). It’s an incredibly simple form of gamification, and dang if it doesn’t work.
February 07, 2013
Of drills & holes
While building new apps I keep thinking of the quote attributed to the CEO of Black & Decker: “People don’t buy our tools because they want one-inch drills. They buy them because they want one-inch holes.”
As technologists we think about the guts of things, but customers often favor the simpler thing (Twitter, Mac OS Spotlight) over the more conceptually powerful one (Google Wave, WinFS). My career’s full of this: advocating general, interesting stuff (e.g. HTML layers for Photoshop) only to get pantsed by simpler approaches (just tweaks to the existing PS vector tools).
I’ve heard that Amazon starts projects by writing a press release of what features the user will see, then working backwards to check that they’re building something valuable. We’d do well to do the same. As Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
August 15, 2012
A Rather Magnificent Seven
Seven years, 3,395 posts, 27,286 comments… It’s been quite a ride since I started blogging here seven years ago today. The blog has been a terrific way to share ideas, engage with customers, wrestle tough issues, and occasionally start (well-intentioned) trouble. Thanks so much for reading, writing, and even ranting. I couldn’t do it, and wouldn’t do it, without you.
Have I learned anything interesting along the way? Nothing too profound, I think: Love it, or don’t bother faking. Respect your readers’ time & attention, rewarding steady visits while omitting anything you wouldn’t want to read. Be loyal to them & they just might return the favor. Don’t try to be a kamikaze social media hero over weekends & holidays, unless you absolutely must. Remember that your writing, even your comments, lives forever, and someday someone (let’s say a lawyer) might present you with an inch-thick printout (flattering!). Like I say, you’d better love it. But remember, too, how insanely lucky we are to have the time & tools to connect like this, and hopefully to illuminate one another’s lives just a bit.
Thanks again, and please keep those cards & letters coming,
[From the archives: Turning 1,000]
August 02, 2012
Thank God “E.T.” sucked
The stars aligned Monday, and two of my favorite creative people, Russell Brown & Panic founder Cabel Sasser, got to meet. Cabel (who commissioned Panic’s awesome homage to 1982-style video game art) was in town for a classic games show, and as we passed Russell’s office, I pointed out the cutout display for Atari’s notorious 1982 video game “E.T.” Russell had worked at Atari back then, and I rather gingerly asked, “Uh, didn’t that game kinda suck?”
“Oh yes!” said Russell–and thank goodness it did: if it hadn’t, Russell (and hundreds of others) wouldn’t have gotten laid off, and he wouldn’t have gone to Apple (where he met his future wife) and from there gone to “this little startup called ‘Adobe.’”
If that hadn’t happened, he wouldn’t have snatched my neck off the chopping block in ’02: I was days from being laid off post-LiveMotion, and it’s because Russell saw my “farewell” demo at his ADIM conference that he called the execs to say, “Really–we’re canning this guy…?” And, of course, had that not happened, I likely wouldn’t have met Cabel, wouldn’t have been introducing him & Russell, wouldn’t be talking to you now.
Of course, we joked, if it weren’t for the three of us talking just then, we’d be off experiencing some wonderful life-changing strokes of serendipity right now–but so it goes. :-)
May 28, 2012
A thought on persuasion
Note to self: More Demosthenes, please.
In 1983, advertising pioneer David Ogilvy summarized his mission as follows: “I do not regard advertising as entertainment or an art form, but as a medium of information. When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative.’ I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product. When Aeschines spoke, they said, ‘How well he speaks.’ But when Demosthenes spoke, they said, ‘Let us march against Philip’.”
April 16, 2012
Would you go to the “design gym” with me?
I’m a sucker for companionship & social pressure. I used to hit the gym several times a week with a friend, and our friendly competition left me strong & feeling great. Then he moved away and I’ve largely turned into a wad of cookie dough.
Lots of apps & services exist to help to help people stay honest & to support one another’s diet & exercise. (Peer pressure can be a wonderful thing.) Meanwhile I’ve seen years of advice that designers should commit to making something new every day, I haven’t yet seen one that
- pings you with a daily (or weekly, etc.) challenge
- provides assets or a theme to build upon
- lets you see & comment on others’ work
- provides a rewards system (highest rank, possibly prizes, etc.)
So, hypothetically, let’s say Photoshop Touch said “Today’s 5-minute challenge: Create the most interesting thing you can using just these elements…,” let you upload your work, and then vote on others’ creations. Would you do it? I think you might–but only if the rewards were enticing enough. It’s like brushing your teeth, doing sit-ups, etc.: you make things part of your routine if they make you stronger, fitter, richer. Could we help you practice your skills & become those things?
February 17, 2012
Reflections on Guatemala (or, What’s In A Pen?)
“I didn’t expect a road-to-Damascus, life-changing snap,” I told a fellow volunteer on my last morning in the country. “I didn’t expect it–but I guess one can always hope…”
The phrase “cognitive dissonance” keeps coming to mind: How does one work half days in an orphanage full of kids lacking toilet paper & teeth, then cruise off to swim in waterfalls with 18-year-old girls? None of it makes a great deal of sense. Much in our world doesn’t.
What follows is a lumpy mixture of the life-affirming, the very sad, and mostly the totally banal.
November 08, 2011
Thought of the day
“When the oak is felled the whole forest echoes with its fall, but a hundred acorns are sown in silence by an unnoticed breeze.” -Thomas Carlyle, historian and essayist (1795-1881)
One hopes, anyway.
October 06, 2011
Dreams deferred, and realized.
I dreamt all last night, as I have many previous nights, about hanging out with Steve Jobs. As usual it was fascinating, combative, funny, and enlightening. As usual I wish I could remember more details. And as usual, I woke up, and it was just a dream.
I never did get to meet Steve. I’d see him in the grocery store or at a conference, but I never wanted to bother him. I thought I might meet him at the D3 conference, but no joy, and I made this little self-deprecating graphic to amuse my wife & friend (click to enlarge):
So it goes.
To all us perfectionists–would-be “unreasonable men”–Steve’s example was a beacon: it said that sweating “the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill ” would matter. People would care.
When OS X 10.4 was announced, some Mac engineers visited Adobe to show the new features. One pointed at Dashboard’s analog-style clock: “Do you have any idea how hard it was,” he asked, “to make the quartz movement of the second hand measure up to Steve’s standard??”
Ironically, it was Steve’s example that caused me to pass on joining Apple. Back in ’06 Intel-based Macs had just shipped, and Mac customers were stuck with Photoshop running slowly in emulation mode. I spent all summer waging a crazy, unreasonable battle to launch the first (and so far only) public beta of Photoshop, bringing native performance to hundreds of thousands of Mac customers six months earlier than we could have otherwise. Yeah, working at Apple sounded great, but nothing was more important than seeing our mission through. The Photoshop team was willing to be crazy ones, and I couldn’t walk away from them. It remains my proudest achievement here.
I’ll close with the one mail I ever got from Steve. During the whole Flash/iPad controversy last year, many at Adobe questioned the wisdom of building iPad apps, or whether we’d even be allowed to ship them. I opted to bypass the bureaucracy & just ask the man himself. He replied,
“We’d love some kick-ass Adobe apps on the iPad… Hope this helps.”
It very much did, and I promised we would. The best tribute, the best thank-you I can devise for a great creator is to go out and create.
And so, back to that work.
June 06, 2011
What I’m hoping for most in iOS 5
Why do apps get bloated & inconsistent*, and what can we do about it?
I asked myself these questions a million times working on Photoshop, often aloud. I’ve proposed choosing dramatically better integration over ever-greater depth, but with established apps the progress is slow, for many reasons**.
Since moving over to building mobile apps, I’ve been thinking more intensely about “small pieces loosely joined,” about the eternal appeal of small, well-crafted bits of functionality being assembled as needed to fit any workflow. Remember the promise of OpenDoc? Despite all its well documented faults, I still love the idea of assembling a dream team of little parts, each the best in its class for doing what I need.
In many ways this is what the app store model encourages. Photographers in particular often assemble dozens of apps (e.g. several for filtering, one for selective coloring, one for tilt-shift, one for social sharing, etc.), then bounce among them to achieve desired results.
It’s great that we can do this, but the workflow often kind of sucks: Why should I have to keep saving a file, switching apps, navigating back to the same file (or rather, a new derivative copy), opening, adjusting, saving, switching… Plus you can forget about exchanging interesting data like layers & selections: everything’s dumbed down to a flat bitmap.
Poor integration leads to bloated apps: if jumping among apps/modules is slow, customers gravitate towards all-in-one tools that offer more overall efficiency, even if the individual pieces are lacking.
