The Past, Present and Future of Adobe’s Design Tools

An Interview with Adobe’s Senior Director of Experience Design, Josh Ulm.

After writing about Sketch a number of months ago, I reached out to Adobe with the hope that I could talk to someone there about design tools. Aside from just wanting to hear more about what was going on with Adobe, I also thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast two companies that couldn’t be more different in every aspect.

I reached out to Josh Ulm, who graciously chatted with me for a couple of hours about the tools we’ve used in the past, and how they might influence the ones we’ll use in the future.


The Interview

Geoff: Hi Josh. Thanks for taking the time today. Before we dig into things like Adobe XD (formerly Comet) tell me a little about yourself?

Josh Ulm, Senior Director of Experience Design at Adobe

Josh: Thank you! I’m Senior Director of Experience Design at Adobe. We have a centralized design organization, Adobe Design, which is responsible for all of the product design that happens at Adobe. I run the Creative Cloud and Platform arms of that. We work on all of the things you think of when you think of Creative Cloud: Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, all the desktop products as well as what Creative Cloud means.

I’ve got an amazing design team that builds and lovingly crafts all of those tools. I was at Macromedia before Adobe acquired Macromedia, and then came over in that and was part of those two worlds colliding. Then, was largely just part of the design team at Adobe for years and years, left for a while to go abroad and work for Vodafone for a couple of years over in London, and then came back to Adobe.

Even before that, I worked, back in the dot-com boom days, for a startup called Quokka Sports, which only very few old timers will remember. We did live sports coverage online. Then, my claim to fame was around the Flash world because back in the Quokka days, we were using Flash to do these really rich, immersive for the time, Flash experiences. I had also done another art project called The Remedi Project.

Geoff: Quokka was incredible — some of the first really purposeful interactive stuff on the Web. And The Remedi Project — the site with the butterfly.

Josh: That’s right, the butterfly. You’re really dating yourself now if you remember the butterfly! The cool thing about Flash is that it’s a great connection to where we are today—more on that later. When I did that butterfly, no one had ever really seen the internet come alive like that. It was something the internet was starving for. Flash just opened up so many doors for designers like you and I back in the day, and we jumped right in, full force.

Geoff: Our tools have changed a lot, as have our jobs. Many designers now spend their careers focusing on product design. Are there things from your past that you draw inspiration from?

Josh: It’s interesting because a lot of it for me comes back to Flash. Flash was, in some ways, so far ahead of its time because it really reduced the distance between the idea and the creation of that idea. That was what was really magical about it. You saw these designers being able to explore really rapidly what the end experience for their customers was going to be. That was the magic of it. I’ve got an idea, I’m going to create it, and then in an hour, you’re going to be able to play with it, try it, and give me feedback I can act on and then we’re going to do this all over again. Flash was this capsule of what the design process essentially is.

Geoff: Right, so Flash, despite it having moved on to greener pastures, reduced the distance between the idea and finding out if it that idea resonated with your customers.

Josh: Yes, exactly. That’s what’s really interesting about now. We can reduce the distance there. All of the tools, and all of the changes happening now, are a move towards that. I think what’s really radically different now, is that simply the dimensions, or mediums, or surfaces by which I can put the experiences on, has multiplied massively. Now, when I have an idea, it’s not just can I get it in front of a customer, it’s can I get it in front of a billion different types of customers, and get feedback on that, and being able to iterate and change across all of those different facets, as quickly as possible.

Geoff: If you started designing for the Web more than a couple a years ago you most likely used Photoshop. It’s different now. You’ve got Sketch and Photoshop. And on the prototyping side, it’s the wild west.

Josh: Exactly. Now, there’s so many options. I could not be happier about it. Competition is never a bad thing, competition always helps, it always leads to better products.

Geoff: You were working in the design tool space when you didn’t have much competition to think about. Given how hot this space is now, what’s changed?

