Category Archives: Idle Philosophizing

“What do you want ten times more of?”

This simple but excellent question was put to me once by Merlin Mann. I’ve reflected on it many times over the years, and I’d ask it of promising candidates in job interviews. I’m asking myself now, as I mark one more revolution around the Sun.

Some people say “Money.” Okay, sure… but why?

Others say “Time.” That’s maybe closer to my heart—but again, to what end? What are you/we doing with the time we have now?

For me the answer has always been “Impact.” I don’t know whether that’s “right” (if such a thing exists), but it captures my eternal desire to make a positive dent in the universe, as Steve Jobs would put it. I want to leave things better than I found them—happier, more beautiful, more fun—for my family, friends, and the creative world at large.

Maybe better answers exist—Love, Courage, Wisdom; I want them all in great abundance. From those things would flow impact & all other goodness.

I dunno; how about you?

On staying a “wild goose”

Stay hungry, stay foolish…”

Indeed, but sitting in any big fat company, where any of one’s individual efforts is likely to have only a passing impact on the macro trends (growth, stock price, compensation), can be like living in Shawshank: even when free to do otherwise, you keep asking permission, even to pee.

On my way through the in door at Google, a burned-out PM who was about to depart told me about learned helplessness & Brownian motion (think dust particles in a room—energetic, but not actually going anywhere). “You know that guy Reek on Game of Thrones—just psychologically broken? Yeah, that’s what you become here.” Comedic exaggeration aside, he wasn’t wholly wrong.

All this comes to mind as a friend at Google shared a cautionary tale by Søren Kierkegaard that Thomas J. Watson, CEO of IBM in its glory days, used to tell:

There was once a wild goose.

In the autumn, about the time for migration, it became aware of some tame geese. It became enamored by them, thought it a shame to fly away from them, and hoped to win them over so that they would decide to go along with it on the flight. To that end it became involved with them in every possible way. It tried to entice them to rise a little higher and then again a little higher in their flight, that they might, if possible, accompany it in the flight, saved from the wretched, mediocre life of waddling around on the earth as respectable, tame geese.

At first, the tame geese thought it very entertaining and liked the wild goose. But soon they became very tired of it, drove it away with sharp words, censured it as a visionary fool devoid of experience and wisdom.

Alas, unfortunately the wild goose had become so involved with the tame geese that they had gradually gained power over it, their opinion meant something to it – and gradually the wild goose became a tame goose.

In a certain sense there was something admirable about what the wild goose wanted. Nevertheless, it was a mistake, for – this is the law – a tame goose never becomes wild, but a wild goose can certainly become tame.

If what the wild goose tried to do is to be commended in any way, then it must above all watch out for one thing – that it hold on to itself.

As soon as it notices that the tame geese have any kind of power over it, then away, away in migratory flight.

Or as Frederick Douglass said, “I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”

Now let’s go into the weekend, sticking it to The Man with some Arcade Fire.

They heard me singing and they told me to stop
Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock

[Via]

Five Golden Rules For Building Unsuccessful Products

One nice, cheeky quirk of Google is the ability to write one’s own epitaph upon departing, slapping a few words of sometimes salty wisdom on the out door. My former colleague Hodie Meyers bugged out just ahead of me & dropped a sarcastic fistful of Despair.com-worthy gems:

  1. Do things because they are possible
  2. Do many things at once and try to spread yourself thin
  3. Build the complete system before evaluating the idea. Call it MVP anyways
  4. Never let client feedback or user research distract you from your intuition
  5. And remember: It’s always more important that you launch something than that you create true value for your users and customers

Chuck Close compares golf & creativity

I had a long & interesting talk this week with Erik Natzke, whose multi-disciplinary art (ranging from code to textiles) has inspired me for years. As we were talking through the paths by which one can find a creative solution, he shared this quote from painter Chuck Close:

Chuck Close: I thought that using a palette was like shooting an arrow directly at a bull’s-eye. You hope that you make the right decision out of context. But when you shoot it at the bull’s eye, you hit what you were aiming at. And I thought, as a sports metaphor, golf was a much more interesting way to think about it.