Here’s an example: Do you use Instagram? If so, would you say it’s the best filtering app on your phone? It’s the simplest, maybe, but certainly not the most powerful, flexible, or expressive. Yet how often do you take the time to jump to other apps, apply filters, save them, then go to Instagram to share the results? Most people would prefer to skip all the jumping around, so there’s inevitable pressure on Instagram to add more features***–wrecking its simplicity & getting into an arms race with thousands of other apps.
What if instead you could jump from the Instagram filters list into any app that registered as a filtering tool? And, rather than this feeling like a jarring app switch, what if it felt like entering a mode of the host app? Upon completing the filter (or canceling), you’d pop right back to where you were in Instagram.
Why did Photoshop 1.0 succeed? It offered excellent (and focused) core functionality, plus a simple extensibility system that enabled efficient flexibility (running a filter brought no need to save, navigate, re-open, etc.). The core app could remain relatively simple while aftermarket tuners tailored it to specific customer needs.
Even such a humble system can still offer a way out of the current impasse. Android offers “intents” by which developers can register & call functionality (e.g. “I’m an image editor; pass me some pixels & I’ll pass you back new ones”). That’s a solid start, and I’m hoping the OSes one-up each other with their integration hooks.
* Hint: It’s not “Adobe sucks” or “developers suck” or “marketers rule”; it’s that all of us users demand just one more “wafer-thin feature” feature in each app, because having it there beats jumping among apps.
**Taking great care not to blow up customer workflows being key among them.
***I see you there, me-too tilt-shift generator.
March 11, 2011
The challenge of “How” vs. “What”
“If you told me ‘I’m gonna smear mayo & green stuff all over your fish,’” said Craig Kilborn in an old bit, “I’d probably say ‘No thanks’… but tartar sauce, you make it work.”
Similarly, if you’d asked me last fall, “Hey, do you want an underpowered camera app (one in which you lose features like zoom), a handful of non-adjustable filters, oh, and Yet Another Social Network where you need to locate friends?,” I’d have dutifully asked to see your crack pipe.
And yet I found myself in Germany, sans cell coverage, really missing Instagram. What?
The app has hooked me with its simplicity & the thoughtfulness of its social media integration. It ties creation together with social rewards (“Russell liked my photo! I exist!“), and canned filters share an appeal with Flip cameras: they save me from the temptation of futzing around.
All this comes through while using the app, but it’s hard to convey on paper.
It’s hard, at a glance, to pick up on the novelty/appeal of “how” (doing the same thing differently) as opposed to “what” (doing something different). Put another way, it’s often easier to say, “This app does New Thing X that you’ve never done before” than to say, “Do what you’ve already been doing (and maybe switch away from your current tools), but in a better way.”
Before it was announced, Lightroom suffered from this problem for years*. Potential customers & Adobe staff alike said, “I already have Photoshop, which includes Bridge & Camera Raw, and you’re saying you want me to pay more money to get the same features, minus a bunch?” The power of “how” came through only in use.
I was driven crazy back then when asking pro photographers whether Camera Raw should be integrated directly in Bridge, as it is in Lightroom (which they hadn’t used), instead of living as a big dialog box. I surveyed the most thoughtful, forward-thinking alpha testers we knew. Oh no, they said, it was far more important to do things X, Y, and Z; they direct-vs.-dialog thing was unimportant. Yet as soon as they’d gotten into Lightroom, they came back and said, “Oh, when will ACR be built right into Bridge? That’s really important!” Ugh; you don’t say…
Why do I mention all this? Well, I’ve spent the better part of a year describing interesting concepts for tablet-based creative apps to customers, and it’s been tough to get pre-approval for many (well, besides photo management & client review). That is, we’ll simply have to take some leaps of faith before people can tell us more–and so we shall. And just maybe, like tartar sauce & Instagram, the proof will be in the eating**.
February 05, 2011
“Here’s To The Crazy Ones”
Real innovation is, in case you haven’t noticed, kind of a bitch.
As a product manager I want to provide my team with really solid direction, thinking that there must be shining, slam-dunk use cases that will present themselves, rendering all debate moot. Sometimes that happens; often, though, you’ve got to take some leaps of faith (“skating to where the puck is going to be”). By chance this week I came across a couple of interesting remarks:
The first comes from Steve Hayden, who helped develop Apple’s breakthrough “1984″ commercial:
One of the many agency heads I’ve worked with over the years said, “When it’s great, there’s no debate.” I can’t imagine a more fatuous, false statement. There was plenty of debate around “1984.” It very nearly didn’t run.
The second concerns the creator of the famous James Bond music:
It’s impossible to imagine James Bond without Barry’s music, but apparently it almost happened:
Shortly after this Barry would receive the fateful phone call from Bond producer Harry Saltzman. “I got a phone call from Harry,” recalled Barry in a 2006 article in the Telegraph. “He never used to come down to the recording sessions, and he says: ‘John, that is the worst f*cking song I ever heard in my life. We open in three weeks’ time, otherwise I’d take that f*cking song out of the picture. I’d take it out! Out!’”
It’s not just that people didn’t grasp the concepts up front: it’s that even when presented with finished, ready-to-ship products that were about to become classics, they still didn’t get it.
I offer this simply as encouragement to anyone trying to break new ground. If this work were easy, it’d be boring, and everyone would do it.
January 17, 2011
Why would you *want* to create on a tablet?
You need to take a picture, and I put in front of you a smartphone containing a camera. Next to it I put an excellent dedicated camera–say, a 5D Mark II. Which will you use?
At one time that question would have been absurd: of course you’d use the high-end camera. In many cases that remains true, but increasingly I find myself choosing to use my iPhone instead of my SLR–and not just because it’s handy & the SLR isn’t. I choose the phone because of the slickness, the immediacy of creating (including post-processing), sharing, and getting feedback.
I mention this because I remain deeply interested in building creative tools for tablets, and I see a parallel. Today if you put my iPad next to my MacBook Pro & ask me to create something visual, I’m always going to choose to use the laptop. The precision, the horsepower, the screen size–everything makes it a faster, more satisfying option for me. I rarely use the iPad for creative work, instead doing standard consumer stuff (browsing, email, Netflix, etc.).
But can & should that change? All else being equal (i.e. factoring out size & availability), what would make me want to choose the tablet over the laptop?
I’m frankly uninterested in making a “poor-man’s Photoshop” for tablets. Good thing, too, as customers seem uninterested. We already have Photoshop, and the rationale for putting apps on tablets can’t simply be, “The device is smaller than a laptop.” If you just want a small computer, get a MacBook Air or similarly lightweight device & be happy.
Tablet apps have to be about something else–about a different spirit, a different ethos–to be worth doing. Otherwise it’s just the same stuff dumped onto more feeble hardware. I suspect that transformative apps be more about fun, about speed, and about the unbridled pleasure of creation than what we know today. They’ll certainly take advantage of a tablet’s differentiating hardware (accelerometer, location awareness, and of course multitouch).
I haven’t yet seen the app(s) that’ll make me favor a tablet for creative work–but I know they’re coming. And I’m going to try to be part of flipping that proverbial bit.
Your thoughts are, as always, most welcome.
January 10, 2011
John Gruber made an interesting remark the other day:
“In hindsight, I think the use cases for the original iPad are simplicity and delight.”
This suggests that delight itself (the beautiful execution) is the feature, rather than merely a characteristic of a feature. That is, I buy and use the iPad not to do things I couldn’t otherwise do, but for the pleasure involved in doing those things.
I find this point of view intriguing. It gets at some of what I’ve had in mind for new Adobe mobile apps: that they should be about JOY, about pleasure–more like games, maybe, than very sober, precise desktop tools one associates with Adobe.
In a similar vein, Prerna Gupta, CEO of music startup Khush, writes that Not all Products Need To Be Painkillers:
It’s easy to say today that Twitter solves the problem of dispersed information, or Facebook the problem of dispersed friends. But who thought of these as “pain points” back in 2004? I don’t believe Twitter and Facebook are painkillers. Just ask yourself, Is “acetaminophen” really the drug you feel like you’re on when you’re using Twitter? Or does “methamphetamine” sound more appropriate? [...]
If you focus only on painkillers, you’ll likely miss out on a completely different, and potentially much larger, set of opportunities: those that target pleasure. Pornography, sports and coffee are, for example, three insanely lucrative industries, and each of them sells the promise of pleasure.
Your desktop/laptop already offers pain & pain killers. So, in building new mobile apps, can we focus more on aphrodisiacs? What would you like to see?