Josh: It’s shined a light on how critical it is that we are open about the work that we’re doing, and that we have an ongoing relationship with our customers about what works and what doesn’t. When you’re a smaller start up that’s building a tool you do this naturally. You’re passionate about it, you’ve got a network of people that are passionate about it, and they can work in this community that really is feeding off of each other and really helping to decide what’s working and what doesn’t.

Tools like Sketch, Macaw, Pixate all came up in this way. They were able to iterate quickly and did so with the community supporting that. That’s an amazing way to do product development.

A company like Adobe has had to shift. Customer experience has always been a value and part of our process. We need to make sure that we are moving from an 18 month waterfall approach to something more fluid.

That’s something that we worked really hard at becoming more adept at. Adobe XD (Comet) is doing this. They’re working really hard to make sure that the community that they’re serving has visibility to what they’re doing, is giving feedback about what they’re doing, and making that part of the process. That’s influenced a lot about just the way that we think about it and what competition really brings. That process has helped us to change our own process. It’s more about competition in general too but, what competition brings is new ways of looking at the model to turn it on its head and just keeps you honest, and says, “Okay, Adobe, you think you know design? We’re going to try this way.”

We look at that and we say, “You know what, that actually is a really great idea, a really good model, and thank you for lifting us all up for doing that. We can always be better. We always want to make our tools better. We’re going to take from that and we’re going to learn from that, and hopefully we can contribute back to you.” We want everyone to get lifted up. It definitely is a benefit to everyone working in this space to have as much transparency as possible.

Geoff: You get a lot of input, you hear a lot of bitching and complaining, you see what other people are doing, there’s a lot of factors that can help you understand what you think people want. How do you decide what people want and need?

Josh: As being someone who is building design teams and running product development, I am really interested in how product development is done today, whether you’re doing agile or not, how you’re capturing your analytics and what role data plays, and how that’s adjusting how you make decisions and so on. It’s a balancing act, for sure. What I think is critical is that you have to enter in with an opinion on the subject and it has to be an informed opinion, and it has to be an inspired opinion. Then, you have to be willing to take that opinion and walk all over it, and throw the whole damn thing out if once you’ve tried it, that people have said it just doesn’t work.

Often times we’ve got a hypothesis and want to test it. Generally one of three things is going to happen. Either, people are going to love it, in which case it validates it and you keep moving in that direction. People are going to hate it, in which case you’re going to throw it out and you’re going to try something else. Or, people are going to kind of be in the middle and they’re not going to love it and they’re not going to hate it, in which case you really have to start to ask the question of what is it that works and doesn’t? That’s where iteration becomes so critical, to really say, “Okay, let’s try this direction, that direction.” And to keep at that until you get to that point where people love it. It’s not enough to create something that people just kind of like. You’re not done when people say, “Yeah, that’s pretty good.” You’re done when people say, “That’s fucking amazing.”

Craig Scull, Sr. Researcher at Adobe, sketches out an idea for Comet, before it was even Comet (about 3 years ago).

Geoff: Making a big decision to create an entirely new tool, like Adobe XD is a massive commitment. Why a new design tool at all? Why not just keep banging on Photoshop? Why not keep Fireworks? Why not just create a prototyping space?

Josh: We didn’t start by thinking about needing another screen design tool or adapt an existing one. We weren’t thinking, Sketch is taking off, we need to go compete with Sketch — That had nothing to do with it at all.

The future of design is really not a space where you say I’m going to design a screen for X. It’s a space where you say, I need to design something that needs itself to be able to work across a massive, countless number of experiences. How do I design that way? How do you actually build a tool, or think about a process of design as an adaptable, responsive process? I’m not talking about just building a website that can scale a phone to a tablet. I’m really thinking about being able to adapt in fundamental ways. Adapt to what you’re designing. That really led us down a lot of interesting paths about what it even means to have tools. Do you even think about screens or dimension? How do you think about content flowing into it?