If you think about golf, it’s the only sport—and it’s a little iffy if it’s a sport, although Tiger made it into a sport—in which you move from general to specific in an ideal number of correcting moves. The first stroke is just a leap of faith, you hit it out there; you hope you’re on the fairway. Second one corrects that, the third one corrects that. By the third or fourth you hope that you’re on the green. And at one or two putts, you place that ball in a very specific three-and-a-half inch diameter circle, which you couldn’t even see from the tee. How did you do it? You found it moving through the landscape, making mid-course corrections.

I thought, “This is exactly how I paint.” I tee off in the wrong direction to make it more interesting, now I’ve got to correct like crazy, then I’ve got to correct again. What’s it need? I need some of that. And then four or five or six strokes, I hopefully have found the color world that I want. Then I can sort of celebrate, you know, put that in the scorecard, and move on to the next one.

Bonus: “Is that a face made of meat??” — my 11yo Henry, walking by just now & seeing this image from afar 😛

“Who Do We Want Our Customers to Become?”

As I’ve noted previously, this essay from Slack founder Stewart Butterfield is a banger. You should read the whole thing if you haven’t—or re-read it if you have—and care about building great products. In my new role exploring the crazy, sometimes scary world of AI-first creativity tools, I find myself meditating on this line:

Who Do We Want Our Customers to Become?… We want them to become relaxed, productive workers… masters of their own information and not slaves… who communicate purposively.

I want customers to be fearless explorers—to F Around & Find Out, in the spirit of Walt Whitman:

Yes, this is way outside Adobe’s comfort zone—but I didn’t come back here to be comfortable. Game on.

Check out Fresco, Adobe’s new tablet drawing app

People have been trying to combine the power of vector & raster drawing/editing for decades. (Anybody else remember Creature House Expression, published by Fractal & then acquired by Microsoft? Congrats on also being old! 🙃) It’s a tough line to walk, and the forthcoming Adobe Fresco app is far from Adobe’s first bite at the apple (I remember you, Fireworks).

Back in 2010, I transitioned off of Photoshop proper & laid out a plan by which different mobile apps/modules (painting, drawing, photo library) would come together to populate a share, object-centric canvas. Rather than build the monolithic (and now forgotten) Photoshop Touch that we eventually shipped, I’d advocated for letting Adobe Ideas form the drawing module, Lightroom Mobile form the library, and a new Photoshop-derived painting/bitmap editor form the imaging module. We could do the whole thing on a new imaging stack optimized around mobile GPUs.

Obviously that went about as well as conceptually related 90’s-era attempts at OpenDoc et al.—not because it’s hard to combine disparate code modules (though it is!), but because it’s really hard to herd cats across teams, and I am not Steve Fucking Jobs.

Sadly, I’ve learned, org charts do matter, insofar as they represent alignment of incentives & rewards—or lack thereof. “If you want to walk fast, walk alone; if you want to walk far, walk together.” And everyone prefers “innovate” vs. “integrate,” and then for bonus points they can stay busy for years paying down the resulting technical debt. “…Profit!”

But who knows—maybe this time crossing the streams will work. Or, see you again in 5-10 years the next time I write this post. 😌

[YouTube]

PM’ing my way to El Segundo

Do you ever play the game of “Feature or Bug?” with your own characteristics? Being tall, for instance, could be a feature until you’re crammed into a tight airline seat.

For me it often comes down to wildly ambitious, encompassing visions. They’re exciting, they’re inspiring… and then I lose folks. Time & again I’ve found myself talking with a colleague, getting them excited about some idea or other—but then I go blasting off in my one-man rocket ship, watching through a lonely porthole as their smile & energy fade, then disappear under a plume of my conversational exhaust. As my old boss Kevin observed the other day, “It’s not leadership if no one follows.”