December 04, 2010
I Am Fake Hillary
These days I’m reminded of a Saturday Night Live bit from the ’08 campaign, featuring an exchange between Sarah Palin & Hillary Clinton:
Palin: It’s truly amazing, and I think women everywhere can agree, that no matter your politics, it’s time for a woman to make it to the White House!
Clinton: No-o-o-o!! Mine!! It’s supposed to be mine!! I’m sorry, I need to say something. I didn’t want a woman to be President! I wanted to be President, and I just happen to be a woman!
I used to joke that I was largely unemployable, that my skills and ambitions are so specific that I could work at only a handful of companies, on a handful of projects*. Sometimes there’s not much joke to it.
I didn’t come to Adobe because I wanted to “develop software,” or “work in high tech,” or “do product management.” I came here to make Web design software suck less. Everything else–the working in marketing, the moving coast-to-coast three times in two years, the blogging, the whole up-at-dawn pride-swallowing siege–is just a means to that end.
Why do I mention this now? It’s a note to myself as much as anything. I’m not working on mobile software now because I want to work on mobile software per se, or to be trendy or whatever. I’m working on it to solve real, specific problems, and to enable myself & people I care about to express themselves in particular ways.
Would it be better to be broad rather than deep, to be an MBA who’s interested in expanding markets, vertical integration, and “the art of the deal,” instead of an unfrozen caveman Web designer with an obsessive interest in graphics software? I don’t know; maybe I never will.
“To thine own self be true.” I’m working on it.
* The night before a big demo few years ago, I had an anxiety dream in which I was being really obnoxious to my boss. Terribly disappointed in me, she said, “Wow, you were doing so well, and now… I could make one call, and you’d be product managing FrameMaker!” It was an illuminating moment: the deep threat isn’t losing my job, it’s working on something for which I lack passion.
August 03, 2010
Thought o’ the day on features & polish
“People pay for features because it’s easier to justify the expense. People adore polish because it makes the product feel good, and that adoration will carry you farther in the long run than features.”
– Key Photoshop/Lightroom engineer Mark Hamburg
I was drawn to Photoshop–first to use it, and much later to help develop it–because of the high level of fit & finish I saw in the application. I’ve worked on Photoshop not because I think it’s perfect, but because I’m hung up on the imperfections. (Why work on something that’s already perfect?) At root I’m a frustrated, middling Web designer who just wanted the damn software to be better.
November 27, 2009
Photoshop, you’re a tough old bird
How do you change wings on a plane while it’s still flying?
We sometimes feel that way working on Photoshop. It’s essential to keep improving the app, yet with such a rich feature set and so many things baked into customers’ muscle memory, we have to be very wary of breaking workflows. It can be tougher than you’d think.
Last week we were talking about adding a command to Photoshop’s Fill dialog (savvy readers might be able to guess why), and we wanted to assign a unique keyboard shortcut to it. Having ghost-written a version of the Photoshop Power Shortcuts book, I like to think I’m pretty darn knowledgeable on the subject. Yet even I wasn’t aware of all the little nuances & thoughtfulness that went into this old command.
Upon investigating, and just for your reference, here are the Mac shortcuts in play (Windows users swap in Ctrl/Alt as appropriate):
- Delete (alone) = Clear: Fill with transparency for normal layers, or with background color for background layer
- Cmd + Delete = Fill with background color
- Option + Delete = Fill with foreground color
- Option + Cmd + Delete = Fill with history
- Option + Cmd + Delete + Shift = Fill with history and preserve transparency
- Option + Delete + Shift = Fill with foreground and preserve transparency
- Shift + Delete = Open fill dialog with last-used settings
There’s a whole little language at work here:
- Opt means foreground
- Cmd means background
- Adding Shift means preserve transparency
- Opt + Cmd means history
- Therefore all four together = Fill with history and preserve transparency
[Update: Gah--I reversed the roles of Opt & Cmd above; now fixed. Just seeing whether you're paying attention (yeah, that's it).]
Why on earth am I rambling about all this? Tryptophan poisoning? No, just a couple of reasons:
- If nothing else, I thought this list of shortcuts might be handy.
- It’s this kind of fastidious attention to detail that made me delight in Photoshop & After Effects. I remember sitting in an AE class & figuring out the meaning of a couple of modifier keys, then combining them and seeing that, yep, they did just want I expected. My people!, I thought.
- This sort of “intellectual density,” as my friend on AE once called it, is exactly why evolving Photoshop is often hard & necessarily slow:
- First things first, “Do no harm”–or as Stephen Colbert might subtitle it, “Doooon’t [Screw] This Up, America.”
- The rules and connections are often subtle.
- If you come up with a new, elegant solution to something, will you have time to retrofit your innovation to the rest of Photoshop? What about to the rest of the Creative Suite? And all at once, without stomping other well-established conventions? Yeah, good luck with that. So now you must choose: Innovation or Consistency?
We’re not curing cancer here. We’re not sending anyone to the moon, or writing software to keep heart-lung machines pumping. But we do care, an awful lot, about making the most beautiful, complete, cohesive tools possible. And if it weren’t challenging, it probably wouldn’t be fun.
June 12, 2009
Customers & Bullet Holes
In talking with painter James Christensen, Photoshop engineer Jerry Harris picked up an anecdote I found interesting:
During World War II, Allied bomber losses were high, so the powers that be demanded a fix. The engineers set out to eyeball every bomber they could, gathering great statistics for each bullet hole. After a long study they decided to add more armor plating to the areas that had the highest concentrations of holes. A bit after these improved planes were deployed, they received some startling news: more planes were going down than before. At this point I thought, “Did they make them too heavy?”
Then the light bulb went on for someone: they had measured every bullet hole in every plane at their disposal, but they’d failed to realize it was the ones that they did not have access to that mattered. It was the ones that did not return that needed to be scrutinized. They needed to improve the armor in the places that the returning planes had no bullet holes.
Sounds like it might generally relate to product marketing, and user studies: go investigate the customers that don’t return for seconds, i.e. upgrade.
I can’t vouch for the story’s veracity, but the lesson seems sound. This is part of why one needs to listen to customers, but only up to a point: they’ll tell you how to please the customers you have–but not the ones you don’t have.
April 22, 2009
Grand Unified clarification
Thanks for all the feedback on the CS interface ideas I posted Monday. I’m still on the road, so I haven’t yet been able to reply to most comments. I look forward to reviewing them in more depth.
One key point of clarification: I wasn’t suggesting that Adobe try to merge the applications into one behemoth. In fact, I specifically said that’s a total non-starter. Why a number of people wrote in to then say, “Oh my God, don’t merge the apps into a behemoth” is kind of puzzling.
Some other points:
- I’m also not sure why a few folks said (paraphrasing), “You should only make the individual apps better, and then (when you’re done with that) worry about integration.” Of course, there’s no such thing as “being done” improving the individual tools, and there’s no excuse for putting integration improvements on hold.
- Philip Kerman wrote, “Look at what software people really love… it’s the awesome fast apps that do one thing and do that one thing very well.” Wasn’t I just saying that instead of building further redundancy into various Adobe tools, we should focus on making each one great at what it does, and on making them all function as an integrated whole? That to me is is the antidote to bloat.
- Adobe apps are being developed in more modular ways. The Flash panel extensibility that got wide adoption in CS4 hints at a future where modular features can be written once, then dropped into multiple apps.
- The Adobe video applications (After Effects, Premiere Pro, Encore DVD, Soundbooth) can already share screen content via Dynamic Link. That is, you can do things like send an AE comp to Premiere (or a Premiere sequence to AE) without rendering, with the data changing live in one app as it’s updated in the other. Isn’t that better than stuffing lots of each app into the other (adding overhead and inconsistency)?
- As you’d imagine, my ideas around app integration are closely tied to my ideas about Configurator & customizability. I believe that each Adobe app should present solutions via task-oriented workspaces, and I believe that each app should itself be a workspace of the greater Creative Suite. You’d effectively be able to pick the parts of the Suite app you’d want for any given project, and within each app you’d pull up just the components needed for the task at hand. (For example, Photoshop would be the pixel-editing workspace of the Suite, and within PS there’d be workspaces geared towards sub-tasks (e.g. color correction).) I’ll try to elaborate on this when time permits.
- Aiming high doesn’t mean forgetting the small stuff. When I started on Photoshop, PS7 had just shipped. The two biggest applause grabbers were the Healing Brush (crazy Buck Rogers image science) and being able to rename a layer inline in the Layers palette (a completely humble change, one that saved literally zero clicks, but one that just felt totally right). Apps have to deliver both the sizzle and the steak, and we’re working harder than ever on both.
