Category Archives: Idle Philosophizing

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. 😌

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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.

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.

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.

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.
J.

Related interestingness:

  • 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.")

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.

[See also: Lawrence Lessig’s talk on “How creativity is being strangled by the law.”  Also, Derek Powazek has posted some sensible thoughts about collaborative media.  Rule 1: Ask First.]

Would photography please "die" already??

Ah, the indestructable "Is Photography Dead" meme…

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.

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,
J.

* I’d speak on behalf of other apps, but it’s already presumptuous enough for me to speak on behalf of Photoshop.

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:

  1. “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…
  2. 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. ;-))

Photoshop, as seen through Johnny Cash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"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.

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.

Thanks,
J.

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.

On the personality of Lightroom

Over in the Lightroom Journal, software architect Mark Hamburg shares his thoughts on power vs. complexity & other aspects of the personality of Lightroom.  I find his thoughts refreshingly candid:

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.

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,
J.

"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‘…"

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.

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.

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.

Continue reading

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]

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.]

Get lean. Stay hungry.

Ouch:

“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.
J.
——
* 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.

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?
Thanks,
J.

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.
J.
[Thanks to Thomas Phinney for immediately knowing the name of “that swoopy ’70s paperback font,” as I described it.]

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.