I still want to take people to the moon, but lately, to borrow a phrase from Chris Rock’s character Cheap Pete, I’m first trying just to take ‘em to El Segundo. It’s a little like this…

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Quality, quantity, and how Instagram is evolving

Take a human desire,” says Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, “preferably one that has been around for a really long time…Identify that desire and use modern technology to take out steps.”

It’s interesting to think about this as Instagram’s identity has evolved in a “lol nothing matters” Snapchat world. (I initially typed “Snapshat”; Freudian?). Founder Kevin Systrom used to like to describe the product as “a visual walkie talkie,” but plainly that wasn’t true. As their head of product Kevin Weil said, “It became a place where people kept raising the bar on themselves in terms of the quality of what they had to achieve to post. We didn’t want that.” If you haven’t yet, listen to the This American Life episode about teenage girls’ Instagram anxiety referenced in “The Instagram lobster trap.”

Anyway, Instagram has found that lowering the bar—creating an impermanent, low-stress complement to one’s highlight reel—is key. They need bottom-up activity to make things work:

“Your connections with your friends and your family are the thing that make Instagram work. All the data supports that if you follow more friends and engage with your friends, your activity goes through the roof. If you just follow more celebrity content or more interest-based content, that doesn’t move the needle at all.” – Kevin Systrom, Instagram co-founder

You should read Benedict Evans’s observations (starts dry, but solid) about all this. Among them:

There are millions of people who will post beautiful pictures of coffee or 1960s office blocks, or like a photo by a celebrity, but there are billions who’ll share a snapshot of their lunch, beer, dog or child. Instagram is moving to capture that in the same way Messenger and WhatsApp captured chat.

Seriously, it’s worth the read.

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Be the user

i.e., Don’t build me some wishy-washy bullshit

“How come the Mac group produced Mac and the people at IBM produced the PCjr? We think the Mac will sell zillions, but we didn’t build Mac for anybody else. We built it for ourselves. We were the group of people who were going to judge whether it was great or not. We weren’t going to go out and do market research. We just wanted to build the best thing we could build.” — Steve Jobs, 1985

I know, I know: “You are not the user,” and “The truth is outside the building.” But as I counseled teammates today, if [productivity product X] isn’t addressing your personal, specific, Googler needs, figure out why & fix it. Pick a personal destination that’ll make you happier & more productive at work, then laser-burn your way to it.

That is a critical user journey.

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“GTFO”: Moments of clarity

After our Scottish Buddhist friend Bruce Fraser passed away ten years (!!) ago, a group gathered in SF to celebrate his life. Graham Nash, if I remember correctly, described the moment of clarity Bruce had that convinced him to change up his life. For some people that “moment” is vague, but for Bruce, Graham said, it was very clear: he was playing “That’s The Way (Uh Huh Uh Huh)” in a crummy Scottish bar band, and between “Uh” and “Huh,” he said, “I’ve gotta get the f*** out of here.” 

Pay attention to these moments. I’m just sayin’. 🙂

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“What do I stand for? I don’t know…”

Why am I here? Why do I deserve to exist?

Yes, I’m one of those young guys—now not so young, as I watch the last grains swirl through the hourglass of my thirties—who’s always been given to asking these questions. You know those guys, the ones to whom people give Rainer Maria Rilke quotes on cards for high school graduation. It’s all kind of tedious—but fine, so be it. Aspire to the words of Chuck D: One in one million residents/Be a dissident/Who ain’t kissin’ it.

Professional I’ve tried to translate my hierarchy of values like this:

  • I want to be a good man (to lead a just, meaningful, and useful life)
    • …by helping others
      • …by unblocking the light of their creativity & expressiveness
        • …by building software they love.

Now, though, that’s at best what my lawyer friends might call “necessary but not sufficient.” I catch myself wandering far out on the leaves of that tree, far from the trunk, wondering why I don’t get closer to the action of being good & helping others.

