When we started Adobe XD as a small seed team in 2014, we were just a handful of people who were passionate about interface and experience design. We were essentially a startup inside a big company, with all of the challenges and opportunities that come with that.
Our primary goal was to imagine how designers would work in 3, 5, 10 years. We knew we had to start completely from scratch in order to build something that would be scalable for the next several decades. This meant rethinking everything: UI, rendering performance, and even the way basic tools work. It had to be a design tool tailored for modern needs.
The challenge in innovating is to disconnect from the obvious. Take a lateral move, simplify and make the ‘new obvious’.
When I was in high school, I read this quote:
“If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.” Albert Einstein
This quote has inspired me many times over my career.
So there we were — Anirudh, NJ, Talin and I — sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper with ideas flying around the room at the speed of thought. We had to capture them, summarize them, evaluate them and then quickly move on.
We posed the following questions to ourselves: What’s our mission? What are we creating? Who’s it for? What’s the value to users? What problems are we solving for users? What’s the value to the company? Why should we build this? What core use cases are we initially focused on? What are we not initially focused on? What are we doing differently from other tools? Where can we innovate? What unique attributes can Adobe bring to the table?
And then all four of us went off for a day to answer these questions on a single page.
My favorite was “What are we not initially focused on?”
It’s really important to define what you are NOT building. When you start pitching and growing, many new external ideas emerge. By being clear about the boundaries of your solution with everyone, you avoid signing up for something that would otherwise send you off-track. And saying NO plays a big part in staying focused.
Once we answered all of these questions, we merged what we had written and then distilled them down to a more condensed set of answers that were succinct and easier to remember. What resulted became the foundation of our product philosophy — our guiding principles.
Only months later did I realize how useful this exercise was for us. It helped us to minimize ambiguity. We were getting more and more attention in the company and the team started growing rapidly. We grew from four to forty people in a matter of months. And that’s when it struck me…
Principles will help you scale your vision.
I make an effort to share the principles with every new person on the team. We discuss where and how they impact the product and our vision. Often, having a past context helps inform better decisions in the future. So I give a few examples of where things got off track and were corrected, and other lessons we’ve learned along the way.
Think of principles as a constitution of sorts. The major difference is that they are not “enforced” — they guide, inspire, and motivate.
They help build a case for doing things right instead of taking a tempting shortcut that would violate those principles and which will invariably present themselves to you along the way. They are invaluable in supporting the product’s voice, either when pointing at something that doesn’t work as expected, or when pitching an idea for a solution. Principles are your best friends in achieving your long term vision and goals.
In any product’s development cycle, you will have external elements trying to push you into a certain direction. Principles will help you fight these battles and build strong arguments.
So here are our three principles:
1. Lightweight and approachable
- Simple, inviting UI that encourages creativity, expression and “play”
- Lightweight, but powerful
- Fast and fluid
- Good citizen on each platform — take advantage of platform-specific capabilities where it makes sense (e.g. native UI components on both Windows and Mac)
2. Remove friction everywhere
- Performance and UI should feel invisible to the user
- Not beholden to traditional Adobe UIs and workflows — take what’s appropriate and leave the rest out
- Useful by itself — should not require other tools for most designs
- Good defaults encourage good design
- Get started quickly with templates/assets/defaults suitable for your design targets
- Drawing and object manipulation are direct and real-time
- Everything should be re-editable
- Drawing is simple, precise, and vector-based (but pixel-accurate)
- Quick layout with snapping, grid systems, and step-and-repeat
- Easy reuse of assets and styles
- Accurate, instant preview and export
3. Transparent and open
- Engage with the community as much as possible, whether it’s in-person or online
- Ability for users to easily provide feedback to the product/engineering/design teams
- Be open & responsive to feedback, be available (Twitter, Facebook, UserVoice…)
- Update the community on feature and bug progress
- Extensible (WIP)
Addendum — The way we build:
- Excellence over shortcuts
Don’t cut corners — if the hard way is better for the customer and the product, take it.
- Quality over scope
Every feature we ship needs to have a high quality. It will spare you uncomfortable discussions with users about broken features and allow for more engaging discussions about shaping future features.
- Continuous improvements
Ship often, learn soon, iterate quickly.
I have to say that communication is key here. Principles are useless if they are buried in dust. If you see something going off the path of your principles, raise it. Conversely, if you see something following the principles as a shining example, celebrate it — like a great performance fix that suddenly enables users to work with more complex documents. Celebration reminds everyone of a great role the principles play.
Finally, it’s been great to see that having good principles in place could be inspiring not just to the members of the team, but to the whole company and resulted in XD leading the way for many new products and ideas at Adobe.