We really wanted to think about what it means to be device independent. To be platform independent. To be destination independent with design. How do you unlock all of the different ways in which a design might exist from the process of thinking how it should exist? That led us down this path, and Adobe XD is now the first example of our tools starting to explore that space. Make no mistake about it, Adobe XD is the beginning of that space. Screen design is where a lot of that is happening, but the future is not just screen design. The future is a much more adaptive way of doing design that goes far beyond just our phones and our tablets, and those are the experiences that we’re focusing on today.

Ryan Hicks, Sr. Designer at Adobe ponders an approach at design sprint for what is now Adobe XD.

Geoff: Design has become complicated as we scale to a multitude of screens. Can tools help?

Josh: Trying to design for iPad, and Surface Pro, and iPhone, and Android, and all of these different screens are a challenge. In many cases, they’re subtle variations on each other. I don’t want to start from scratch every single time. I need to be able to have an idea and say, tweak it easily, quickly, contextually, and relevantly.

That is what a lot of screen design is about today. I have to go and say, “Okay, well, the difference between an iPhone 6 and iPhone 6S is, what, an extra half an inch?” I know it’s really not that much, but it’s enough so that I need to actually consider it and see how it impacts the design. How do I do that quickly and efficiently?

What we’re finding is that as people move across experiences. The content is maintained, but the context is what is subtly shifting. You want to make sure that design is in a position that it can maintain the content as it subtly shifts the context across those pieces. The design tools need to do that as well.

Geoff: In a previous interview, I wrote about Sketch’s influence on the creation of Adobe XD. You wrote a response saying that was a bit presumptuous and I want to understand more about that. It’s obviously been on your radar.

Josh: Adobe XD is something we’d been playing around for a while. The earlier versions of it, before it was even Comet, wasn’t just about screen design. It only came about to be a screen design as we really dug in more to. We asked ourselves what really was the value here? Where is the market moving to? Where could we do better with the tools that we are bringing out? Et cetera.

It’s been an exploration. It wasn’t that Sketch came out and we said, “Oh, we need a tool to compete with Sketch.” We already had a tool to compete with Sketch, it was Photoshop, and Fireworks before that. It wasn’t actually just Sketch, and you could point to, Macaw, Pixate, all of these tools that are out there too — There’s lots of them.

Geoff: There are lots of prototyping tools, sure. It’s pretty fragmented. I think for screen designers a common question is, “Do you use Sketch or Photoshop?”. And with many designers now answering “Sketch” it had to have influenced Adobe XD.

Josh: Yes. Our job is to keep playing with the mix until we get it right, until we figure out what really resonates. For a long while, what we were doing publicly was iterating on Photoshop and testing. A lot of designers today are using Photoshop, and we wanted to understand if Photoshop could solve this well. At the same time, we’re trying other things. It would’ve been foolish for us to just come out and say Photoshop will never do this well, we need our own stand alone tool to do these kinds of things.

I don’t know that we’re totally convinced that Photoshop can’t and won’t serve—especially for the users that are using Photoshop for screen design, they swear by it.

There are designers today that still move from Sketch back to Photoshop, and from Photoshop back to Sketch. It’s an ongoing cycle as these tools evolve over time. Adobe XD was never a one off response to Sketch, it’s all an evolution as tools evolve, as we try things out, as we figure out what works, as we have a dialog with our customers. At some point along the way, as we were exploring with Photoshop we hit on some stuff that customers said, “This is pretty rad, actually. This in and of itself has a lot of legs.”.

I think the challenge there is how do you respond in the end? Do you respond out of fear because you say, “Hey, these guys are coming after us, we have to do something quickly in order to respond to it?” Or, do you see it as, potentially, validation that you’re doing something right, that you’re in the right space, or that is the right space to be in? Do you look at it as a chance to keep yourself honest about what you are working on and what is important to you, and what you’re getting right and what you’re not? It really is your response to it.