None of this is new to me. Three years ago, for example, I spent a little time in a Guatemalan orphanage, hoping to help others a bit and at least improve myself, deepening my perspective and gratitude. But damn if it all isn’t some abortive feint—some vanity inoculation against the sense of having to do anything material. Back I come into my regular world, which takes hold, submerges me… Never again is what you swore the time before.

But not this time, mofo (I say to the mirror). Not this time. I am not going to blow my life.

The search is on.

“We Don’t Sell Saddles Here”

I just re-read Slack (and Flickr) founder Stewart Butterfield’s essay from two years ago (right before Slack launched), and man, it eats like a meal. If you care at all about product development, you should read the whole thing. I jotted down a few of my favorite observations & am sharing them here:

  • [O]ur job is also to understand what people think they want and then translate the value of Slack into their terms. … [This] something we all work on. It is the sum of the exercise of all our crafts.
  • We should be working carefully from both the product end and the market end: Doing a better and better job of providing what people want (whether they know it or not); Communicating the above more and more effectively.
  • We are setting out to define a new market. And that means we can’t limit ourselves to tweaking the product; we need to tweak the market too.
  • Innovation is the sum of change across the whole system, not a thing which causes a change in how people behave.
  • What we’re selling is organizational transformation. The software just happens to be the part we’re able to build & ship.
  • We will be successful to the extent that we create better teams.
  • The best possible way to find product-market fit is to define your own market.
  • Who Do We Want Our Customers to Become?… We want them to become relaxed, productive workers… masters of their own information and not slaves… who communicate purposively.
  • Be harsh, in the interest of being excellent. [Or as I’ve always put it, “I swear because I care.” —J.]

Of Photography & Bad Wine

I’ve grudgingly come to accept that most people regard photography much like I regard wine: there’s bad wine, and then there’s wine. I know there’s crap (crummy liturgical stuff, etc.), and I know that all the rest tastes pretty good. Sure, I might notice & like something outstanding, but generally good enough is good enough.

That’s how it is with most people’s photos: “Is it way too dark or blurry? Is my head cut off? No? Fine, then.”

No matter how well or poorly I do my job, most people simply won’t edit photos—at all, ever. They just don’t care. And if they do edit photos, it’ll overwhelmingly be to crop & rotate them, and maybe to brighten things up & add a filter. None of this is unique to Google: we saw exactly the same thing with Adobe Revel (built on the world-class—and for its audience, irrelevant—Lightroom engine).

So, on a per-user basis, editing hardly matters, and yet the scale at which Google operates is enormous, so the editor gets used millions of times. “A small number times a big number is still a big number.”

I’m reminded of an observation from Adam Carolla. Paraphrasing my recollection:

Let’s say you loved watermelon. If someone gave you a watermelon the size of a minivan, you’d probably say, “Wow, that’s a ton of watermelon!!” But then if you realized they carved it out of a watermelon the size of the Hindenburg, you’d probably say, “Come on, that’s all I get?!”

I’m proud of the new Google Photos editor—of the way we were able to radically streamline the UI while retaining tons of smarts under the hood (e.g. centering vignettes on faces, treating faces specially when applying midtone contrast, etc.). And I’m proud of the new Snapseed, which puts big power one tap away for nerds like us. I just have to be happy driving my fruity little minivan next to a Zeppelin—or metaphors to that effect.

“Magic meets honesty”

What the hell am I doing at Google, anyway? Why am I here, specifically?

I like what Neven Mrgan had to say about an ambitious screenshot/OCR app (emphasis mine). The last paragraph resonates with what we’re trying to do here (composing movies, stories, and more that you can edit):

Now here’s where magic meets honesty: OneShot shares its uncertainty with you. If it’s not totally sure about which article you want to highlight, it has you choose it.