I don’t claim to have any magic bullets here, nor do I claim that any of this would be easy. I don’t accept, however, that “good enough is good enough.” How is developing the Creative Suite going to be interesting for the next 5 years, the next 10? Taking only little steps, going to work while muttering “time to make the donuts” ain’t gonna get it done–not for me, anyway. I believe Adobe can–and must–aim for more transformative changes.
April 20, 2009
Feedback, please: A Grand Unified Suite?
The Dear Adobe blog asks, “Why does Adobe have 14,000 different applications?,” then makes a modest proposal:
So here it is. The Worst Idea Ever. Combine ‘em all. All of them…. What I want is to open a .adobe file in my Adobe.app, click a “Mode” dropdown, select Photoshop, and get my photoshop windows. Edit all my layers with bitmappy precision. Then, when I need to edit something in vector, I don’t use the pathetic excuse for vector tools in Photoshop mode, I switch to Illustrator mode, and all my bitmappy layers suddenly work as Illustrator objects…
Outrageous! Impossible! And yet, maybe not crazy at all. Read on if interested.
April 06, 2009
Configurator: Punk Rock for Photoshop
Not long ago the folks at Computer Arts featured an article in which illustrator Jason Cook talked about how Adobe Configurator has helped streamline his use work. (“Configurator puts the user many steps closer to making things quicker and easier to use.”)
This inspired me to write a little manifesto on what Configurator means in the big picture–how it’s really about subverting Adobe’s authority (in a good way) over what constitutes “Photoshop.” The article will appear in the magazine’s forthcoming all-Photoshop issue (see cover), but in the meantime, Computer Arts has graciously let me post it here (PDF) in case you’re interested.
To the barricades,
March 19, 2009
Adjustments & the future of the Photoshop UI
The new Adjustments panel in Photoshop CS4 is a polarizing feature. Some people love it; others, not so much. My job is to help improve things as we move forward, so I want to hear your feedback.
Just asking for comments in a vacuum, however, isn’t going to produce useful results. Therefore I’m planning to publish three related posts:
- The bigger picture of where we’re going with the Photoshop interface, and why
- An overview of the advantages Adjustments provides right now
- Some ideas on how to improve it in the future
As for feedback on this post, for now please focus on the big picture. The subsequent posts will provide a chance to gather specific, actionable feedback about the current & future versions of the panel. Preamble aside, please read on in this post’s extended entry.
October 12, 2008
Software developer Brent Simmons shares some interesting thoughts on how & why applications grow and grow:
Here’s the schizo thing about software development (at least on Macs):
1. Everybody praises apps that don’t have a ton of preferences and features.
2. Everybody asks for some new preferences and features.
(Okay, not everybody. Not you, I know. I mean everybody else.)
To make it worse:
1. Everybody thinks they’re representative of the typical user, so what they want ought to be a no-brainer.
2. And they act like you put skunks in their fridge if you don’t do whatever-it-is.
(Okay, again — not you. You’re cool. I’m talking about the others.)
The problem is 100 times worse when it comes to deleting features…
It’s extremely difficult to remove features from Photoshop. Once you’ve gotten someone to rely on a bit of functionality, you feel responsible for not letting them down (making me think of The Little Prince). All features, even if many years old and seemingly unchanged, consume effort to maintain, especially when we’re modernizing the application architecture (for 64-bit, Cocoa, GPU, better localization, etc.). Even so, we’re loathe to pull the rug out from under anyone.
No one uses everything in the app, and yet everything in the app is used by someone. Even if a feature benefits only 1% of customers, that translates into tens of thousands of people–and that’s just counting the ones paying for any given version (not those with older copies, and not counting thieves).
Here’s a case in point: A couple of cycles back (CS, I believe), we decided that the 3D Transform filter had outlived its usefulness, so we decided to send it to the Restful Menus Retirement Home (offering it on the product DVD, but no longer installing it by default). No one ever talked about using this feature, and yet as soon as we moved it, the tech support calls started piling up. Even a couple of years later, Pete Bauer from the NAPP Help Desk reported that they’d still gotten 25 inquiries within a month. I’ve started to think that the best way to find out who uses a feature is to try removing it.
Why do I mention all this? Two reasons:
- Maybe we can’t remove (many) features–but you can. Configurator is about subtraction. Taken together with Photoshop’s ability to remove menu items & to save workspaces that apply custom menu/panel/keyboard arrangements, Configurator helps you assemble versions of Photoshop that are "everything you need, nothing you don’t." Most people will probably never get around to creating their own configurations, but because they’ll be extremely easy to share, everyone can benefit from them.
- We’ve bitten the bullet with this release and have sent a number of features into retirement. Extract, Pattern Maker, Web Photo Gallery, Contact Sheet, Picture Package, and PDF Presentation have been removed from the default installation. The latter four have been replaced by the Output module in Bridge CS4, and our intention is to replace Extract with features inside Photoshop (building on Refine Edge & more). All of these except PDF Presentation will remain available as optional installs (to be posted on Adobe.com), but over time they’ll be phased out.
There aren’t any magic bullets here, and as I say, we’re loathe to disrupt existing workflows. We can’t sit still, however, and with CS4 we’re making progress on multiple fronts.
September 12, 2008
Photoshop 3D is not about 3D
Or rather, it’s not just about 3D. But let me back up a second.
Remember the Newton? My first week at Adobe, I attended an outside "how to be a product manager" seminar at which the Newton was held up as a cautionary tale. The speaker pointed out that the product’s one critical feature–the thing on which everything else depended–was a handwriting recognition system that sucked at recognizing handwriting. Among many other things, the Newton also featured a thermometer. Customers, according to the speaker, had a conniption: what the hell were the product designers thinking, getting distracted with stuff like a thermometer when they couldn’t get the foundation right?
The moral, obviously, is that if you’re going to branch into new territory, you’d better have made your core offering rock solid. And even if it is solid, some customers may perceive any new work as coming at their expense.
I worry a bit about Photoshop users seeing the app branch into 3D and thinking we’ve taken our eye off the ball. Earlier this week reader Jon Padilla commented, "Some of my disgruntled co-workers grumbled ‘oh great! a bunch of cool features we’ll never learn to use…’" No matter what Photoshop adds specifically for your needs, the presence of other features can make it easy to say, "That looks like a great product… for someone else."
Obviously we care about improving the way Photoshop gets used in 3D workflows, especially around compositing and texture painting. If that’s all we had in mind, however, I think we would be overdoing our investment in 3D features relative to others. As it happens, our roadmap is broad and ambitious, so let me try to give some perspective:
- At root, Photoshop’s 3D engine is a mechanism that runs programs on a layer, non-destructively and in the context of the Photoshop layer stack. At the moment it’s geared towards manipulating geometry, shading surfaces, etc., but shader code can perform a wide range of imaging operations.
- Features that work on 3D data–being able to create & adjust lights, adjust textures and reflectivity, paint on transformed surfaces, etc.–work on 2D data as well. (Wouldn’t it be nice to have Lighting Effects written in this century?)
- As photographers finally tire of chasing Yet More Megapixels, cameras will differentiate themselves in new ways, such as by adding depth-sensing technology that records 3D data about a scene. The same infrastructure needed for working with synthetic 3D objects (e.g. adjustable lighting, raytracing) can help composite together photographic data.
- The field of photogrammetry–measuring objects using multiple 2D photos–is taking off, fueled by the ease with which we can now capture and analyze multiple images of a scene. The more Photoshop can learn about the three-dimensional structure of a scene, the more effectively it can manipulate image data.
I know I’m not providing a lot of specifics, but the upshot is that we expect Photoshop’s 3D plumbing to be used for a whole lot more than spinning Coke cans and painting onto dinosaurs. Rather than being a thermometer on a Newton, it’s a core investment that should open a lot of new doors over many years ahead, and for a very wide range of customers.
August 20, 2008
Software & Whiskey
Stephen Colbert’s remarks on his job remind me of the process of developing Photoshop:
"We often discuss satire — the sort of thing he does and to a certain extent I do — as distillery," Mr. Colbert continued. "You have an enormous amount of material, and you have to distill it to a syrup by the end of the day. So much of it is a hewing process, chipping away at things that aren’t the point or aren’t the story or aren’t the intention. Really it’s that last couple of drops you’re distilling that makes all the difference. It isn’t that hard to get a ton of corn into a gallon of sour mash, but to get that gallon of sour mash down to that one shot of pure whiskey takes patience" as well as "discipline and focus."
We’ll never, ever lack good suggestions on what to do next, nor is it terribly hard to grab a wad and go work on them. Given the vast number of customers and workflows Photoshop serves, however, it’s critical that the enhancements we make each serve a wide range of needs. Finding the really transformative stuff–the fundamental architectural changes that’ll enable numerous other enhancements while standing the test of time–is the fun, aggravating, and ultimately rewarding part.
