Building Adobe Experience Design CC: Designing the Designer’s Tool

“I don’t think this color will work very well,” I said honestly. “Developers really depend on comments to tell them about the code, and the color is just too subtle for something so important.” I sat in a conference room with a designer and our product lead, reviewing the designs for a code editor that was going into a product I was working on.

As a developer, I had a very keen sense of what would be helpful and what wouldn’t for this code editor, and I just knew that the color scheme the designer had chosen wasn’t right. I knew I wouldn’t use a code editor that made me squint at the code, and I felt like I needed to represent the entire development community to make this editor the best it could be.

Fast forward five years, and I’m now on a new product for Adobe, code named Project Comet. But instead of a product by developers, for developers, it’s a product for designers — UX designers, specifically — for quickly designing and prototyping for all sorts of screens sizes.

This time, the designers on our team are placed in the same position I had been in five years ago. These are designers working on a design tool. And while it’s a fair bit of pressure to innovate and make something that many designers will love, it’s also a dream come true; our designers get to work on a tool that they get to use every single day.

So, I asked three of our designers to share what it’s like to make Project Comet a reality, as they’re getting the license to play, rethink, and truly innovate.

A Focus on the Details

Larz H, a Senior Experience Designer, sports a laconic Australian accent and a dry wit that he brings to every meeting with the Project Comet team. He’s had some big products underneath his belt in his 7 years at Adobe, including Brackets and Creative Cloud Extract. He splits his time between his official cubicle in the designers’ area in Adobe’s San Francisco office and embedded with the engineering team that makes his designs come to life.

When I asked him what feature improvement he loved the most in Project Comet, he pointed out the grouping of the align and distribute buttons. “It’s these details that make the app,” he said. “Every time I look at alignment and distribution icons [in other products], I have to think for a moment because the boxes and lines are kind of hard to parse visually.”

Project Comet’s alignment and distribute buttons

Larz explained, “One of Comet’s design principles is ‘comfort first,’ so we grouped alignment and distribution in a way that’s more comfortable for our users…. Instead of grouping them by function, we grouped them by the orientation of the selected objects.”

Rather than being chained to an existing design, Larz was able to rethink the purpose of the buttons, grouping them in a more logical manner. Larz’ insistence on the tiny details to increase designer efficiency can be seen peppered throughout the product, and the accumulation of these improvements is a sense of workmanship that gives Project Comet a particular polish that our early prerelease users already love.

Constant Innovation as a Continuing Dialogue

Design Lead Talin Wadsworth can often be found in a collared shirt buttoned all the way to the top and a black flat-brimmed cap with his favorite baseball team’s logo emblazoned on the front. Before Project Comet, he spent his five years at Adobe as a designer on Adobe Sketch for iPad, Creative Cloud Libraries, and the Creative Cloud user interface.

His merry blue eyes turned nostalgic one recent Friday afternoon as he talked about the initial days of Project Comet, which began as a quick prototype developed by a handful of people. But what he remembers most is the intense collaboration that resulted in deep innovation. “We talked about repeat grid for about two months, at least every day. Half an hour here, an hour there, sporadically through the day; we’d talk and go back to work, and then come back together, and we’d see where we were and move the conversation forward.”

He related how his unique perspective as a designer meshed tightly with the developers’ implementation of his designs: they would implement the feature in an unexpected way, which in turn opened his eyes to the design possibilities. Through his feedback and use of the feature, the developers began to see more possibilities to increase its value, and the feedback loop circled again. In this cycle was a process of repeated discovery, which ricocheted them in unexpected directions and brought them to such innovative places as repeat grid.

But tight collaboration doesn’t stop with a relationship between design and engineering; insight comes from our product managers, who gather data from customers near and far and from in-product analytics, prioritize the features based on both feedback and common sense, and keep an eye on the bigger picture: the product as a whole. Often, I find myself in meetings with designers, developers, and product managers discussing both the greater ecosystem and very detailed interactions, trying to figure out exactly what behavior to implement.

This attention to the experience of each feature and the collaborative spirit on the Project Comet team are what brings Talin to work every day. “I’m pretty much the luckiest designer at Adobe right now,” he admitted with a grin.

Designing for the Designer

I bumped into Carmen Ruse right after the weekly all-hands meeting with all of the core staff of Project Comet. It was a treat to see her, as Carmen is based in our offices in Bucharest, Romania and was in town for a design conference. With almost five years at Adobe under her belt, she’s worked on a number of “intrapreneurial” initiatives at Adobe. Among other features, she’s been working on the onboarding experience for Project Comet.

“It’s a bit of an inception,” she related to me, talking about what it’s like to work on the team. “I’m designing my own design tool. It’s not an easy task, as I’m usually my hardest critic. But at the same time, it’s an awesome feeling to create something that will be in the hands of the most talented UX designers out there.”

And that is both the privilege and the challenge; we built Project Comet from scratch, from the ground up. From a technical perspective, it allowed us to take advantage of the latest technologies and make sure we developed with the right toolset to make the product performant. But from the design perspective, it allowed us to reimagine what a design tool looks like. We’re walking the fine line between producing high-quality versions of existing paradigms — for instance, text and drawing rectangles — and providing new ways for designers to play and iterate on their designs.

We’re still in the early stages of Project Comet, but we want to continue this iterative innovation process with you, the customer. What we release in our public Preview (coming soon!) is a rock-solid foundation and a whole lot of potential.

We’re a team of people who care about details, who listen carefully, and who want to get things exactly right. We’re looking forward to working with you to make Project Comet our design tool.