Easy enough for you take it from here, right? OneShot tried, and shaved off some work from this task, and that’s helpful enough. If it got it wrong, oh well, no harm done. My instinct says Apple wouldn’t ship a feature like this—they’d want it to work 100% of the time, or not at all.

I’d like to see more software try to do a good job of a fuzzy task, let you help it with the last mile, and give you a fallback option. That kind of magic can be more delightful than behind-the-scenes, guess-and-stick-with-it magic we’re often promised.

A great quote on Apple vs. Google

I love this bit from Khoi Vinh, occasioned by Google’s recent Smarty Pins map/trivia game:

Apple fans like myself often criticize Google for doing things that Apple would never do, and Smarty Pins is a prime example of that. Aside from being an unfair criticism, it’s pointless. The fact that Google endeavors to produce silly things like this is on the whole a positive thing, I believe. It’s acting according to its own compass, which is what every company should be doing.

At Adobe I used to say, “We’ll never out-Apple Apple. We’ll never be more mysterious & magical, so let’s be ourselves—conversational and down-to-earth.”

Or as Steve Jobs said, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”

Integration fights bloat

Thus I’m delighted that in iOS 8 Apple is adding the ability for apps to provide one another services. The news reminded me to re-read what I wrote three years ago when requesting just this:

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. […]

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. […]

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. 

With this support coming to iOS (and already on Android & Windows), I think all our lives (as app users) and my life (as an app developer) are about to get a lot more efficient & interesting. We shall see.

Secret & Whisper vs. The Paradox of Choice

tl;dr: In text apps just as in photos & video, limiting choice gets more people across the goal line.

Lately I’ve had text-upon-image apps on the brain. Notegraphy promises “beautifully designed writing;” Pictual offers to “turn your words into visual statements; and Overgram can “add beautiful typography to your Instagram photos.” They’re all nicely done, but how many people have cared?

Compare that to the highly popular Secret (current $40M valuation) and Whisper ($24M in funding). Both share captioned images anonymously. Secret only lets you set text (no control over font or positioning), then use a colored background or image. Whisper looks at your text & offers matching images, then offers a rudimentary set of fonts & the ability to slide a text block.

In both cases the essence is to make something that you’ll want to share, without giving you enough creative options that you’ll get lost en route to doing so. You can’t go too far wrong or be judged for not getting the look “right.” Immediacy whomps visual control. It’s Instagram all over again.

By the way, speaking of fun text/image projects, Nathan Ripperger makes fun art from the weird things his kids say. To help parents do something similar, JibJab has released Kid Quoter, but I haven’t seen it take off. See also Linzie Hunter’s Spam One-Liners, “a gorgeous, colorful set of hand-lettering based on spam email subject lines in Linzie’s inbox.”

Keeping my head on straight

It’s really been an extraordinary week, with such a crazy-generous outpouring of support from friends, colleagues, and readers. A guy could get pretty high on his own supply. That’s why I like remembering bits like this (quoted once previously):

In 1983, advertising pioneer David Ogilvy summarized his mission as follows: “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’.”

Note to self: People say you’re great; now let’s show, not tell.

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.

No words

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

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:
Dave's Guidelines
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.

 

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]

"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.

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.”

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,
J.
[From the archives: Turning 1,000]

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. 🙂

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’.”

[Via]

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?

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.

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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 [1]” 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.

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.

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**.

* The story of Lightroom’s gestation is an interesting one.
** Proof, incidentally, is not “
in the pudding.”

"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.

 

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.

Gimme Pleasure

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?

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.

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.

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:

  1. If nothing else, I thought this list of shortcuts might be handy.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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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,
J.

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:

  1. The bigger picture of where we’re going with the Photoshop interface, and why
  2. An overview of the advantages Adjustments provides right now
  3. 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.

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Subtractive Software

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:

 

  1. Maybe we can’t remove (many) features–but you canConfigurator 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.
  2. We’ve bitten the bullet with this release and have sent a number of features into retirementExtract, 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.

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.

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.