January 28, 2008
Putting video inside the Photoshop UI
As I’ve mentioned a number of times, there’s huge potential in extending Photoshop via embedded Flash–something we’ve already prototyped in CS3. Among the Flash Player’s capabilities, of course, is the ability to display video, including high quality H.264.
The idea of putting video inside Photoshop, however, sometimes draws blanks stares. "Dude, why would I want to watch Transformers in a Photoshop palette?" You wouldn’t, of course. For a more practical example, look to the new MacBook Air.
Apple has posted a set of little videos that show off the gestures enabled by the laptop’s–er, notebook’s–new trackpad. (Click the little arrow by the pictures of fingers.) Each clip is short n’ sweet, showing just what’s needed to communicate the idea.
The thing they don’t mention here, though, and that I learned by watching a demo at Macworld, is that the videos appear inside the Keyboard & Mouse section of system prefs. If you forget how they work, just pop open the controls & get a quick demo.
That’s more what I have in mind for Adobe applications. Now, as with all the times I mention future ideas, I have to manage expectations: if you like the idea, don’t be disappointed if you don’t see video clips popping out of every dialog box in Photoshop. Having said that, we hope to do things in a very Adobe way–opening the platform to the community. Something tells me that more than a few of the savvy educators out there will see an opportunity to enhance the Photoshop user experience.
December 31, 2007
Photoshop & “The Paradox of Choice”
Shopping for strollers this weekend (oh yes, it’s getting to be that time), my wife and I found ourselves adrift amidst dozens and dozens of similar models. Multiple cupholders, detachable Cheerio hoppers, quick-release "infant inserts," heated leather-wrapped winches with built-in fondue pots (<–okay, I only wished for that last one)–it all makes your head swim. God, how do you make The Right Choice™?
Finally I said, "You know, if we walked in here and there were only one stroller, we’d probably say, ‘Looks great, we’ll take it.’" And with that, we chilled out, made a choice, and walked out happy.
This is just one example of the bafflement people face on a daily basis. Whether it’s 175 kinds of salad dressing or 6 million possible stereo combinations in a single store (both real examples), says psychologist Barry Schwartz, this "infinite choice" is paralyzing. According to the TED Web site that hosts his entertaining and enjoyable 20-minute talk on the subject,
[It's] exhausting to the human psyche. It leads us to set unreasonably high expectations, question our choices before we even make them, and blame our failures entirely on ourselves.
His example about buying jeans ("I want the kind that used to be the only kind!") is particularly dead-on: "All this choice enabled me to do better… but I felt worse." Why? Because choice raises expectations, and "With perfection the expectation, the best you can hope for is that stuff is as good as you as you expected."
I think about this issue with Photoshop all the time. For years I’ve argued that the problem isn’t that people can’t accomplish something; it’s that they think there must be an even better way to do it, and that they’re therefore failing to achieve perfection. Thus they can get better results while feeling worse.
So, what can we do about it?
A simple response is just to hide things, offering "simple" and "advanced" modes, or the like. Photoshop does this in a number of places, via menu customization (try the "Basic" workspace) and More/Fewer Options buttons in dialogs like Shadow/Highlight. The thing is, this doesn’t work all that well. People just say "Show me everything." Why? Because no one wants to be the guy who drops three grand on an SLR, then leaves it in moron mode. No one wants a Ducati with training wheels.
A better solution, I think, is to make Photoshop more task-oriented. We need to help people bring forward what’s needed, when it’s needed, and put it away when it isn’t. We need to emphasize best practices–showing the constellations among the stars. The Photoshop team can’t do this on its own: we need to help users blaze their own trails, then share the solutions with others. We group these ideas under the heading "Lighting the Way." Instead of offering unlimited choice, or putting irritating constraints on it, we’ll work to provide just the right choices most of the time.
Finding the balance is no easy challenge, but that’s what makes it fun.
- In "Challenging the Apple Archetype," Cameron Moll argues for letting people customize their user experiences. Rather than assuming that "Father knows best," we should help people tune things to taste–within reason. He envisions "The LEGO archetype."
- In the NYT, Janet Rae-Dupree talks about how "Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike"–and the problems that can result. "I have a DVD remote control with 52 buttons on it," says author Chip Heath, "and every one of them is there because some engineer along the line knew how to use that button and believed I would want to use it, too."
- To dig a bit deeper into Schwartz’s ideas, see also his article "The Tyranny of Choice."
PS–I sometimes have to chuckle when people talk about the complexity of Photoshop, or any professional software for that matter. Sometime I should post screenshots of what features look like while in development. A dialog like Shadow/Highlight might have literally 50 or 100 control points that can be used to fine-tune the settings. ("I’ll give you something to cry about!" ;-)) Much of the work in developing the app is to boil that complexity down to something workable–maybe four or five controls that offer the most bang for the buck. The trick is to make things "as simple as possible, but no simpler." ("A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.")
December 20, 2007
Borrow from Flickr -> Live to regret it
Through Google Image Search & the like, it’s almost ridiculously easy to find pictures of nearly anything you can imagine–and just as easy to drag them into editing tools for your own use. Do it to a motivated photographer, however, and the practice can end in tears.
Last week, an image taken by photographer Lane Hartwell was used without permission in a parody video posted on YouTube. She wasn’t pleased, contacted the band, and filed a takedown notice with YouTube. CNET’s Stephen Shankland recaps the events to date, then interviews Hartwell. She notes that she’s had to deal with similar incidents frequently (five in just the last two weeks).
Over in the NYT, David Pogue talks about “the generational divide in copyright morality.”He lists a number of the scenarios he mentions to gauge audience reactions to what kind of media copying is acceptable. Short story: older people see shades of gray, whereas younger people think that anything goes.
I wonder what these folks would say about appropriating a piece of photography, artwork, or software. If a college kid did a painting that got used in a GM ad campaign, I’m betting he or she would feel entitled to some compensation. Now, if that painting got used in an amateur video on YouTube, would that be okay? What if the video promoted a hate group? Do these guys think that the creators of intellectual property deserve to have any say over how their work is used & whether they’re compensated? Without any of their skin in the game, the general answer seems to be no.
December 13, 2007
Would photography please “die” already??
Ah, the indestructable "Is Photography Dead" meme…
- Leica enthusiast Erwin Puts claims that in an age of digital capture and manipulation, photography does not exist anymore.
- The Online Photographer hosts reactions from photogs.
- Now Newsweek is jumping on the case. And now here comes the NYT, taking on one angle.
Oh, who gives a crap? Sorry, let me explain. I thought about noting this not-so-little trend some time ago, but I’ve never been able to invest much passion in it. People have been manipulating photography in every which way–through their choice of what to capture & what to omit; through changes to the scene/subject (adding lights, building sets, moving bodies on a battlefield); and through tweaks to the captured results–since the dawn of the technology. So what? I think Bridge engineering manager Arno Gourdol hit the nail on the head:
Being aware of composition, balance, symmetry and "owning the frame" is the creative act. The creative act matters, and the moment at which it occurs seems secondary–whether it is when pressing the shutter release on your camera, when making a print in the darkroom or when sitting in front of a computer. This echoes the early days when photography was viewed as an unfair and unworthy competitor to painting…
I dunno; much of this "is photography dead" discussion strikes me as sterile and pointless–and maybe a strawman that’s not worth beating up. Yet I wonder whether it’s driven by veteran photogs feeling threatened–comercially and aesthetically–by so many affordable tools that make competent image-making so much more attainable.
Sure, yeah, we can debate this camera or lens vs. that one all day long–but all this stuff absolutely rocks compared to what pros were using just a few years back (to say nothing of what Arbus, Capa, Cartier-Bresson, and co. had). You can say that digital makes us lazy, and there’s some truth there; and yet it also fosters free experimentation & instant review of the results. That quicker learning cycle, plus autofocus, good software, etc. helps get people "good enough" (technically, anyway) without years of slow and costly apprenticeship. And when anyone can take a technically decent shot, then "good" becomes "trite," and people seek to define themselves by bucking the trend–making portfolios blurry or murky.
Therefore–and maybe I’ll live to regret writing this–we end up with a bunch of freaked-out oldsters (or just curmudgeons at heart) twisting up a Dick Cheney grimace and saying, "Bah, I don’t like this digital tomfoolery–not one bit! In my day we had to huff developer until we saw Ernest Borgnine floating in the liquid–and we liked it fine!! You kids are ruining everything."
