A couple of weeks ago Scott proposed a simple, seductive idea: Why doesn’t Adobe simply let users tell us what they want, then pick the top X features from their list & agree to implement them? Seems like the most obvious thing in the world, doesn’t it?

 

“The customer is always right”–right? And yet I’m reminded of a pair of quotations:

 

  • “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.” – Wayne Gretzky
  • “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” – Henry Ford

 

Democracy, in product development, is not a recipe for innovation. (Think the original iMac & its missing floppy drive were the product of democracy?) Groupthink produces evolution, not revolution. It may well be a recipe for customer satisfaction, at least to some degree, and we don’t discount it. But it’s not enough.

 

If you’re using Photoshop every day for work, you’re likely concerned with getting the next job done & putting bread on the table. You know the handful of changes you’d like to see made & why they’d make a difference. That’s cool, and we care–a lot. But you’re probably much less concerned with pondering the program in the abstract, thinking about how all the pieces connect & how it could be made holistically better.

 

That’s where we come in. My job is to talk to people from across the insanely diverse range of those who use Photoshop–and some who don’t, but who we think should–and to figure out the “next next” thing.

 

Let me give you an example from Photoshop’s history. It’s hard to imagine now, but for many years Photoshop supported only a single level of undo. Customers rightly clamored for multiple undos. They didn’t ask, however, for the History palette, much less the History Brush, snapshots, and related other features. It’s possible that the PS team (of which I wasn’t a part until later) could have delivered a simple, straightforward multiple undo system sooner than they did. By looking beyond the immediate requests however–by really thinking about what we needed, not just requested–they were able to deliver real breakthroughs that remain unmatched more than 10 years later.

 

Simply doing what your customers say carries significant risks. For one thing, it tends to paint you into a corner: you add ever-tweakier refinements for the same vocal group, neglecting the customers you don’t have (but whom you need in order to grow). For another, what customers say they want and what they actually need often differ. James Surowiecki nails it: “The strange truth about feature creep is that even when you give consumers what they want they can still end up hating you for it.”

 

Our job is to strike a balance, offering a mix of sizzle (“Oh my God,” only-in-Photoshop breakthroughs) and steak (sigh-of-relief, block-and-tackle stuff) while working like hell to enable the “next next” things.

 

It’s frustrating that laying plumbing for the future often takes a number of years during which progress isn’t visible. In the meantime we’re vulnerable to the perception that “Adobe just doesn’t get it; see, they haven’t touched filter X in ages…” It’s of course not obvious that we’re toiling away behind the scenes, working on, say, a fast-as-hell filter mechanism, or on changes that will make Photoshop massively more configurable and task-based over time. These things take a while. (I’m reminded of the line, “It might look like I’m doing nothing, but at the cellular level, I’m really quite busy.”)

 

If we didn’t invest for the future, however–if we just did what people request–we’d shortchange customers in the long run. It’s worth withholding short-term fixes in order to deliver what we know people really want and need, albeit sometimes a little later.

 

Now, turning to the Top 10 list of requested features that Scott posted on Monday, I’ll toss out a few thoughts:

 

  • Points 2 & 4 (both requesting filters as adjustment layers) are seductive, but very tricky. When the CS3 public beta launched, I wrote up a detailed piece called The Secret Life of Smart Filters, in which I explain why we specifically didn’t implement what people say they want–namely, filters as adjustment layers. Short story: We try not to put big “Hurt Me” buttons into Photoshop. Read my post for more background.

 

  • Point 8 says, “Make everything ‘Smart’ by default.” Ah–another one where many devils are in the details. Kill a few brain cells reading my discussion of Simplicity vs. Power to learn about the challenges of non-destructiveness in Photoshop. In any case, though, point taken: it’s important to make “best practices” the norm, and for that we have to grind away the remaining rough edges. This is far from an overnight change, but we are working on it.

 

  • It’s interesting that faster performance didn’t rate higher on the list. On the one hand, I’d like to take this as a good sign that our work in CS3 to speed up Photoshop’s launch time, take advantage of multi-core systems, etc. has paid off & that people are happy. On the other, there’s no such thing as “too fast,” and quicker performance is the best possible feature: there’s nothing to learn. Therefore I think all the muscle we’re pouring into R&D to leverage graphics hardware acceleration & 64-bit computing will make folks happy.

 

  • Much to my eternal frustration (and probably yours), we’ll never have enough time to implement even 10% of the good ideas that come our way. That’s why I’ve championed extensibility: let’s make it radically easier to customize & build upon Photoshop. I got an earful when I talked about using Flash to extend the Photoshop UI, but that’s because people haven’t seen what it’ll enable. (I can at least tell you that Scott likes what’s planned–a lot.) I have a lot of faith that if we make it ridiculously easy to tune the application and share one’s work, we’ll unleash a new wave of innovators. Let the Photoshop Nation rock out.

 

  • Matt Kloskowski made a number of good suggestions, but I have to push back on two things. One, I think translucent interface elements generally suck: they make it harder to see both what you’re adjusting and the controls for adjusting it. (Remember the hard-to-read menus in early OS X, the maligned translucent menu bar in Leopard, or the pointlessly blurry window borders in Vista?) Note that this is different from offering in-context, on-canvas adjustment tools. Two, the answer to old & suckful dialog boxes isn’t “make the dialogs better.” Rather, it’s “kill the dialogs.” Photoshop should do more things non-modally, previewing right on the canvas, more as they’re done in Camera Raw, Lightroom, and After Effects.

 

I’ve rambled on long enough, I think, but I hope I’ve provided at least a little useful perspective. Thanks for all the suggestions, and to Scott & co. for organizing the survey and giving me a chance to post here. It’s an honor, a battle, and a pleasure to wrestle with the challenges of trying to make Photoshop into just what you want and need.

 

Thanks for listening,

J.

 

PS–Oh, and by the way, lest I forget: yes, we’re changing the default stroke color to black. Just thought you’d want to know. :-)