Geoff: Adobe XD combines static design and prototyping. What are some of tradeoffs, or even the decision behind going this route?

Josh: I come from this world of Flash. The parallel is interesting simply from the fact that Flash let you do design work and then prototype and then build it. It always amazed me when designers would present their work as a bunch of static comps, or even wireframes.

If you really want to do design, in the most effective, efficient way possible, you better be thinking about the final experience that people are going to be having from the moment you start designing that thing. Now, of course, designs are going to change over time, and you’ve got to start somewhere and you sketch something out and it becomes more high fidelity, I get all of that. The point is that you want to get from concept to final fidelity as quickly as possible. Only then are you going to get the most detailed information about what a successful experience means for your customers.

That’s really where it comes from—not necessarily bringing design and prototyping together. It is bringing the distance between idea and execution closer together, whatever that might mean in the end. In Adobe XD, it ends up meaning we want to make sure that that designer can prototype and test it.

If you’re wrong, you’re going to want to iterate on that thing as quickly as possible. You don’t want to have to hand that off to an engineer and wait for them to prototype it, then post it, then get some feedback from user testing. Shit no. We want to reduce that distance as much as possible.

Craig Scull in an early design sprint for what would eventually become Adobe XD.

Geoff: With what’s available in market today, you’ve got super coarse prototyping tools that really just link screens, and incredibly robust ones that let designers define a lot of detail and animation. There’s a huge spectrum of fidelity and complexity right now. Where does Adobe XD fit in this spectrum?

Josh: Actually, I would ask the Adobe XD team directly on this because they’re the ones figuring out where that sweet spot is. I certainly have my opinions on where I think it is, but ultimately, they’re going have a hypothesis, put a stake in the ground, they’re going to try it, customers are going to come back and they’re going to say, “Hey I want these kinds of features.” They’re going to start to validate whether that makes sense or not. I think, and they’re much better at figuring out, as that tool evolves, how deep they want to go into that. It may very well be the case that they decide doing these fairly simple, testable prototypes is as deep as they want to go, versus saying that they’re actually generating code to hand over to engineers on the other side. Time will tell.

It kind of begs the bigger question of where, actually, is the line between engineering and design? I firmly believe that the more you can blur that line, the better. The more the designer, or the one coming up with the hypothesis for what the experience should be, is actually building the thing that customers use in the end, the better the experience is going to be. The reality though, is that we’ve got a very complex world today to deliver software. You’re sending stuff off on the web, on to Android, on to iOS, on to Windows, and every other hack platform in between, be it Ruby, or straight up JavaScript, or just whatever it is. There’s this, where it absolutely is going to go in the end, and how it’s going to perform on real hardware, is a science into and of itself. Which is where engineers are. That’s their magic — figuring out how to really tune it in and make it behave in the context of where it needs to be.

I always tell my designers not to worry about how to build it. Worry about what the right experience is in the end and engineering will help figure out how to make that magic a reality.

You may be able to actually get to that magic, and hopefully you can. What is your moon shot? Strive for that and design for that first. That’s where we want to make sure designers exist. We want to make sure they’re in that spot. That designers are living in the world of, “I want to make magic for my customer.” Let’s give you the tools to be able to envision whatever that magic is going to be. That’s at least where we’re going to start.


Thank you, Josh, for being so open and honest with me in this interview.

Adobe is a big company that has been around for a long time. It’s impressive that as big as they are, they’re creating new things rather than simply reworking existing ones. When we talk about legacy in this industry, we often think of a slow moving company that has a ton of constraints to operate within. While that may be true in some ways, legacy also means you have experience of what’s worked and hasn’t in the past. Adobe’s legacy, perhaps isn’t a bad thing after all.

Adobe XD is a big bet for them and it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out for them, and for us as designers.

~Geoff

Read the interview with Pieter Omvlee, on the future of Sketch.

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