Um, yeah. Life, art, and expression move on. If "photography" is something so brittle & exclusionary that it can’t bear evolution, then goodbye and good riddance. (Don’t let the film door hit your ass on the way out…) It isn’t, of course, so maybe we can just bury the is-photography-dead schtick. But I’m not holding my breath.
December 03, 2007
Adobe: The second quarter-century begins
On December 2, 1982, John Warnock and Chuck Geschke started Adobe Systems. Today the once-tiny maker of printer software begins the next quarter-century of its existence.
In 1993, my freshman year in college, I attended a meeting of the Notre Dame MadMacs user group. I can’t tell you a single other thing about that evening, but I remember that they played a video (on a computer! my God!!) from a company I’d never heard of. On screen an animation depicted a hand opening up to reveal (as I remember) an eye on its palm. “Imagine what you can create,” read an arcing line of text above the hand. And below, “Create what you can imagine. Adobe.”
And then I realized…like I was shot…Like I was shot with a diamond…a diamond bullet right through my forehead… Okay, perhaps that’s a bit much–but I thought, “I don’t know who these guys are, but I’ve got to find out.” Photoshop was shortly to make one hell of an impression on me, and all these years later, I can’t believe–still cannot believe–that I work here. (Some part of me still suspects that my car drifted off the road after they cancelled LiveMotion, and that all of this is playing out in ultra slow-mo, Owl Creek Bridge-style.)
If you’re interested in the history of Adobe, check out Pamela Pfiffner’s excellent Inside the Publishing Revolution, released to coincide with the company’s 20th anniversary. Excerpts & some fun photos (David Hockney meeting Photoshop; young Steve Jobs) are on Adobe.com. I’d love to see an updated edition, one that includes the history of Macromedia (and the various companies that formed it) and more.
As for the future, one goal comes to my mind over and over: radically improving the user experience by radically democratizing how Photoshop* is developed, and by whom. Instead of measuring the Photoshop team in the dozens, let’s measure it in the thousands–or the hundreds of thousands. Let’s leverage the ol’ series of tubes, helping anyone with a good idea share it, opening the application skin to far more developers, even upending what a document can be. Photoshop belongs to a whole lot more than one company or group of developers; it belongs to a global community of the visually expressive. It’s this team’s job to keep anything from blocking the light.
Here’s to the future,
* I’d speak on behalf of other apps, but it’s already presumptuous enough for me to speak on behalf of Photoshop.
November 09, 2007
Clarification on “Johnny Cash”
Ooh, I’ve been Slashdotted. I wondered why the blog had gotten more visitors before 7AM than it usually gets all day. Thanks for all the comments.
I need to clarify a couple of things. A commenter on the Slashdot story said, “Well, Adobe just told you themselves that the Photoshop UI sucks.” Er, no. Two things:
- “Adobe” didn’t say anything; I said something (see disclaimer about these opinions being my own, etc.). Yes, I sometimes get lazy and conflate myself with the team/product/company, but I’m really just the Simple Unfrozen Caveman Web Designer they happened to hire to work on Photoshop. But more importantly…
- I didn’t say that the Photoshop UI sucks. I said that it’s not good enough (which is to say, it’s never “good enough”). If the UI sucked, I somehow doubt that millions of people would rely on it every day for mission-critical work. And, incidentally, every time we survey customers, we find that the number reporting themselves “satisfied” or “very satisfied” comes in above 90%.
It’s my job to be somewhat hard on the product, pushing like mad to eke out every improvement possible. Without dissatisfaction, why change? I hate the idea that “good enough is good enough,” that we can and should just putter around the edges. To remain groundbreaking, Photoshop has to mess with success.
Okay, second part: I don’t want people to be disappointed if the next Photoshop interface doesn’t look like some Martian voodoo lovechild driven by foot pedals & ocular implants. Yes, we’re working (as we have been) to open the door to some really nice improvements, but change takes time. I believe we can deliver a better experience without breaking the interface people already know & like. Just don’t be mad if the next version of PS doesn’t cook you breakfast. (That’s for CS5. ;-))
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.]
October 21, 2007
“Jiggle it” (or, HAL possesses my Mac)
Heh–I’m not sure why I feel compelled to pass this along, other than that it’s a nice counterpoint to the rigor & logic that we associate with computing.
Last night on a plane, I plugged my headphones into my MacBook Pro, only to see a weird red light issuing from the headphone port. The sense that HAL 9000 was now peering out of my Mac was compounded by my just having watched Sunshine, a flick featuring a sometimes disobedient flight computer. The really odd thing was that with this light pouring out, I lost access to my internal speakers. Headphones in: no prob; headphones out: sounds of silence (something something, neon god they made…).
The solution, I learned from a Mac forum, boils down to “jiggle it.” And, what do you know, after jabbing HAL in the eye repeatedly, I once again have working internal speakers. I feel like the Fonz, smacking the jukebox into shape. Anyway, it’s kind of funny that sometimes all this technology gets resolved with a good old-fashioned jiggle.
September 26, 2007
Feedback, please: User-powered help inside Photoshop?
I have a very simple idea–one that I think could be very powerful. I’m proposing that Photoshop (and other Adobe apps) become living organisms, platforms that constantly improve as users learn & share. Whether the idea sees the light of day depends largely on what you say about it.
I want to start by addressing a simple problem: Let me preserve what I’ve learned & keep it at my fingertips. If you’re like me, you’ve probably jotted down a million notes about software over the years, storing them on sticky notes, on legal pads, wherever… most of which are nowhere to be found at the moment you need them. Instead of settling for this, what if you could capture your knowledge about Photoshop inside Photoshop?
It’s the simplest idea in the world: let’s let people jot down notes and stick them into the application itself. Instead of living only on the local hard drive, the notes would be stored on the network. That way, no matter where you found yourself working, your accumulated knowledge would always be there, in the context of the tools themselves. In essence you’d be micro-blogging from within Photoshop.
Ah, but the network is built for sharing. So what if you could elect to share your notes with others, and what if you could see what they’d shared?
Here’s a practical example. Let’s say you go into Photoshop’s Unsharp Mask dialog box. “Amount” is straightforward, but what the hell do “Radius” and “Threshold” mean, exactly? Let’s say you make sense of it, or you find settings that work really well for certain images. Why not jot down a note right there? That way you’ve enriched Photoshop with that knowledge, in context, and made it part of your permanent collection.
But what if you don’t know what something means? Maybe you could see what Bruce Fraser has to say on the subject–reading a note with Bruce’s tips right in the dialog. Inside Illustrator’s Live Color feature the other day, I was dying to have Mordy Golding drop by my office and give me the straight dope. Why couldn’t I see Mordy’s writing–or hear audio narration, or see a video, for that matter–right within Live Color? Why can’t I see Mac Holbert’s best practices for printing–right in the print dialog?
As I envision it, notes would be searchable, and you could give a quick thumbs-up/-down, TiVo-style, to each note. That way the good stuff would bubble up while the crap falls into obscurity. (And, of course, you could always elect to keep your notes private–which they would be by default.)
Here’s a really simple mockup I created to depict the concept running in a palette/panel. (Yes, it would look slicker when real UI designers did their thing.)
So, what do you think? Would you find value in jotting down what you’ve learned, making it portable and permanent? Would you share that info with others? Would you read what they’d shared? Is any of this worth a damn? I’m dying to know your take. Here’s a 3-question survey, and comments are welcome.
PS–At risk of overloading the concept, I may as well confess that I regard notes as the “thin edge of the wedge.” I want not only my knowledge to live “in the cloud”; I want everything that makes my copy of an app mine–custom palettes, brushes, swatches, font styles, everything–to live on the network, to be synched seamlessly and to be sharable with others. If I come up with a kick-ass skin for using Photoshop for Web design, I want you to type “JNack” into your copy of Photoshop and have it, bang, zero friction. Viva the Photoshop Nation.
September 22, 2007
On the personality of Lightroom
We wanted Lightroom to seem elegant. To exhibit grace. To show an attention to style beyond the utilitarian aspect that dominated Adobe’s products up to that time. We wanted a richer UI experience.
We’ve been successful in many ways. At the same time, we are painfully aware that there are places where we could be yet more graceful or elegant.
If you’re interested in more, see also Mark’s interview on since1968.com, or listen to the podcast in
which he & other members of the Lightroom team tackle these issues. As for the personas of Photoshop, Illustrator, and Flash, see previous.
September 18, 2007
Musing on mediocrity
I often wonder why, in the midst of working with a brilliant team on a beloved & respected product in a company that’s doing better than ever, I’m kind of a miserable bastard. I get this insane privilege, and yet no matter how full the glass, I see only the flaws, only the things that could and should and must be made better.
