My Two Years as an Anthropologist on the Photoshop Team

Photoshop, Ethnography, and User-centered Design

Almost two years ago, the Photoshop team pivoted to focus its energies and resources on design features and workflows. To be successful, the team needed to understand trends in design and tools, as well as develop connections and empathy to design and designers. Worth noting, the pivot happened not long after Adobe moved to a subscription service and away from big box releases every 1–2 years. The subscription model provided an opportunity for development to be more iterative, but so much had to be re-thought, including research and customer feedback loops. This was the task then: build deeper knowledge and empathy around UI design, as well as develop feedback loops suited to new development cycles. As an anthropologist and ethnographer (the first ever at Adobe!), I was hired as a consultant to help address those gaps.

What is Ethnography, Then?

I am an anthropologist, which means I study present-day culture via ethnographic methods (no, I’m not like Indiana Jones — in so many different ways). This means that I do fieldwork and spend a lot of time with people. Immersion is key, and connections and empathy flow from it, letting me understand what makes folks tick. Then, working from that place of empathy, I become an advocate and help build stuff — whether its needle exchange programs from my time in public health, or software.

Dependent on empathy, emotion, and personal connections, ethnography (ideally) is never one thing, never rigid in its approach. Rather, it should always be informed by the unique perspectives, experiences, and skills, of everybody involved. And I mean everybody — researchers and participants. A good ethnography is inherently collaborative. It is a creative undertaking, drawing on the resources, skills, and personalities involved to create something unique. You are always building research (and ultimately solutions) tailored to the problem at hand.

Keep Calm, I’m an Anthropologist

I joined Adobe in the summer of 2013 and first conducted an ethnography of “young product designers”. The goal was to generate a high-level understanding of the professional norms, values, and lives of an emerging generation of UI designers.

Rickie Sherman killing it on the Game Cube at Collective Ray one July afternoon.

The ethnography was a pretty fantastic experience. I ended up spending most of my time at two small shops in San Francisco — Collective Ray and Pacific Helm. I would spend a few days a week at each — watching, listening, asking questions and participating when appropriate. I also joined for the occasional social event — like Friday afternoons at Collective Ray drinking beer and playing Mario Kart on the GameCube they kept around. Sometimes the ethnographer life can be a hard one, but in moments like this you can gain valuable insight and build valuable relationships.

During that summer ethnography, I met a bunch of awesome folks, including designers like Brian Benitez, Jeff Broderick, Louie Mantia, Brad Ellis, and Shahrouz Tavakoli. They were, and are, part of an energetic, amazing community skirting the edges of establishment design. Maybe routing around or flying right past traditional design institutions and paradigms is the right way to put it. I was new to this design world, but it was clear to me that the epicenter, the energetic core, to web and app design was right there — not in schools or in AIGA.

Immersed in self-organized networks using platforms like Twitter and Dribbble, I documented how designers were building new channels for learning, mentoring, and ultimately, for pushing the relationship between design and technology forward. A lot of designers I met, and have met since, didn’t get to their professional place via traditional design channels and institutions. It was also clear that as designers built new paradigms, values around sharing, openness, and collaboration were important. It was a great space to step into, one I’m still enjoying participating in.

I also found that while the use of Photoshop was ubiquitous, there were a number of places where the workflow fell apart for product design. Naturally, there was frustration around this, and many were flirting with other design tools. Perhaps more importantly — there was also a relationship problem. I heard many different versions of this: “We’ve been asking for a lot of features for years. Adobe just won’t listen.” Frustration and feelings of neglect were apparent, and the perception that Adobe and Photoshop weren’t tuned in to the needs of UI designers was prevalent.

For many designers, there was a profound disconnect. While Photoshop had fantastic feedback loops and relationships with its photography and imaging customers, there was no real conversation happening with designers. The connections were weak. Consequently, one of the central points we pondered was : its not just about building the right tools or features (which needed to happen), but we also need to consider how we build it. Can we be more open, transparent, and connected? Can we understand and align with emerging design practices, communities, and values?

This is where the real fun begins — in both what we did and how. Because really, who at that point knew what the pivot was going to look like. Artboards in PS? No way. A new open-source Design Space front-end running on top of Photoshop? No f’ing way! Partnering to organize a new and awesome design conference called Layers? What!

User-centered Design

The incomparable gents Mike Monteiro and Liam Campbell, welcoming me into Mule Design.

Building on my ethnographic forays into local agencies, I spent time at several more — again for 6–8 weeks at a time. My sites were diverse — from places like Thoughtbot to Mule Design to an array of agencies specializing in branding/ identity spanning print and digital media. We also talked to a massive number of web and app designers either in person or virtually, and visited with a number of product teams in San Francisco. Participatory design sessions exploring “ideal design workflows” were part of the fun as well. This phase of the work was open-ended. We were just listening, exploring, and trying to understand in detail emerging trends in design and tools.

We heard things like: “The limitations of Photoshop aren’t with visual design. It’s with capturing the experience — that’s where the barriers are.” Meaning, it was difficult to work quickly and efficiently on a design meant for multiple devices and/or multiple screens. It wasn’t easy to recycle and repurpose elements, to create a responsive design system.