I found a little solace in Paul Arden’s It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be. Maybe, if you’re like me, you will, too:
Why do we strive for excellence when mediocrity is required?
There is little demand in the commercial world for excellence. There is much, much bigger demand for mediocrity.
The truth is, I’m glad it’s this way.
Imagine a world where all clients were wonderful, where we could produce whatever we felt like with no restrictions, with everybody having freedom to produce all their fantasies unfettered by tedious clients.
What would we do?
We would react against it, saying, “Isn’t this boring. How can we be dull? Let’s do it badly, let’s make it ugly, and let’s make it really cheaply.”
That’s the nature of the creative person. All creative people need something to rebel against. It’s what gives their lives excitement, and it’s creative people who make the clients’ lives exciting.
Or, as George Bernard Shaw succinctly put it:
The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. All progress, therefore, depends upon the unreasonable man.
Keep your head up,
August 31, 2007
"Most of your pictures suck"
I tend to get in my own head about photography. Maybe because it can be praticed with fairly little physical skill (compared, say, to sketching, which came rather naturally to me), photography seems to put more emphasis on one’s "eye," one’s taste. That can be nerve-wracking, making it seem like a failure to take a good shot* is a comment not only on your technical chops, but on your worth as an aesthetic being. See, I told you I get in my head about it.
Maybe that’s why I found this comment from experienced photographer Mike Johnston refreshing:
To be honest, most of my pictures suck. The saving grace of that admission is that most of your pictures suck, too. How could I possibly know such a thing? Because most of everybody’s pictures suck, that’s how. I’ve seen Cartier-Bresson’s contact sheets, and most of his pictures sucked. One of my teachers said that it was an epiphany for him when he took a class from Garry Winogrand and learned that most of Winogrand’s exposures sucked. It’s the way it is.
Whew. It’s nice to know that bad photos happen to all guys sometimes, so to speak. And as Mike reminds his sometimes gear-obsessed readers, "Cameras don’t take good pictures, photographers do." Just not all the time.
*There’s also the whole angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin question of what good is. In Ireland I’d joke, "Look, honey, I set the camera to ‘Trite‘…"
June 23, 2007
A great quote on software
As I’ve been thinking about the future of user interfaces, I stopped by the Web site of noted UI designer Bill Buxton. There I saw this remark:
A Personal Mantra: Ultimately, we are deluding ourselves if we think that the products that we design are the "things" that we sell, rather than the individual, social and cultural experience that they engender, and the value and impact that they have. Design that ignores this is not worthy of the name.
Right on, sir. I tell anyone who’ll listen (and many who won’t) about the "Photoshop Nation," the power of connecting people, and the importance of giving a damn and getting things right.
A small number multiplied by a big number is still a big number, and some little improvement* may help only a small percentage of users, but that works out to a large number of people. The social impact of doing so can be significant. (It all reminds me of Steve Jobs equating boot time improvements to lives saved.) It’s about not blocking the light.
Bonus quote, apropos of stirring things up on occasion: "Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of thoughts on
the unthinking." –John Maynard Keynes
* I was pleased to hear a photographer named Brian Price comment this week on the ProDIG list that "[F]or me the clone ‘Ignore Adjustment Layers’ option in CS3 is worth the
upgrade price in itself"–a comment echoed by others. It’s one of those tweaks that shows up rarely, if ever, in marketing materials, reviews, etc., but that can have a real impact.
April 15, 2007
Some perspective on how Adobe apps are built
Mordy Golding, who spent a couple of cycles working as an Illustrator PM, has posted some perspective on how Adobe applications are created. It’s a bit of a long read, but Mordy touches on some common questions, including:
- How does the team decide which features to build & for what markets? For example, how is something like Flash integration weighed against something like N-color printing support?
- Why doesn’t the team have more resources to put towards various priorities?
- Why doesn’t Adobe typically add functionality in small dot releases?
- If a feature exists in one application (e.g. the OpenType palette in Illustrator, or separations in InDesign), why is it hard to move to other ones?
I’m never quite sure how much of this people outside the company will find interesting, vs. thinking "Just get it done, guys." (I bounce between those poles myself.)
As for resources, I think a couple of points are worth making:
- Very often, products don’t get staffed in accordance with the money they bring in. Photoshop, for example, doesn’t get anything like the number of engineers you’d expect based on revenue. Why? Because the revenue is needed to fund new areas of development that may not turn a profit for a while. Years ago, I’m told, the PostScript group (then the big bread winner) resented having to fund the dinky little applications group. Clearly, though, that was the right move for the future. At present it can be frustrating to know that you could do Kickass/Long-Requested Feature X if you had just one or two extra bodies (very frustrating) , but that’s the nature of the biz.
- Although we all clamor for more engineers & QE folks, without whom we can’t build anything, it’s probably good that we’re constrained. Otherwise, we’d go nuts building features, resulting in tons of complexity. That is, we’d be knocking ourselves out to serve customers, but rapid unchecked growth would probably overwhelm just about everyone.
December 28, 2006
Simplicity vs. Power in Photoshop
Yesterday’s discussion of Smart Filters made me think that it’s worth writing up some thoughts on Smart Objects & the future of compositing in Photoshop in general.
I have a hypothesis, at least as regards Photoshop: flexibility generally breeds indirectness. That is, when you step away from the familiar world of applying pixel tools directly to a plane of pixels, you introduce complexity. Whether or not that complexity is worth accepting depends on bang for the buck.
September 18, 2006
9/11 and photo manipulation: No Photoshop needed
Last month the world debated the integrity of photography in an era of easy digital manipulation. This month, attention turns to the interpretations we (photographers, viewers, writers) attach to images.
Magnum photographer Thomas Hoepker recently published a photo of young New Yorkers appearing to chat and relax while Ground Zero burned across the river behind them. Columnist Frank Rich saw in the image a symbol of American denial, disbelief, and demand to move on. Hoepker replied, adding context and asking some searching questions (“How would I have looked on that day to a distanced observer? Probably like a coldhearted reporter, geared to shoot the pictures of his life”). And the couple on the wall responded, hotly denying any lack of seriousness. [Via]
So many kinds of truth here…
What if the people in the photo had been caught sharing a smile while New York smoldered in the background? Well? In the city that Friday, my friends and I went out for beers near a lifeless Times Square; on the weekend we shopped for a new PC. Was that all wrong? You could give money, blood–but what the hell else could you do? If the folks in the photo were cracking the tension, I don’t think I can condemn them.
And what about the claim that the subjects represent something fundamental about America–a shortness of attention, a need to escape from tragedy? In the summer before 9/11, the country obsessed over shark attacks, pop stars, and missing white women on cable news. Now it’s stingray attacks, pop stars, and missing white women on cable news. Do the particulars of the conversation in that photo, whether serious or trivial, determine whether the photo is emblematic of something deep and troubling about our culture? You tell me.
For me the conversation throws the debate over digital manipulation into greater perspective: the battle for truth is fought on many fronts, and compared to the questions over what meaning can and should be assigned to images, the technical side starts to look straightforward. The bits matter, but we see in them what we want and need to see.
Related: Slate hosts a gripping and well produced Magnum Photos essay on 9/11. Susan Meiselas talks about seeing teams of doctors rushing around, slowly realizing how little they could do.
[Update: See also this daguerreotype of 9/11. [Via]
August 13, 2006
Can you trust what you see?
I’ve refrained from commenting on the Reuters Photochopping debacle, figuring I didn’t have much new or valuable to add to the discussion. I’m not sure I do now, but Jim Lewis’ Don’t Believe What You See in the Papers offers good perspective on the long history of manipulated (and manipulative) news photography. He links to Dr. Hany Farid’s interesting tampering gallery, where the chronology suggests that fakery is growing more common.
As I’ve noted previously, Adobe has been working with Dr. Farid & his team on technology to detect digital manipulation. Its arrival in mainstream tools will take some time, and even then it’s powerless against images that mislead in other ways. I’m reminded of the aerial shots in the immediate aftermath of the 1989 Bay Area earthquake, zoomed in on a single burning block that suggested more massive devastation; or Fox News’ decision last year during an LA blackout to zoom in on a fiery exhaust plume at an area factory–never mind that it’s that smokestack’s natural state 24/7.
A lack of context and clarification may be ultimately more damaging than faked pixels, given that it’s subjective & maybe impossible to prove. Technology may help sniff out forgeries, but it has to go hand in hand with the audience seeking out multiple, diverse sources of news.
[Update: Rob Galbraith has collected a variety of additional perspectives on the topic.]
May 14, 2006
Get lean. Stay hungry.