We also heard statements like: “I want a lightweight, focused design tool that let’s me concentrate on the content.” Or: “I only use 10% of the app — PS doesn’t feel like a concise tool.” This led the team to not just prioritize features that would support systems design (artboards! libraries with linked assets!), but to think about how to develop an entirely different Photoshop-based design experience altogether. That vision is coming to fruition in Design Space.

As we gathered these kinds of insights, we experimented with how to relay them to the team. We shared the feedback, via presentations as well as an internal blog, but did so with as much concrete context as possible. Eschewing personas, which are abstract and often vague, we represented individual designers with their struggles and ambitions to the team. This made them tangible and helped build empathy. Wanting to build even deeper connections, we started bringing designers into 1:1 contact with the Photoshop team, asking a handful to come in individually and share their workflows and chat with us about the good and the bad. Each one of these sessions was incredibly powerful — the team always left understanding design workflows and painpoints more deeply. In fact, it was at one of these gatherings that a designer I met while playing Mario Kart at Collective Ray ended up sparking a Photoshop engineer to take a first and imaginative stab at artboards.

Once the exploratory work settled and the priorities emerged, we turned toward creating user feedback loops. We wanted designers to have a strong voice and influence in what we were doing. This was a high priority with buy-in and support from all parts of the team. Our goal was to facilitate participation and feedback at the earliest stages of design and dev, and place it at the center of an iterative process. The team felt it would help us build the best features and workflows we could.

Loops and Groups

In an early experiment, we created a Google+ group that brought design customers together with Photoshop engineering, design, and management to work on implementing multiple layer styles. It worked OK, not great. Nobody used Google+, and it was a clunky experience for what we wanted. In conversation, the team kept putting Slack on the table, but at this point the platform didn’t offer multiple team functionality. We went for it anyway, hacking our way toward multiple team use. Since a large number of UI designers use Slack for their own work, adopting the platform made sense. For imagers and photographers, who are not using Slack professionally, we have turned to Facebook for user groups. Its incredibly important to meet the users where they are and make it easy for them to talk with you.

Quickly after we adopted it, Slack introduced multi-team support. Since, it has emerged as absolutely central to the user-centered design processes we formed and are still honing. It allows customers, Photoshop design, management, and engineering to work on feature development in a pretty fluid way. We can get valuable feedback on comps, prototypes, and builds and iterate accordingly. Every major feature for the CC 2015 release, including Design Space, was built using these feedback loops. We have over 100 designers we’re working with in this Slack team — which has turned into a fantastic little community.

A quick note on team structure and process. The Photoshop team is organized by “molecules” — small teams of design, engineering, and management that work on a particular feature. So for example, one molecule, called Cyan (real name), developed artboards. Via a private group in Slack, which turns out to be easiest way to keep conversations focused and tight, we matched up around 20 designers with members of the Cyan team. As ethnographer, I helped facilitate the implementation of the group, carefully considering who might be a good fit. But once formed, Bradee Evans, lead designer on Photoshop, and Joel Baer, product manager, led the conversation and fashioned unique feedback loops and learning sprints within artboards development. Each molecule engaged with their groups a little differently — flexibility is key.

My role as ethnographer then, included preparing the ground for the feedback loops, but once established the team involved handles the interactions and its own feature-specific validation research. Some researchers feel differently, but I don’t feel it necessary for research to mediate every customer/ team interaction and shape the learnings. Direct connections are super valuable, facilitate organic relationships, and almost always benefit everyone involved.

warm analog tones by Photoshop’s own @bradee

This is where we are now then. We use exploratory ethnography to understand trends, context, and opportunities, which then feeds into planning and priorities. This informs preliminary design, which undergoes iteration based on user feedback (relationship with users emerges from out of ethnography), until we release and measure impact quantitatively and gauge experience qualitatively.

Conclusion

Ethnography deeply informed the Photoshop team’s focus on design. We used it to not only understand trends in design and tools — which shaped development priorities — but ethnography was (and is) also integral to building empathy and connections. These connections resulted in rich feedback loops and user-centered development processes which are continuing to grow and mature.

Iterative development grounded in ethnography and user feedback is an ongoing initiative though. We’re extending what we learned in the design pivot to other workflows and users of Photoshop (as well as new products). Ethnography was called in to help with a specific objective, but ended up influencing the team’s larger processes and development strategies.

… Like I mentioned, ethnography is a collaborative, creative undertaking, so the project wouldn’t have been possible without everybody who took the time to engage and provide feedback over the last two years. You influenced Photoshop in a positive and wonderful way — the team is VERY appreciative. Hugs and a 🍪 to all. THANK YOU! …. (and thank you to @bradee, @zedgy, @jbaercat, and Pam Clark for reading early drafts).

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Charles Pearson is a PhD anthropologist currently consulting for Adobe Photoshop. I don’t have a pith helmet, and I suck at Mario Kart (most video games really).