“The old Jetta was trim and compact, with chunky good proportions. The new one — 5.7 inches longer — is so big and amorphous they should have called it Jetta the Hutt. Every manufacturer engages in this incremental generation-to-generation size creep, and if it keeps up, eventually Shriners will drive 1996 Buick Roadmasters and we’ll laugh at their comical little cars from the observation decks of our Subaru Imprezas. Somebody, stop the madness.”
– The NY Times auto section*
The same could be said about a lot of modern software, of course, and a decent backlash is underway. Throw a dead cat & you’ll hit some manifesto or other talking about how features don’t matter, shouldn’t be added, etc.**
Why is that? A few things come to mind:
- Packing in tons of features makes software take forever to load, and/or makes it run slowly and consume tons of resources. Therefore everyone is penalized by stuff they’ll never use.
- The existence of unused features makes it harder to get at the small percentage you actually care about. Locating the right command is like finding a needle in a stack of needles.
- Being presented with a wall of options (especially if the previous set wasn’t well understood) makes people feel inadequate. The percentage anyone comprehends grows smaller as the app grows more vast.
- New features give the impression of a neverending, ever longer learning curve. Rather than make things simpler, they risk adding confusion and redundancy, fatiguing the people they’re supposed to help.
If this is all true, then aren’t the critics right? Yes–if it’s true. But what if it weren’t? What if:
- New software booted up faster than its predecessor on the same machine?
- It ran faster, felt smoother, and produced better results, without requiring any additional learning from users?
- The interface could grow simpler, more focused, more relevant to your needs (and your needs only)?
In short, if you could take away the pain that comes with a large and growing feature set, yet keep its benefits, would it cool the critics out? Would we then have permission (or blessings, even) to add whole new levels of power and capability?
As you might guess, we’re thinking about these issues all the time. In my view we need to define a fairly rigorous “Contract with the Customer” to ensure that before we move on to adding new layers of richness, we do the hard work of addressing the problems mentioned above.
We need your permission to take Photoshop in new directions, to add features that will blow people’s heads clean off. And to earn that permission, we need to show that we’re nailing the fundamentals. It’s not going to be an overnight thing, but I think we’re on the right track.
* VW can always take solace in having possibly the coolest parking structure ever. Oh, and once again, a fistful of great ads.
** To me, though, these critiques ring a little hollow–not unlike the great Onion article, “Report: 98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others.” That is, to some extent the critics are saying, Don’t add anything for anyone except me, that I personally don’t need right now.
May 08, 2006
What the h___ is Word talking about?
First, before you think I’m picking on/picking a fight with the folks at Microsoft, let me point out that the title of this post could be a sort of software Mad Libs, where “[product]” (including “Photoshop”) could replace “Word.” More on that in a second. But first, an Airing of Grievances:
Just now I double clicked a .DOC attachment sent to me in email. Entourage dutifully launched Word, and I glanced over the document, then hit Quit. Here’s where the fun begins. “Hey, your Normal template has changed,” says Word (or something to that effect); “Would you like to replace your Normal template?”
Uhh… no? (I didn’t make any changes to any template, so I probably shouldn’t replace something that sounds pretty fundamental, right?) I hit “No.”
“Okay–please choose a folder for saving the new template.”
Um, what? Again, I don’t want to save anything (since, again, I didn’t create or change anything). Hit “Cancel.”
“Hey, your Normal template has changed. Would you like to replace it?”
What? What the hell are you talking about? Fade out.
I’ve bothered to write this for a couple of reasons. One, I’m sure the process I just experienced makes sense to someone on the Word team, and it probably makes sense even to some Word power users. Heck, it probably opens up all kinds of powerful possibilities. But for a guy simply trying to open and read a file, then move on, it’s bizarre & unnerving. Just what have I done to my software, and why?
More importantly, though, it illustrates the disconnect between developers/power users & ordinary mortals just trying to get something done. Features made for one perplex the other, and once you’re an expert, it’s hard to see with a fresh perspective.
Back to the original point: you could easily substitute “Photoshop” for “Word” and cite plenty of examples that baffle newcomers. Imaging is complex, and whether it’s a color profile warning every time you open a file, or a “Do you want to maximize compatibility?” dialog every time you save (more on that soon), plenty of Photoshop functions are hardly self explanatory. Trouble is, we’ve been around the tools for too long, and we know why things are as they are. That makes it tough to see through new users’ eyes.
So, at last, my plea: If something in Photoshop (or another Adobe app) gives you a moment of “Wha…?,” please let us know, okay?
November 07, 2005
Let’s make something terrible together
I was chatting this morning with some guys from the Illustrator team, batting around ideas for a fairly sexy feature they’ve been considering. They were thinking, naturally and appropriately as software designers do, about how to make the feature accurate, fast, and intuitive. The product manager in me said “right on”; the designer in me said “ugh.”
The point has been made many times, but computers’ tendency towards the predicable, the literal, and the repeatable often isn’t a recipe for good design, much less good art. Yes, being able to execute each step more and more quickly lets you try more things & potentially take more risks. But doesn’t it seem that it tends strongly towards a “right” answer, producing designs that look tastefully bland? Happy accidents grow rare.
I thought of this several weeks ago during a typography session at Photoshop World Boston. The speaker listed, and hundreds of attendees dutifully scribbled down, which fonts were considered hot and which were not. I can dig that people don’t want to look foolish, but I found the whole exercise kind of repellent. I left the session wanting to make some killer design using that beaten-down, forlorn face my wife calls “the yacht club font,” which suffered death by misuse on 6,000,000 soft-focus ’70s paperback covers. Well dammit, I thought, all you trendies can go off and rock out with Eurostile (condemning it to be the Bookman Swash of the future) or whatever; I’m gonna make the yacht club fresh. I’ll do something so terrible it’s great.
So back to the point at hand: this Illustrator feature had a sort of “give me tasteful” button. Yeah, but how about “gimme awful,” I wondered. And gimme random. I mean, we’re the company that registered SmashStausQuo.com. How about we actually do it? We need more offbeat, playful, bizarre functionality–only when you want it, to be sure, but there to introduce some chance, some chaos, some creative destruction.
And I’ll bet that by willing to embrace the terrible, we all just might make something great.
[Thanks to Thomas Phinney for immediately knowing the name of "that swoopy '70s paperback font," as I described it.]
October 09, 2005
Psst–wanna see Photoshop 15?
Yeah, well, so do I. It doesn’t exist yet, of course (we just recently introduced version 9.0, a.k.a. CS2), and it won’t exist for many years. But what form will it take?
Software developers know how to do one thing really well: develop more software. We build features, and when we’re done, we build more. This isn’t inherently a bad thing. Customers have far more good ideas than we have time or resources to support, and having to choose just a fraction to implement each cycle keeps us focused on those we think really matter.
But what’s the net result of a million good features? Yep–a million little pieces, all multiplying off one another. An app like Photoshop becomes a warren of commands that are available sometimes but not others, in ways that aren’t self-explanatory (e.g. you can’t start painting on a vector text layer, or create layers in 32-bit mode). And the sheer volume of options can be overwhelming. At one point I counted 494 top-level menu items in Photoshop CS. In CS2 we’ve added roughly 60 more, and that’s not counting the new Adobe Bridge application.
So, back to the hypothetical Photoshop 15: at our present course and speed, we’d add at least 350 more menu commands. We’ll need to raise the minimum screen spec just to hold the menus! And then, you know, it’s wafer-thin mint time.
Incidentally, we’re all complicit in this–we (Adobe, or [insert other software vendor here]) and you. (If you’ve read this far, you’re interested in this stuff and have almost definitely requested new features.) We can add things, but we can never take them away. When we decided to stop maintaining the archaic, seldom-used 3D Transform filter, we made it optional content (not disabled, just moved). The tech support boards lit up with all kinds of complaints. And at MacWorld, a guy browbeat me for–no kidding–25 minutes about the shortcut for Brightness/Contrast changing–in version 4! Can you imagine if we tried to remove something significant?
What to do? What about making Photoshop customizable–”everything you need, nothing you don’t,” to borrow from the Nissan ad? In CS2 you can now turn menu items on and off, assign them colors, and switch among sets rapidly. It’s a step towards reducing complexity, but will anyone care? Do you? Does this capability help new users, or does it hide tools they’d otherwise stumble across?
We can also package functionality in task-oriented sets. Camera Raw is popular as much for the way it pulls together color-correction functions as for its underlying math. Of course, with popularity come feature requests, and we have to be wary of building Russian dolls (Photoshop gets huge, so we build CR, which then gets huge, so we nest something inside of it…).
What do you think? Do we just keep putting one foot ahead of the other, or is something more radical required? I’d like to hear your thoughts.